Friday, July 04, 2008

Elephant in the chamber

As one might expect, there is a great deal of comment on the debate – and vote over MPs' expenses yesterday evening. Much of it, we are able to say in our lofty and superior way, was ill-informed and missed the point.

Our view can be summed up fairly simply. If MPs were doing the job they were supposed to do, then they are underpaid. That job, in essence, is two-fold: to make (or approve) laws and to scrutinise the executive.

Since our (supreme) executive is now in Brussels, beyond the reach of our MPs, and they have outsourced 80 percent (or thereabouts) of our lawmaking to Brussels, MPs are grossly overpaid.

Both my co-editor and myself have made our positions clear on this. As it stands, MPs' pay should be cut, proportionate to the amount of power they have given away. After all, if Welsh Assembly members can argue for an increase in pay for taking on extra responsibilities, then the case for cutting MPs' pay is unanswerable.

As for MPs' expenses, I have already made a declaration of interest on this. I am paid by a number of MPs to carry out research for them. It is a pittance and the work is therefore subsidised by a public-spirited well-wisher, without which it simply could not be done.

In that context – and compared with other legislatures - MPs' expenses are too low. People have to wake up to the idea that, if they want good policy and effective scrutiny, then that has to be based on well-founded research. That does not come cheap. Part of the problem in our society is that research – especially political research – is under-valued, which accounts for the poor quality of much of it.

As to MPs' personal expenses – here the real issue is that, for want of being able to pass through unpopular pay increases, the parliament has top-loaded the expense system as a mechanism of compensation. It has, until now, stayed under the radar. Now that it has become visible, the central point has been lost – that real question of how much MPs are worth.

In the general run of things, MPs should have the capability to save us billions – and the decisions they make can save or cost lives. If they are doing their jobs well, then it matters not if the "package" is top loaded – the overall amount paid is what matters. If our parliament was effective and doing its job, then it is worth every penny and more. As it stands, it is not delivering value for money.

That is what really matters.

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