31 March 2009

Expenses need to be reformed now

I am loathed to jump on the ‘expenses-gate’ bandwagon, but following Iain Dale’s unfair accusation that LabourList was censoring debate about the issue I felt that I’d throw in my two-cents.

Firstly, I don’t believe that Jacqui Smith or her husband deliberately did anything wrong in making this £10 expense claim. They have both admitted that this was a simple mistake and have since taken prompt steps to rectify it. The punishment for this oversight has been excruciating embarrassment for them both. We don’t need a spurious witch hunt about the issue.

What we do need is a wider discussion about the damage done to the reputation of the political profession and how we address legitimate public anger about MPs expenses.

Most people accept that MPs will incur unavoidable costs as they carry out their responsibilities and that MPs with constituencies outside of London will need to be given an allowance to enable them to spend four days a week in the House of Commons. These are unavoidable facts of the profession. But according to the Daily Telegraph, 60 per cent of voters think worse of MPs on the whole because of what they have discovered about the allowances system.

How can we restore public faith in the system and in their elected representative’s financial integrity?

The first step is an immediate enquiry in to how the expenses system should be reformed. It is widely acknowledged that the rules governing the reimbursement of MPs' expenses are very unclear, and that they need to be drafted afresh.

The second step is the need for a pragmatic conversation about how much we should pay our Members of Parliament. This might mean more generous salaries in exchange for less unaccountable expenses.

Thirdly, and more controversially, those who have misused the expenses system should be named and shamed. We on the left all gloated as Derek Conway was exposed for paying his student son from parliamentary expenses, but are any of us honestly buying that Jacqui Smith’s main home is a spare room in her sister’s house?

What is more, if we are going to pay our politicians for their work let’s ensure we are getting value for money. Attendance in parliament is regularly an embarrassment to the democratic system.

On a larger scale we need to launch a wider debate about how we restore trust and, dare I say it, respect for those who choose to dedicate themselves to public service. We should encourage a culture that values public service for what it is, not for the financial rewards it can offer. Of course salaries must make it a feasible career prospect for those able and willing, but that should not be the primary motivation.

This debate can not wait until after the next election. If it is not addressed comprehensively and rapidly we risk losing a generation of talented and innovative public servants who feel that politics is where reputations and self respect go to die.

First posted on Labour List

Bookmark and Share

No comments: