Stuart Wheeler

A question of trust | 27 February 2010

Senior politicians are determined to stop us knowing what they do with our money, says Stuart Wheeler. But public trust should be restored by giving more power to local politics

A question of trust | 27 February 2010
Text settings

What are MPs worth? I don’t mean this literally. I hope they’re all each worth as much as they would like to be, or deserve to be. But what are they worth to us? They’re the product of our democracy. They’re the consequence of our centuries of stable constitutional development, and the enduring part of Britain’s place in history as the global pioneer of representative government. So to us they are worth quite a lot in fact.

But even before their allowances are taken into account, MPs’ salaries immediately put them in the top 5 per cent income bracket. Moreover, this level of pay is unprecedented: you have never paid more for them. Are they worth that much? I say they should be, but the tragedy is that MPs have lost sight of what they’re for, and show no signs of recovering it.

The one thing that has remained constant throughout the entire expenses scandal has been the desire of the political class to stop the truth being told. From the first abuse of the system, right up to today, MPs are united in wanting to prevent us from knowing what they did with our money. They’re even determined to stop us from knowing what they were not allowed to do with our money. Harriet Harman, as Leader of the House of Commons, ensured that the Legg inquiry was not permitted to do what Sir Thomas wanted, which was to detail some of the outrageous claims the Fees Office actually rejected. Bear in mind that the iconic ‘claim’ of the whole business, Sir Peter Viggers’s ‘duck island’, wasn’t granted. Yet was there ever a symbol that more powerfully illustrated the truth? The truth that MPs had entirely lost their collective sense of responsibility and shame.

All three party leaders have connived to ensure that we will not know anything much beyond what the Daily Telegraph was able to reveal. Just that brief, four-year snapshot shall stand forevermore as the one moment we got to know what MPs were really up to. If the three main parties want, let alone deserve, our trust, why do they not proudly propose in their manifestos that after the next election, we’ll finally be told the full story? That all receipts for all MPs will be disclosed in like manner? Mr Brown, Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg all proclaim the virtue of transparency, so let them display it. Even if they won’t require it of their colleagues, at least let them be open themselves. Let each party leader go before the British public in a few months’ time and say just what they’ve truly claimed for since they became MPs. What have they got to hide?

No doubt all three party leaders will be returned to the next parliament. They’re going to be joined there by an enormous number of new colleagues. But who will have sent them there, and will these new MPs behave any better than their discredited predecessors? It’s very difficult to have any confidence that they will. The reason the allowances regime — which originally provided small subsistence rates like those civil servants staying away from home overnight received — mutated into the lavish monstrosity recently exposed was that it suited the party leaders to reduce their MPs to such luxurious dependence.

If MPs could have dared to demonstrate independence of their leaders, whips and party machines, this crisis would never have happened in the first place. But today, as Howard Flight’s fate showed, party leaders can dismiss honest and free-thinking MPs from parliament at will. Sadly, since Labour came to power, MPs have passed lots of laws protecting and entrenching the power of their party head offices. The result has been inevitable: court favourites are now routinely inserted into the Commons — even if it means casually subverting the parties’ own selection rules in the process.

Here is a modest proposal: let the next parliament pass a law that protects their constituents instead of their parties.

I don’t believe for one moment that all candidates should be local, but all candidates must be locally selected. Their duty is to represent the constituency at Westminster, and they’ll do that so much more vigorously if it’s their electors who choose them, and not their party leaders. Only if we have MPs able to act independently of their parties will we be able to put our House in order.

Stuart Wheeler is author of A Crisis of Trust, published by the Bruges Group.