Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Politicians Should Say: Yes We Can!

I remember a few years ago being very unhappy with an aspect of Conservative health policy. It was when Liam Fox was on his mission to "take the politics out of the NHS" and have it run by a non political board. I was unhappy because if the NHS was spending £100 billion I reckoned it ought to have democratic accountability. I still do.

I feel the same way about the Prime Minister's proposal that the responsibility for the way Parliament is operated and conducted should be contracted out to an outside body. What on earth does this say about Parliament? If it cannot manage its own affairs, how can it be trusted to legislate over everyone else?

Yes, I know everyone is anti politician at the moment, and that will last for some time to come. But isn't now the time when politicians should rise to the occasion and prove that they can do the right thing - and do it all by themselves without derogating responsibility to yet another unelected and unaccountable quango? Surely they should be saying: 'Yes we can', not 'No we can't'.

Dan Hannan has been having similar thoughts.


James Burdett said...

Iain, I think a lot of us are having the same thoughts.

Sceptical said...

Hear hear! Completely agree. We do not need another quango. Parliament should be sovereign and just needs to get its act together. In fact the problem has really been solved already - after these traumatic events and the new rules and transparency, I don't think many MPs will be flipping or abusing the system again.

UB41 said...

I second that - posted it on a few boards.

Do NOT remove accountability from the MP's.

Cynic said...

I completely agree. This move is deeply dangerous and totally unnecessary. The Executive is putting a leash on Parliament when Parliament is supposed to hold the Executive to account. This is one more step towards an elective dictatorship - no matter how well intentioned. I see that MPs are now to have a code of conduct. This will put huge additional power in the hands of the whips and negate democracy. A house of subjugated MPs is as bad as a house with some bent ones

The logic doesn't even stack up.

The key to accountability is exposure.

By all means have:-

1 independent vetting and scrutiny of all expense claims by an independent agency. This could be set up as an Non Ministerial Department reporting to Parliament as a whole

2 publication online of all claims made backed by an annual report to Parliament from the Agency responsible for claims

3 a clear mechanism for referring any suspected fraud to the Police and any other misconduct to the Standards and Privilidges Committee

4 a requirement on the S&P Committee to report annually on every such case giving details, their decision and reasons

Unknown said...

Cameron should attack Brown's solution to the expenses problem.

Change the rules to ensure full accountability and transparency is the way to sort this mess out.

It works in the Scottish Parliament.

Victor, NW Kent said...

The problem with all of these quangos is that the members are government appointees. That removes their independence and eventually they simply join the establishment.

The public would hardly be sufficiently informed to be able to elect members so how would they be chosen? Perhaps Guinevere can be borrowed - every adult between 21 and 80 gets a ticket.

Looking back over the past couple of weeks it is also clear that the paralysis of Parliament has been a good thing. New, pointless, legislation has not been passed and the government has been largely neglecting the economy, not such a bad thing. If they can keep their clumsy hands off it for another few months we may actually have the beginnings of economic revival as the newspaper scare dies down.

In short the expenses scandal and swine flu have allowed the patient to rest and start to recuperate.

Cassius said...

Iain - the fundamental culture of this Government is power without responsibliity. Go to war on "terror", rail at the expenses "system", demand that the market gains "morals" - and attack everything by adding more systems, in this case regulation.

I am now more convinced than ever that Cameron has a philosophy and that it is the diametric opposite (and therefore the antidote) to the dogmatic stasis we have reached under Brown. What's more, this is no bandwagon - his political thinking has been evident for some time and has only now found it's mark. De-selecting rogue MP's and calling for an election is the perfect embodiment of this, and done properly could be irresistable to the Country at large. So far, the "election now" campaign has not gained much traction - either the commnication has been poor, or the commentariat (in which I include the bloggers) are too caught up in their little political world to see it's potential.

Why speculate endlessly on the identity of the next speaker, when the big question is whether MP's will be held to account by the people - and when?

RW said...

Complete non-starter. If the House delegates responsibility for running itself to a so-called "independent" body - stuffed with Government-vetted seatwarmers, as are all such bodies - then what is the point of it? MPs will become, effectively, employees of the Government. Why should we bother with the tiresome business of electing them? This is profoundly anti-democratic.

Brown just can't suppress his control freakery, even when he's on his last legs. And boy is he cracking up - grey-faced and slack-jawed, rambling and incoherent, waspishly irritable and with a rising note of hysteria in his voice. He's falling apart before our eyes.

Daniel said...

