Conflicting pressures

There is something of a tension between what electors expect MPs to do and their acceptance of the need to provide the resources necessary to carry out their jobs.  This to some extent is at the back of the expenses’ scandal.  The job of the MP has become more demanding, and full time, but MPs were usually wary of voting themselves a commensurate increase in salary.  Instead, what began as a modest allowance in 1972 was allowed to develop as a substantial additional cost allowance, to help maintain a second home, and this became seen to some degree as a supplement to Members’ salaries.  Revelations in 2009 as to the way it was exploited by some Members undermined trust in the House.   The reaction also serves to exacerbate the problem.  Demands on MPs have not diminished but there is little chance of gaining public sympathy or support now for enhancing Members’ resources to carry out the functions the public expect them to fulfil.  Any increase in allowances, even if for the purpose of paying staff, will be seen as feathering the Member’s nest, even though they gain nothing personally from it. 

I was reminded of this tension when reading Chris Mullin’s latest volume, A Walk-On Part, embodying his diaries for 1994 to 1999.  His entry for Thursday, 5 November 1998 reads:

‘At the Liaison Committee Archie Kirkwood circulated a paper suggesting that the Review Body on Senior Salaries be asked to consider paying select committee chairmen.  The reaction was surprisingly hostile…   Someone said it would only lead to more stories about MPs lining their pockets.  Someone else said it would be divisive.  The only person who spoke in favour was Rhodri Morgan.  I’m in favour too, on the grounds that the status of select committee chairmen needs boosting if they are to stand up to the executive.  We need to develop a separate career structure to make it attractive.  Thoughts which, I am ashamed to say, I kept to myself since there were clearly no takers…’.

Agreement to pay chairs of select committees was later achieved, but I doubt if much headway would be made now if a similar proposal was made.  The answer, in any event, may be to reduce MPs’ workload, especially their constituency work – much of what they do could be done by grievance-chasing agencies – but getting electors, or indeed MPs, to accept that is another matter.

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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6 Responses to Conflicting pressures

  1. Croft says:

    I’m not sure I buy that analysis. If members were offered increased staff support financing but with an ban on family members working for that MP I think it would be sellable to the public. MPs employing family members on pay not commensurate with their abilities or without open competition and assessment was a problem of their own making.

  2. Frank W. Summers III says:

    Lord Norton,

    You mention that “Demands on MPs have not diminished but there is little chance of gaining public sympathy or support now for enhancing Members’ resources to carry out the functions the public expect them to fulfil. Any increase in allowances, even if for the purpose of paying staff, will be seen as feathering the Member’s nest, even though they gain nothing personally from it” and later state the cost of meeting the standard of the esecutive . Croft asserts: If members were offered increased staff support financing but with an ban on family members working for that MP I think it would be sellable to the public. MPs employing family members on pay not commensurate with their abilities or without open competition and assessment was a problem of their own making.”

    I have never vehemently disagreed with Croft’s tone prior but perhaps my own experience has led me to distrust the reasonable expectations of the public in public affairs. So I started thinking about how one might head off a really nasty and rabid batch of people judging what they cannot know with the most jaundiced eye:

    I have had one of my flashes of nearly divine inspiration and have a proposal:
    First Create a Ministry of Efficiency, Parsimony, Abolition of Nepotism and Reduction of Waste and Redundancy the Staffing of the Offices of Members of Parliament — the catch title of MEPANRWRSOMP could be used ( pronounced “Mepan- Reward- Stomp” in ordinary speech). This Ministry could include administrative ajudication, planning, investigative, ethics, family counseling and political affairs subministires as well as the supremely important Vice Miinistry for Paperwork Reduction. A system of ines could set the tone say four hundred pounds if an MP shared a bit of pie with a staff member which his wife baked (in some way which might induce the staffer to work for him) and a thousand pounds if another MP’s husband gave one of her staff a ride home during a rainstorm. Records could be kept and a special back bench without cushions could be preserved for the use of those least successful in these goals moral purity in accountancy.

    Records could be submitted quartlerly to Lords, the Supreme Court, the Queen, the Admiralty, Black Rod, Oxford, Cambridge, Clarence House, the Humane Society and the governments of Andora and Monaco. I think with these simple changes the problem can soon be cleared up. I do not see forced castration or mastectomy-hysterectomy becoming necessary and think these sorts of draconian measures can surely be avoided if a little effort is made now before things get badly out of hand…

  3. Matt Howard says:

    Frank W. Summers III: I imagine you would write some very amusing Yes Minister…sketches with the MEPANRWRSOMP – it would be funny enough hearing civil servants try to pronounce it!

    Lord Norton: I think there is a divide between the public and Pariament in the sense of understanding that politics is more than television. After reading through Hansard for a period earlier this year I noticed firstly, how much MP’s need to contribute to important debates (they last for hours), and secondly how many debates MP’s have to attend to properly represent their constituents. Of course this does not include comittees, works in constituency…all this you are aware of anyway, but the point is I would like to see a fly-on-the-wall documentary following an MP so we can get a better sense of what it all involves. You know, the average MP- not Mandleson. And for it to be ongoing through their whole term, although it may lead to accusations of favourtism.

  4. Matt Howard says:

    Lord Mandleson, I might add…

  5. CRAiG B says:

    With the proposed cut in MP numbers by c10%, it is reasonable to suggest that we’d see an average of c10% increase in certain aspects of MPs’ workloads – particularly constituency casework.

    Is there a case to be put forward for an increase in expenses/staff? A 10% across the board increase would not be fair and would defeat the objective of the change, to save £.

    However, we need to accept that such a change – however attractive – may lead to a deterioration of service for constituents. Or, somehow, there needs to be smarter working. 10% smarter might be a good start. Is anyone thinking about this?

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