Howard Flight is a former Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury and chairman of Flight & Partners Recovery Fund. Here he reflects on the recent revelations abaout MPs' expenses and concludes that whatever reforms are proposed in their wake, the ability of MPs to earn a second income from other employment must not be prohibited.
It is extraordinary that when the country is in the grips of the worst economic crisis for 80 years and we have a disintegrating Government that we have just had over a month of virtually no political coverage other than about MPs' expenses.
While David Cameron has scored politically in addressing these misdemeanours, and Brown has as usual dithered, it is crucial that the Shadow Cabinet – the government in waiting – is working out how it will address the economic challenge and how it will prune back public spending by some £80 billion per annum, once the economy starts to recover. This also needs to be in ways that will be positive long term, not just for the public finances but for the economy as a whole, and the health of British society. We will have a major challenge on our hands, but if we are clear as to our objectives, I believe we will have the British nation behind us.
The MPs' expenses scandal does, however, have a relevance to sorting out the public finances and the public sector. For the last decade everything to do with the public sector has too often been seen as a sacred cow, beyond criticism or reform. But the tide of public opinion is now sufficiently aroused by the perceived hypocrisy of the Parliamentary nomenclature to generate a tidal wave of support for the next government to take the necessary axe to the public sector waste machine, which is dragging down our economic prosperity.
As various studies – including that of the ECB 5 years ago – have shown, the UK’s public finances are capable of being put back on their feet quite quickly because Britain’s public sector is, relatively, the biggest waster of funds – of the ridiculous order of some £100 billion per year on non-productive expenditure.
I also perceive the vengeful fury of much of the electorate over the expenses revelations as not just disappointment that “Honourable Members” have let us down, but rather more as understandable anger that these are the very MPs who have burdened individuals with excessive taxation, excessive regulation and exhausting bureaucracy. The perception is of a privileged nomenclature who have treated the citizens they are supposed to represent with disdain.
Much the same perceptions, and to a greater extent, lie behind the growing hostility of British voters towards the European Union. Twelve years of a Labour Government, with too great a parliamentary majority, have saddled the country with much pointless, useless and damaging legislation. People have come to feel that their parliamentary representatives are arrogant and aloof; that we have put up with all of this far too long – and now is the time to downsize the state and put Government and MPs back in their place as the servants, not the masters, of the people.
As parliamentary reform gathers momentum, I have a particular concern that these will not include an ill-thought out objective of the Left for many years – of preventing MPs from having outside interests and outside employment. A return to the previous parliamentary hours would enable MPs to work outside Parliament in the mornings.
Most MPs ought to be capable of earning a separate income in the first part of the day, while also thereafter discharging their parliamentary and constituency responsibilities conscientiously. The House of Commons was more representative of the economic life of the nation fifty years ago, when a majority of MPs had some other career activity involving them in the real world. Moreover, Parliament needs to keep down and not encourage the flow of unnecessary and over complex legislation.
While a parliamentary regime where the ability of MPs to boost their effective income via expenses will rightly be stopped, if the reforms also prevent MPs from engaging in income-producing activities outside Parliament, this could have a damaging and limiting effect on those willing to stand for Parliament.
MPs supported by Trade Unions and the few rich would not be much effected; “dinki” couples – whether straight or gay – would be alright; as would an MP could rely on their spouse’s earnings, if they have a well paid job; anoraks would relish the challenge; but it would make life very difficult for a couple with two or more children to consider one standing for Parliament.
The expenses scandal will be, hopefully, a catalyst to constructive reform to make our democratic system work better. But there is the danger that it could end up worsening a central problem of MPs being a closed, Westminster village community, out of touch with the every day economic life of the nation.