Daily Archives: 15 January 2010

What I said to IPSA

My response to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority consultation:

Question 1: Do you agree that the CSPL’s principles, supplemented as proposed, should form the basis of the new expenses system?

Yes

Additional comments:

The public must have a right to know the specifics of expenses. This implied by “open and transparent” but MPs have for years insisted that the system was both of those things and that was clearly not the case. Therefore the principles need to include a public right to know.

Question 2: Do you agree with our proposal to concentrate on expenses rather than allowances wherever possible?

Yes

Question 3: Do you agree that there should be annual limits to the amount that can be spent from public funds on each of the main elements of our expenses scheme, except for travel and subsistence?

Yes

Further comments:

I believe that a lot of MP “casework” is in fact campaigning that is not central to their role as a legislator. I therefore believe that the scope of what support staff can and cannot do in helping with casework should be more restricted than at present. By contrast, I think expenditure on research should be more generous than at present – this would give backbench and independent MPs more ability to scrutinise.

Question 4: Do you agree with our approach to the submission of claims?

Yes

Question 5: Are you content with our proposed approach to the publication of claims?

Yes

Question 6: Do you support the idea of requiring MPs to produce an annual report on their use of public funds?

Yes

Further comments:

If MPs are to produce annual reports then it is crucial that their opponents are given a right to reply within the report itself. Perhaps the two parties or individuals who came runner up in the last election should be allowed space to respond.

Not including a right to reply would make it to easy for MPs to turn these reports into marketing documents and evade scrutiny.

Question 7: We propose that MPs are eligible to claim for accommodation expenses unless their constituency contains a station within London transport zones 1-6. Do you agree with this approach?

Yes

Question 8: Which of the following is most important in a long-term system for accommodating MPs:

Flexibility for MPs to identify properties that meet their individual needs.

Question 9: When should the payment of mortgage interest to existing MPs be ended?

In two years.

Question 10: Do you agree with our proposed approach to accommodation expenses for MPs with caring responsibilities?

Yes

Question 11: Do you agree with our proposed list of running costs for accommodation which might be met through public funds?

No

I don’t have a problem with MPs claiming for furniture. However, these items should be owned by the parliamentary authorities. When an individual ceases to be an MP they can either purchase any items they still want (at a price assessed according to depreciation) or give it back. If the latter, the items would be either disposed of or auctioned.

Question 12: Which of the options that we set out do you favour in providing assurance about claims for travel expenses?

Option 2 (We could ask that all claims for expenses be accompanied by details of each individual journey. MPs would need to list the date of each journey, its start and end, the distance covered and the reason for it.)

Option 3 seemed to be incredibly bureaucratic and hard to enforce.

Question 13: Do you agree with our approach to travel by public transport, including ordinarily travelling standard class?

Yes

Question 14: We propose to prohibit the use of public funds in the employment of family members by MPs. Do you agree with this approach?

No

Rather than banning all family members, I would prefer stricter rules on recruitment. Recruitment should be coordinated by Parliament according to strict equal opportunities guidelines, with the MP sitting as a member of the recruitment panel. There are legitimate reasons for employing partners (other family members, not so much), but this should be assessed objectively. This also avoids the problem of MPs “wife swapping” – i.e. employing each others’ wives.

Question 15: We propose that IPSA should prohibit MPs from renting from, or purchasing goods or services from, members of their families. Do you agree with this approach?

Yes

Question 16: Do you agree with our proposed approach to communications expenditure?

Yes

Question 17: Do you believe there should be any form of payment in the event of an MP leaving Parliament, either voluntarily or otherwise?

Yes

MPs should be entitled to statutory redundancy pay along with everyone else.

Question 18: What impact do you believe our proposals might have on the diversity of representation in the House of Commons?

Many of the claims that cracking down on expenses will discourage good people from becoming MPs are overblown. No MPs or candidates of my acquaintance are in it for the money. The bad publicity surrounding MPs’ expenses will certainly have put people off, but if the system is put on a firmer – and transparently more reasonable – footing the debacle will have long term benefits.

Question 19: Are there further areas we should consider which have not been referred to in this consultation?