Not me. I think there is very little politicians can ever do well. They always spend someone else's money, so they are never concerned with keeping costs down. The only question is whether they can be bothered to look for quality in what they buy. If they spend it on themselves, they look for quality and get the best cushions and TVs; so on the bright side, it may be expensive, but at least the money isn't being wasted as such. But when they're spending on others, as with the NHS, they have no concern whatsoever with the quality of whatever they are purchasing. So combining that with runaway costs and you have the worst of both worlds: runaway costs and nothing to show for it.

It has to be said, honestly and openly, so that people start to finally get it: the only kind of accountability that gives ordinary people direct control without introducing a layer of self-serving politicians is to have a commercial operation, run for profit, payed for at the point of use, so people vote with their feet, so there is no way to take advantage except by providing a needed service, and so there is nowhere for self-serving politicians to hide.

This idea disgusts many people, but it's time to recognise that this is an irrational sense of disgust.

Look at the rotten reality we live with now. The expenses scandal is nothing compared to the general scandal of rampant public spending growth during the recent boom. When politicians doubled the spending on the NHS, they had no clue how this might make the service better. They simply used billions of pounds of our money to buy votes for themselves. And what immediately followed was the absurd spectacle of hospitals running out of money and having to cut back on operations.

Anonymous said...

We are hearing a lot from our politicans at the moment about how rightly unhappy the public are. But when they talk about fixing the problems they talk about independent committees and independent bodies. Not once have heard thhem ask for the public view.

Anonymous said...

Please, please, please don't use 'derogate' when you mean 'delegate' or 'devolve.'

Mark M said...

Has there been any problem since 2007 to which Gordon Brown's solution has not been to appoint another quango?

Is the man even capable of taking an actual decision, rather than outsourcing it?

Neuroskeptic said...

Rather than another quango or politicians donning sack-cloth, what this country needs is a long hard look at itself to see how we allowed this to happen. As Iain says, everyone is anti-politician at the moment, but I'm inclined to be anti-electorate. And I'm not just talking about Labour voters.

Rexel No 56 said...


It's the Labour way.

Institutionalise untrustworthiness by adding a layer of box tickers that is somehow "independent".

Costlier? Tick
Takes away responsibility? Tick
Create jobs for supporters? Tick
Unaccountable? Tick


Nigel Bates said...

Couldn't agree more.
It's a typical Brownian solution - set up another unelected body to take the heat.

Parliament is becoming increasingly infantilized. MPs need to take more responsibility, not less.
Right at the moment, it is hard to see what useful role backbench MPs perform, apart from being glorified social workers.

Andrew K said...


I was bloody furious when I heard that. Firstly I think that any change needs to be carried out under a new mandate and secondly it would seem further to put the legislature under the control of the executive.

If it's coming from Gordon f***ing Brown I don't f***ing want it.

The Welsh Jacobite said...

Total transparency is the simple answer.

The whole electorate can then be the independent scrutinising body.

And if they choose not to scrutinise and hold to account, they get the M.P.s they deserve.

Plenty said...

The problem is their mindset needs to change. They have been living in a vacuum for too long. Until theu change their mindset on certain issues, progress will not be made.

Robert said...

What is the point of reforming our parliament when they don't actually do anything.

Get real. The real power is in Brussels and with our representative on their legislative council-our Prime Minister. Until our parliament takes back power they will remain a talking shop. None of this will happen with the parties as they are. Cameron will not rock the boat if the Lisbon treaty is ratified should he come to power. The other two parties have already sold out.

If the events of the last weeks are to mean anything then the people must decide and to do that and for government to mean anything then we must throw off the malign influence of the EU. Anything else condemns us to Euro serfdom.

DiscoveredJoys said...

Agreed, we don't need any more Quangos. Indeed I'm looking forward to a 'Bonfire of the Quangos' after the next election...

The problem is how to insulate the Fees Office from the risks of 'agency capture'. We seem to have got to the current situation through some MPs being too demanding and the Fees Office being too compliant.

One way forward would be to specify more clearly the purpose and nature of valid expenses, and move the fees office to a remote location (e.g. Thurso or Penzance) where the office workers can work without (some) MPs exerting direct pressure. The Speaker can still be the umpire of last resort.

Alternatively outsource the function to private industry. There are many companies that outsource all their Human Resources work already. This too can help avoid 'agency capture'. All it needs is a well specified remit (no fudging 'the rules') and the umpire of last resort can still be the Speaker. If the firm messes up the function, they lose the contract.

Anonymous said...

You say you "remember a few years ago being very unhappy with an aspect of Conservative health policy" - but the policy you were unhappy about then is still a key part of Conservative health policy. Are you still unhappy about it? If not, why not? If so, what are you doing about it?

David said...

