Sunday, May 17, 2009

Founded on deception

If the European Union is the "Great Deception", the MPs' expenses scam can perhaps be described as the "little deception". But deception it is, according to Booker today, who has been doing some background research into the allowances system.

The crucial thing is, as we have been at pains to point out, is that they are not "expenses" in the ordinary sense of the word. MPs are told they can claim their "allowances" as an automatic right, so long as they go through the charade of handing in largely meaningless invoices.

The story, Booker writes, goes back to 1971 when, with inflation rising, to give them a pay increase might have been politically embarrassing. A new system was therefore devised (under Willie Whitelaw) to give them "additional cost allowances", as an annual sum they could claim as a hidden pay rise.

As can be seen from the Commons Research Briefing, the initial allowance was a mere £187.50. But this rose rapidly, and at an ever-increasing rate, with a jump of £6,000 in 2001, until it now stands at £24,000.

The point, Booker makes, is that the system was founded on deception, and this has only been compounded, as MPs are told they can claim their "allowances" as an automatic right, so long as they go through the charade of handing in largely meaningless invoices. Hence their pathetic bleats, when caught out, that they are only charging "within the rules".

This double deceit is tawdry enough, and this is what has caught them out. But, echoing our own comments, Booker suggests that, "far more weighty is the question of whether our modern MPs earn their salaries, let alone their bogus allowances." This is the case he makes:

It would be easy to point to scores of examples of how MPs no longer justify the money we pay them, because they have so lost touch with the basic realities of the job we elect them to do.

During the 19 years I have been writing this column, I have in effect been reporting on an extraordinary revolution in the nature of our governance. As became apparent in the early Nineties, Parliament has become ever more excluded from its traditional role of making our laws and shaping the way we are governed.

By far the greater part of our legislation no longer has anything to do with Parliament. Much of it is decided in Brussels, most of it is imposed on us by way of statutory instruments, diktats drafted by anonymous officials and signed off by ministers who are no more than puppets. Our MPs, having progressively given away their powers, have become increasingly irrelevant, except to play walk-on parts in the soap opera to which our politics has been reduced.

Infantilised by their lack of a proper grown-up job to do, it is hardly surprising that, with honourable exceptions, the army of ciphers making up our political class speak almost entirely in clichés, bristle with moralistic self-righteousness, have little idea of how we are actually governed and resort to fiddling their expenses.

Having given away their powers and lost their self-respect, they have now lost ours. This is the real message of the squalid spectacle to which we have all been treated in recent days.

Just one of countless examples of how our MPs now fail in their true responsibilities was glaringly on view on 23 April. Our Climate Change Secretary, Ed Miliband, announced to MPs that, to keep Britain’s lights on, he will graciously permit us to have a new generation of coal-fired power stations.

But this is only on the condition that they can in future be fitted with "carbon capture", extracting the CO2 to bury it in holes in the ground. To pave the way for this, Mr Miliband is insisting on four pilot schemes in different parts of the country, each of which, although he didn't admit it, is to cost £1 billion, paid for by all of us through our electricity bills.

So far, there is not a single commercial carbon-capture scheme anywhere in the world. The technological problems in creating one may well be insuperable. Even if they could be made to work, they would, in effect, double the price of electricity and require us to double our already huge imports of coal, mainly from Russia.

In other words, Mr Miliband was announcing to the Commons a completely mad, quixotic proposition. But instead of pointing this out, the handful of MPs present, led by the Tories' energy spokesman, Greg Clark, and John Gummer, fell over themselves to welcome it.

If we had grown-up MPs with the remotest understanding of the real world, they could simply have laughed this totally absurd measure out of court, and saved us all £4 billion – 40 times as much as they cost us each year, including their allowances.
If we had a grown-up media, we would be seeing these points made more widely. Charles Moore, made a start yesterday and Matthew Parris also has some interesting comments.

With The Sunday Times arguing that, "The disclosures over MPs' expenses have turned a general lack of respect for politicians, which some put down to the decline of deference, into open contempt," we are in dangerous times, not least because this paper is focusing entirely on repairing the payment system and allied matters.

The important thing, however, is to focus on the single point – that this current debacle is a symptom of a wider malaise. Fixing just the allowances system will fix nothing. We need to address the deeper causes, some of which Booker has identified.