There will always be pressure on MPs to abuse their expenses and staff to the benefit of their party until we have a proper system of party funding paid by the taxpayer. We must always be careful to avoid the “incumbancy protection creep” we have seen with the development of the Communications Allowance. Where MPs are to be funded to communicate with their constituents it should be a basic point of principle that their main rivals are given the right and opportunity to reply.

You have until 11 February to submit your own responses. It shouldn’t take you longer than 30 minutes.

Zac Goldsmith, Peter Watt and the anti-politics age

On the face of it, Zac Goldsmith and Peter Watt are two very different people. One thing they have common however is that they are high stakes rollers in the game of politics who claim to not be politicians.

Writing in today’s New Statesman, Peter Watt bemoans the fact that:

Working in front-line politics is like working in a goldfish bowl: everything you do is a potential story, good or bad. Elected politicians rightly have their say, argue their corner and defend themselves. It’s different for the staff of a political party. As a political staffer, you know there’s a risk that one day you could, however inadvertently, become a bad story yourself.

You know, too, that if and when that happens the “machine” will protect you as best it can. It is an unwritten but understood insurance policy andgoes to the heart of how and why political staff will go the extra mile.

I think it would be hard to deny that Labour did not treat Watt at all well and that Gordon Brown ratted him out at the first opportunity. So much for Gordon Brown. But it isn’t quite a simple as Watt would have us believe. After all, he was not strictly speaking a member of staff but an elected official. We was not there simply to do his political masters’ bidding; he had a political mandate of his own (from Labour’s National Executive Committee).

I think that failure of insight on his part explains a lot. If his agenda from day one as general secretary was merely to carry out instructions, it is no surprise that he failed to get Gordon Brown to commit to an October 2007 general election. If he failed to appreciate the political nature of his role and the importance of watching his own back, it is no surprise he was caught unawares by the Abrahams donor scandal.

Meanwhile on the other side of the political spectrum, we have Zac Goldsmith in the Evening Standard today airily announcing that:

“I hate politics. I hate the game of politics. I don’t want to get involved in this childish Punch and Judy. I have seen enough of politicians to know that it is not a class of people I particularly want to spend my time with.

“I don’t like career politicians. I don’t like what they stand for. I look at a politician who votes 100 per cent with his party and think: why did you do that? It’s all about career.”

There are several problems with these claims. First of all, Zac Goldsmith is by any rational definition a career politician. He started as editor of the Ecologist magazine back in 1998. I got the magazine for a few issues, discarding it because it had a distinct weakness for tinfoil hat theories regarding things like “electrosmog.” The other thing that used to wind me up were Goldsmith’s often polemic – and highly political – editorials, especially the ones where he bafflingly claimed that the EU was actually bad to the UK’s environmental policies (we would almost certainly be less green without the EU to prod us and a European Economic Community to enable us). The sort of pointed criticism he has received in recent months is exactly the sort of thing he has written himself, only on a different subject. And even if you ignore his former role as an environmental commentator, the simple fact is that he has been a party politician for four years now.

The only sense in which Goldsmith can be said to not be a career politician is that, as a dilletante, it is arguable that he does not have a career at all. His aversion appears to be less towards politicians per se and more towards those who lack the sort of financial independence he does. In short, he is waging class warfare here, pure and simple. For “career politician” read “oik”.

Either way, this whole “politician, moi?” stuff annoys me tremendously. I hated it just as much when Brian Paddick tried it on during the London mayoral election in 2008 with his “a policeman not a politician” posters et al. Paddick had a much better claim to not being a politician than either Goldsmith or Watt but his biggest problem lay in the fact that in his shiny suit he looked more like the consummate politician than any of his rivals (be it “regular bloke” Ken Livingstone, “toff” Boris Johnson or “hippy” Sian Berry). There’s a lesson to be learned there: if you indulge too much in this populist anti-politics mood then the ultimate victors are not “ordinary” people but consummate politicians who have enough cunning to hide it from view. The 2008 mayoral election was a great taster for what we might see in 2010: an election dominated by personalities, haircuts, tactics and name calling where the issues take a back seat. Neither Peter Watt’s book or Zac Goldsmith’s above-it-all act will exactly help in this respect.