Published:

Isn't it time
we started trusting our MPs
a little more? Last week
the Telegraph reopened its
expenses war on politicians by
revealing that some
of them use their
second home allowances
to rent flats from
other MPs. Its columnist
Matthew
Norman
described this as
a taxpayer-funded wealth
creation scheme and
suggested MPs should
live in barracks instead.
Matthew
Sinclair
of the TaxPayers' Alliance, always on
hand to give our
elected representatives
a kicking, thinks that
MPs who buy first
class train tickets in
advance, for less
than the price of
an open standard ticket,
should instead be looking
for cheaper second-class
deals. I'm all for
cutting wasteful public
spending but I
think Sinclair has the
wrong target here. He
should concentrate his
fire on the expenses
lifestyle of our
vastly overpaid MEPs, whose
gravy train makes Westminster
expenses look like
a bargain.

On most long-distance
UK train routes, second
class carriages are so
crowded and noisy
that it's very difficult
to get any work
done. In fact on
some trains you can
barely get your laptop
open, the space between
the seats is so
tight. I long ago
gave up trying to
do anything more demanding
on a train than
read a good book.
But then I don't
have a constituency
to visit every weekend.
I certainly don't begrudge
MPs the price of
a first class ticket
to get to their constituencies,
since I think it
very likely that they
will be usefully employed
for most of the
journey. Do the
above-mentioned indignant
Matthews think our
elected representatives
are lounging amidst the
starched white linen
of a first-class
dining care, clicking their
fingers at the
wine waiter or taking
a post-prandial snooze?
Travelling first class
is not about glamour
or status any more,
it's just a kind
of mobile office.

Nor do I
think we should work
ourselves up into
a lather of righteous
indignation about MPs'
London rental arrangements.
Those with constituencies
outside London are
expected to maintain
two homes, in order
to accomplish both their
parliamentary duties and
their constituency obligations.
As long as an
MP claims expenses for
only one of those
homes, I don't see
why it should concern
taxpayers if he
or she is renting
a property to – or
from – another MP. Speaker
John Bercow is right
to resist the publication
of such information:
what business of ours
can it possibly be?
In any case, what
could be more sensible
than to rent a flat from someone
you know?


Taxpayers were quite
rightly revolted by
the way in which
MPs managed to stretch
the definition of maintaining
a second home to
cover duck houses and
dog food. But I
do not think that
gives us licence to
criticise them for
using first class travel,
or for renting a
flat from a colleague.

I'm also troubled
by the suggestion
being floated by IPSA
that MPs' pay might
in future be varied
according to whether
or not they have outside earnings,
with those who don't have any other source of income being paid more
generously. I think MPs should be
encouraged to keep
working in other
jobs, not penalised for so doing. The best
way to keep down
costs to the taxpayer,
whilst improving the quality
of those we elect, is to
let them go on working outside Westminster.

Many people with professional
qualifications and established careers, such as doctors,
accountants or lawyers, for
example, can make
extremely effective
MPs, drawing on their
training and expertise
to improve legislation,
conduct enquiries
or hold the executive
to account. Entrepreneurs and company directors
have experience of growing or managing a business, leading a team and coping
with financial and regulatory pressures. For them, fiscal policy is not just
economic theory. Yet most successful
professionals, and many
business people, will have
earning capacity well
in excess of £65,000
a year. Becoming an MP is unlikely to hold
many attractions for them, requiring them to sacrifice not just their income
but also their privacy. Yet it is in
all our interests
to encourage them to enter
Parliament, where they will be of
far more use than
a bunch of ex
special advisers and
policy wonks.

So why don't
we make it clear
that we expect MPs
to continue to spend
some of their time
working in their
previous professions,
and maintaining an
additional income, rather
than frowning on the
habit? Rather than tut-tutting about second jobs, we should
concentrate on selecting candidates who have already shown their ability to
create a career outside politics. Only on
becoming a minister
should it be assumed
that an MP has
insufficient time to
hold down another job.
At present, according
to IPSA, fewer than
70 (of 650) MPs
have outside earnings.
That suggests hundreds of
MPs have far too little contact with
the world outside Westminster.
Let's make it easier,
not harder, for them
to reduce their dependency
on the public purse.
And then perhaps we
could spend fewer column
inches chewing over their
housing arrangements
or preferred mode of
transport.

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