May 102009

British MPs have managed to make themselves look corrupt in a spectacular way with the leaking of the details of purchases made on the second home allowance. It is particularly amusing that the biggest fuss is about somewhat trivial items such as loo brushes (that’s not a real example) and the like.

It is worth pointing out that the whole second homes allowance was introduced by the Tories in the 1980s to supplement MPs salaries during a time when Thatcher was grinding away at public sector salary increases. So this is not strictly speaking a Labour issue.

There have been a number of excuses floating around as to why MPs need a second homes allowance, and because MPs are so good at spinning rubbish it is easy to start to think that they may have a point. But lets compare things with not just the private sector but everyone else …

Normally when you take a job, you are expected to live within a reasonable distance of work. It’s not usually explicitly stated but you are expected to turn up to work every morning at a reasonable time, and stay for a reasonable length of time. Whilst you may get a more or less generous “bonus” to making moving easier, you don’t get money to pay for a home near work.

So MPs might have a point about a second home allowance but until such an allowance becomes common place outside of Westminster, they are going to look like pigs in the trough if they do have one. Under the existing system it does make sense to make some sort of arrangement for providing accommodation to MPs whose constituency is some distance from London.

But that can simply be provided by a block of flats close to Westminster – perhaps something on the river.

If MPs had sorted this all out before all this fuss, it would have been quite reasonable to abolish the second home allowance, spread the money used for it previously amongst the MPs as a salary increase. But because this was not sorted out previously the MPs should lose the money completely.

It would seem that many of the items coming to light are strictly speaking “within the rules”, but that is not good enough. We have to trust MPs to be honest and honourable as they make the rules that govern us. If they are apparently eager to exploit a system that is not quite as rigorous as it should be, what is to blame ? The MPs of course.

In any position of power, there are ways of abusing that power. It is the responsibility of those with power to not abuse that position. Can we trust MPs not to abuse their position ? Apparently not; at least not those MPs who have abused the system. Parliament needs to identify the 10 worst offenders and expel them for a minimum of 5 years.

Or if they do not have the courage to do this, perhaps we should identify the top 50 most serious offenders and refuse to re-elect them at the next election.

One of the dangers of so much concentration on the second homes allowance is that we are in danger of overlooking worse things. For instance, why are MPs allowed to take on jobs in addition to their job in Parliament?

In many situations (at least in the public sector), if you are in any sense in a senior position, you are effectively prohibited from taking additional jobs. At least without getting permission to do so. In the case of MPs, I see no reason why they should be allowed to have additional jobs – they already have an important and well paid job and any other job will take them away from what they are supposed to be doing.

There’s a tired out old excuse that MPs like to trot out whenever the second jobs question gets asked – that they need second jobs to keep in touch with the outside world. It is really an excuse to rake in fat cat salaries – after all how many MPs with second jobs work as nurses in hospitals ? Or anything that does not pay ridiculous amounts of money for trivial amounts of work.

Time to refuse to elect part-time MPs.

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