Ian, this is just part of the ongoing corporatization of british politics which Blair and co. began and threatens to leave our traditional political system a complete shambles. It goes along with the cack-handed wreckage of the House of Lords, the original installation of Martin as Speaker, and the complicity of Blair and Brown in allowing the expenses system to become a source of easy enrichment. The objective was clearly to establish a class of corporate professional politicians in the UK as in continental Europe and the European Commission, who don't have to be reponsible to tiresome voters. I would now like to see Conservative politicians committing themselves to undoing the constitutional damage effected by Blair and his epigones. This is polticial high ground which is open for the taking.

Alex said...

We do not need another quango. Make breach of MP's expenses rules a criminal offence and you have all the mechanisms in place for regulation and possible expulsion of MP's.

Mark M said...


But the point is that we don't need rules for MPs. Total transparency (i.e. every claim published online when it is made, with the first parts of postcodes visible to detect possible flipping) and changing from the 'what can I get away with?' mindset to 'how would this look on the front page tomorrow?' will be enough to get it sorted.

MPs are supposed to be accountable to us, the public, not some quango. We are the ones who should judge their actions.

javelin said...

Transparancy is all that is needed AND the principle that MPs set the case law for taxing the rest of us. Very simple and self regulating.

Whilst were on the subject of quangos. MPs in both houses (mainly from a reformed second chamber) should run as nonexecs on quangos and government departments, such as the NHS and police. It would cut costs, give MPs more experience and make quangos accountable.

MPs should be rotated through the executive to get experience.

Thats News said...

Morning update. What will Brown replace 400 years of tradition with? And Iain was right! Say sorry, those who doubted him!wv = rashers. How aposite!

Gareth said...

An outside regulator would be wholly undemocratic. MPs filing their expenses should be seen as a basic test of competency and probity - we need to see it in action and there needs to be no intermediary.

Parliament is sovereign. That surely does not mean it can hand off authority to whom it chooses - authority MUST remain with Parliament and it should remain beholden only to us. A Government led proposal must be resisted by all good Parliamentarians.

Can I suggest someone who can craft this point of view - that the ultimate regulator is the voter, that transparency is the key (both for what is claimed and refused) and a simple set of rules would be of great benefit - into a coherent argument and submit it to the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

Someone with a better idea than me for a start of the history and nature of Parliament's authority.

javelin said...

Parliament is still full of fraudsters and tax cheats. There has to be a purge of the guilty.

Hawkeye said...

I wouldn't worry about it. It is a Brown proposal so he will either mess it up or it will fade quietly away, never to happen at all.

In any case, is it likely to make it on to the statute book in time?

johnAKAmark said...

hear hear! bang on the nail - this whole issue is becoming a bandwagon for anti-democratic and reactionary forces..more unaccountable experts will not solve parliament's problems nor the crisis of legitimacy surrounding the political process as a whole

Nigel said...

Do we know how many MPs have claimed the maximum ACA every year ?
I sent the following letter to my local newspaper this morning:

I have been having a look (see - ) at the Additional Costs Allowance claimed by Kali Mountford and Barry Sheerman over the last few years, and the figures which I've copied below are very interesting.

Kali Mountford : 2004/5 £20,902 (the maximum); 2005/6 £21,634 (the maximum); 2006/7 £22,110 (the maximum); 2007/8 £23,083 (the maximum)

Barry Sheerman: 2004/5 £20,902 (the maximum); 2005/6 £21,634 (the maximum); 2006/7 £22,110 (the maximum); 2007/8 £23,083 (the maximum)

As they both seem to have claimed the maximum amount possible, to the penny, for each of the last four years, would they say that:

a) The Additional Costs Allowance is inadequate to cover their expenses ?
b) By an extraordinary co-incidence the Additional Costs Allowance exactly met both of their expenses for the last four years ?
c) They are to be congratulated for their imaginative accounting ?

I would be most interested in their response.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree Ian. We really don't need another expensive quango.
MP's should have responsibility and accountability, but we need transparency.

jafo said...

Totally agree. No More Quangos!
All MPs have their own websites these days. They should publish their expense claims immediately when submitted - then their voters can decide whether or not they want their money spent like this.

Don't think Gerald Kaufmann would have published a demand for an £8,000 telly, would he?

Quangos give yet another layer of expensive useless penpushers, and as they will have been appointed by the Government of the day, they will be influenced by that Government. Let's face it, if Gordon Brown thought of it, we don't want it because it will have nothing whatever to do with transparency!

Anonymous said...

But isn't now the time when politicians should rise to the occasion and prove that they can do the right thingHave you been asleep for the past fortnight, Iain? I ask because you seem painfully ignorant of the fact that your friends in parliament have manifestly proved not only that they're incapable of "doing the right thing" but that they don't even understand what the right thing is.

