Monday, 18 May 2009

The solution to the expenses ‘scandal’? Get rid of them all

Recently, I’ve been asked by a few people what I think about the ongoing MP’s expenses saga. The long and short of it is this; I don’t really care. The system certainly needs reforming, I’m glad that those people milking their expenses with abandon have been caught out, and there is no moral justification for the way that our MP’s have behaved. There is, though, a more practical justification that I do think needs consideration, though it falls a long way short of a defence. In the private sector, these people would be paid salaries in a completely different tax bracket, and that’s without the private healthcare, plush hotels, business-class flights all as standard. It’s fair to presume that those who are Minister’s could have progressed to sufficient heights in the private sector to be paid in the millions, rather than thousands. And many backbenchers would be working their way up towards that level. Again, that is not to disregard the extremely liveable salary that MPs get, but to put it into some perspective. What is more interesting to me, though, is not the scandalous disregard for money, but for their careers. We’ve already had a few resignations by those wishing to jump before they’re pushed; leaving with their reputations relatively intact and making for the much warmer waters of the private sector as we speak. It is this aspect that has made me pause to consider a proposal that will be familiar to many a-level Politics students or those who have much interest in American politics but has not really emerged in the public debate at this stage – the idea of fixed term limits.

For those who didn’t have the pleasure of taking AQA’s ‘Politics and Government’ A-level Paper 3 back in 2005, fixed term limits is essentially the idea that people can only be in government for so long. In the US, the President is limited to two terms (so, eight years). (N.B. There are no doubt other good examples of this mechanism, but I’m most familiar with this example). The advantage of this system is that you get an enforced renewal of personnel every so often, bringing with it fresh blood and fresh ideas. If this were to be implemented in parliament, it would prevent anyone entering purely for financial gain as it would be hard to milk too much out of the state in that amount of time, and would prevent any real ‘expenses culture’ taking hold. The consequence of this could be that you get the richer contingent thinking “ah well, at best (or worst) it’s only eight years so I won’t lose too much before I can go back to being Mr CEO”, and you get the lesser-paid contingent eyeing up an attractive salary, knowing that it can’t be their meal ticket for life. This could potentially open up the system to far more people, presenting the opportunity of public service as a short-term ‘sacrifice’ to serve the people - presumably how it was originally envisaged – or a short-term opportunity to influence political happenings and open some doors without it being a long-term career aim.

This may complicate the parliamentary system, admittedly, given that most Ministers have been MPs for a very (sometimes very, very, very) long time and have supposedly been ‘rewarded’ for their competence on the backbenches and in their constituency roles. This argument, though, is nonsense. It assumes that longevity is competence, and wisdom comes with age, both non-starters (a quick look at most of the Cabinet supports my point). The unwieldy nature of government departments must be considered, but the system could be adjusted to allow an extra two terms for Cabinet Ministers to take effect (contingent, of course, on re-election), or acknowledged through some other mechanism. A key advantage of this system is that you get bright new young things coming in with fresh ideas – preventing anyone getting too comfortable and using their position for long-term personal gain. You could also avoid short-term politics as any measure that anyone implements will be unlikely to have properly taken hold by the time their next (and final) election comes around. It would force people to respect their predecessors, and consider their future replacements, moving towards a system of clean and consistent governance. Sure, it would place yet more power in the hands of the civil servants but, given recent revelations, is that really such a bad thing? It may be argued that these ‘bright young things’ don’t have the experience or expertise to be trusted with the oversight of the organs of the state. But if they aren’t qualified to govern, why are we electing them?

So, my solution is to get rid of them all – every now and again – and refresh our parliament and (hopefully) our government. Does anyone really want to tolerate Beckett’s screechy voice, Johnson’s “I’m a postman” declarations, or Gordon’s gurn for any longer than is absolutely necessary? Or have I got this completely wrong? Well... anyone got any better ideas?

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