Wednesday, April 08, 2009

What is the price of neglect?

Possibly of far more significance that the venality or otherwise of our MPs and their expenses claims, it this piece of news offered by The Times on their attendance in Select Committees.

Headlined, "MPs failing to attend crucial Commons committees", the story tells us that backbench MPs are routinely skipping meetings, "undermining Parliament's power to scrutinise the government."

In terms of detail, we learn that at least 60 of the 220 members on the most influential Commons committees examining public services and government spending missed more than half their meetings last year.

We also learn that several backbench MPs have told The Times that they do not regard select committee attendance — which was once seen as a route to high office — as a priority. This, says the paper, has prompted anger among some select committee chairmen who believe that backbench MPs from all parties are shirking their elected responsibilities.

On this blog, we ourselves have often pointed out the vital role of these committees, where much of the real work of scrutinising the executive. The Times is of the same mind, noting that: "Select committees are seen as a vital part of the parliamentary process, cross-examining ministers and other experts and producing reports to which Whitehall departments must respond." It also notes that, last year select committee members went on 49 foreign trips at a cost of £1.4 million.

Yet, we are told, overall attendance at several key select committees covering education, foreign affairs and culture have dropped 10 per cent in five years. The attendance rate for the main committees is 64 percent, down from 70 percent in 2002-03.

Tony Wright, the chairman of the Public Administration Committee, tells us: "There is no reward for being a diligent select committee member." Thus, MPs now openly pick and choose which meetings they attend with impunity.

The paper goes on to "name and shame" some individuals, the short list produced being damning enough in its own right. But, inevitably, the paper can only look, in effect, at quantity. It cannot look at the quality of the work produced. This, we have attempted to do, on several occasions and have not been impressed by what we have seen.

Looking at the expenses issue in the round, we have been less concerned about what MPs cost us than the more important issue of whether they deliver value for money. This article adds to the growing body of evidence that far too many MPs not only cost us a great deal but deliver very little indeed.

Speaking to a Whitehall insider yesterday, we shared the view that this affair now represents a major crisis for the political classes. But as some MPs still seek to defend their behaviour, and the apologists kick in, it is not at all clear that they have begun to understand the depth of loathing within the broader population.

The time has come and gone for a leisurely "review" of the issue, or some tweaking around the margins. Even a root and branch reform of the system is unlikely to restore confidence in what has become a tarnished occupation. Something more dramatic is required.

However, it is difficult to see what that could be. Fixing the expenses issue is, on the face of it, fairly straightforward, but convincing us that MPs are doing the jobs for which they are paid is an altogether different proposition. Years of sloth and neglect cannot be remedied overnight.

I rather suspect that the MPs have got into a mess from which they cannot extract themselves, in which case the only real question is what price they should be made to pay.