If politicians could "rise to the occasion", it wouldn't have taken the Telegraph to expose the wrongdoing. But just keep on defending the troughing rights of your Westminster pals. Keep on pretending that there's something noble about stealing the public's money and trying to hide it. Keep on defending it so that you can enjoy the same troughing rights when you finally get elevated to the House.

Cynic said...

"The problem with all of these quangos is that the members are government appointees. "

Pass the appointment role to the Civil Service Commissioners

JBW said...

None of this would have happened if the receipts had been published in the first place.

Typical Brown moment, if it moves legislate against it, if it doesn't cover it up.

bewick said...

Some thoughts
1.No matter WHAT the rules are most people will seek to interpret them to their own advantage be they doctors,lawyers, craftsmen,dockers,et al, or even MPs.A few, perhaps 10%, will bend the rules as far as they can and another 10% will ACTUALLY play Caesar's wife (whiter than white". Ms Moran's MP neighbour is one such.Ms Moran though is one at the OPPOSITE end of the normal distributiin curve (that is, a rule bender). She is far from alone.
I KNOW because I've seen it so often professionally in REAL life.

2."Independent" regulation is sometimes OK but it DOES have FOI limitations and THEY must be removed via a Statutory Instrument I'd guess to create transparency. But do NOT FORGET that Tom Winsor (Rail) and Elizabeth Filkin (Parliamentary Standards) were FORCED OUT when they actually DID their job.Ann Abrahams, the Ombudsman, is serially ignored.ANY independent scrutiny MUST be robust and NOT subject to the Executive. I don't think we are there yet!
3.Mr Balls and Ms Cooper have been "cleared of wrongdoing" by the current internal "watchdog". Mmmm. Maybe I am wrong but even the CURRENT definition of "main home" and "wholly and necessarily incurred" does not seem to justify THEIR troughing so I smell a rat. Same might be said of MANY MPs of all colours who have bought top of the range furniture (so top of the range I couldn't even afford it) at MY expense. Ruth Kelly springs to mind but she is far from alone as well
3.The immediate limitations announced By the PM ARE in fact an agreed position between all parties so not much point in arguing that Cameron should disagree. He already AGREED.
4.Note also the choice of wording. I DON'T think that Brown (and all parties) said that Ms Blears, she of the theatrical offer of CGT, or others so affected will actually have to PAY BACK the profit on their taxpayer funded property speculation. If ever there was a case for retrospective legislation then this is it.Are there enough honest MPs to support such? thought not.
5.Same with expensive furniture and fittings and so on.Aren't THEY actually the property of the taxpayer?
6.Expensive kitchen refits rather seem to negate the need to claim £400 a month for food. Top of the range kitchen? No need for the full food allowance then. I can eat very well for £30 a week (SEVEN days) by cooking for myself. For just 3 nights a week in London that would be halved. Indeed even eating out in London for 4 nights a week I managed for years to eat very well for somewhat less than £100 even at todays prices! But then I didn't go to the Ivy. Mr Balls and Ms Cooper jointly claim £150 a week for food 52/52 Wow they must be living high on the hog because they are not "allowed" by the rules to claim for the food for their children!!! Pull the other one.Do they NOT buy alphabet soup or whatever?
I could go on but I've already been boring. Make no mistake though EVERYONE I speak to , of ALL colours and class (the local shop is SO useful) are totally INCENSED. I knew about it all already but the Telegraph has done a major public service by bringing the crookedness to the attention of all. They deserve a Medal of Honour.

Obama London said...

Actually, I disagree with that.

The matter of politician's own reimbursement is the one area of public life where it never seems to me like a good idea for the politicians themselves to have any say in it.

Complacent governments can easily let the various forms of reimbursement rise way too high and discourage transparency at the same time (as has happened here). Result: people's inherent distrust of politicians is confirmed and the whole system suffers.

But on the other hand, it would be easy for a Government that wanted to win easy points with the public ahead of an election to call for massive cuts in this area - leaving politics as a game to be played only by those with "alternative sources of income".

I don't see any advantage of direct accountability that isn't offset by these disadvantages. But if you want democratic accountability, I'm all for it. Why not make the compensation and expenses panel itself democratically elected?

Ali said...

Exactly, in the opportunistic noose happy rush to rid themselves of the speaker the lynch mob have no credible set of proposals ready to go. Of course the Government will steam in with some nasty, stupid stuff without opposition. This will includes nonsense about 2nd jobs designed to hurt the Conservative vote. Be careful of what you wish for Iain Dale & co. - you get a very big 'hang'over from an impromptu lynching.

The truth never mentioned in unopposed media kickings of the Speaker is that he never had any real power & requires the devil in the detail to do anything i.e. THIS EVIL GOVERNMENT.

You have all blown it - big time.