Edward Spalton received a request from the Derby Telegraph for an article, one which it has been intimated will appear in tomorrow’s edition of that newspaper. Edward has given me permission to circulate said article, reproduced below, with the comment that if his suggestion could be added as a “bolt-on” to the 6 Demands, he would be extremely delighted.
They Work for You
a Matter of Trust between Parliament and People
by Edward Spalton
For most of our history, there was a tradition of unpaid public service in Britain. It survives still amongst Justices of the Peace and the now largely symbolic, honorary offices of High Sheriff and Lord Lieutenant. In the nineteenth century, elected councillors took over many of the duties previously performed by local benches of Magistrates . Until quite recently councillors were also unpaid.
The first time central government started to pay MPs was in the 17th century Commonwealth period. Parliament was sitting for longer and a “second home allowance” was introduced at the generous rate of £4 per week. Journalists of the time saw this as purchasing the votes of MPs for the government. One wrote that they had been “taught to speak Aye or No …at certain hours by direction, just like Cheapside clock strikers”. They had become “voting instruments”, “those state catamites upon whom any votes whatsoever may be begotten”.
Today, debates on serious matters of high importance are often conducted in a largely empty chamber which suddenly fills up magically at the sound of the division bell. The Cheapside clock strikers never really went away!
As Parliament developed, some early commentators held that the whole party system was a sham, presenting a series of fake disagreements while the “grandees” would milk the cash cow of the kingdom’s Exchequer in co-operation with each other. Loyalty was bought by “conferring something of advantage upon those who are subservient to them, as five pounds a week” (an increased housing allowance rate) “or some petty employment” – like being made committee chairman today. So maybe things have not changed as much as we think.
Civil service reforms in the 19th century much reduced the old corruption and the size of the electorate increased massively in stages. Democracy was on the way. Yet the intensely ambitious, extraordinarily pushy, young Winston Churchill reckoned he needed to have £10,000 in the bank from his writing (the equivalent of a million today) to afford to be an MP. People woke up to the fact that there was a pool of talented men, unable to serve their country in Parliament for lack of money. In 1911 Lloyd George proposed that MPs should be paid.
“When we offer £400 a year ( probably £40,000 today) ..it is not recognition of the magnitude of the service, it is not remuneration…it is not even a salary. It is just an allowance …to enable us to open the door to great and honourable public service to those men for whom this country will be all the richer, all the greater, all the stronger…”
With increases for inflation, this was the system which lasted until 1971. MPs also received free first class rail travel, franked envelopes for their mail and 2,000 sheets of paper per year - no pension (unless they bought it out of their salary like most people did then), no second home allowance, no assistants, no allowances for duck houses, moat cleaning or expensive furniture.
Yet it was sufficient to attract and enable serious men of humble origins and great ability to serve their country when Parliament was responsible not only for the whole United Kingdom but for a large part of the earth’s surface and the freedom of most of its oceans. With Lloyd George’s oratorical wizardry and the determined efforts of the Liberal and Labour parties, the House of Commons quickly became one of the most socially diverse legislatures in the world. It was a revolution by evolution.
In 1971 Parliament took the decisions which set it on the course for the corrupt system of largely concealed expenses and allowances which brought MPs and Parliament into deserved public contempt and disrepute. There was a sense of increased entitlement combined with the need to conceal its greedy extent in a time of inflation. They decided to farm out decisions about their salaries and perks to something called The Top Salaries Review Body.
Being an MP is not like any other job. It is not a full time job although the hours may be long. Ambitious MPs are well able to combine it with the demanding duties of Ministers of the Crown. A prescient MP remarked of the changes “The motions will contribute to bring about a marked alteration in the status of hon. Members The more largely expenses are reimbursed, the less will an hon. Member be a person exercising his status at his own discretion and on his own responsibility….
….The change which will come about as a result of this alteration in our status – because of our becoming increasingly assimilated to full time, pensioned employees – is that those who have the voice to say whether we shall or shall not be candidates of our party at a General Election gain a great accession of power over the individual and , thereby, indirectly, over the House”.
Just as Parliament was preparing to surrender a massive, unspecified but ever increasing amount of its power to the European Economic Community “without further enactment” (as it says in the European Communities Act), MPs decided to feather their nests and hide behind the device of an “independent” review body. At the same time they were putting themselves under tighter control by their parties. This is one occasion when most will agree that Enoch Powell was right.
So it is a great pity that they made the same mistake again in creating IPSA (Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority) to try to clear up the mess and restore public confidence. A return to the simplicity of the Lloyd George dispensation might have done the trick but not this. Nobody trusts any official body now.
The simplest thing is to cut out the middle man and to treat candidates, MPs and electors as grown-ups. An MP contracts to represent his constituency rather like an NHS doctor contracts to look after his patients. Parliament could set a maximum figure per elector for an MP’s services. The MP could decide how he would use this – so much for his salary and pension, so much for travel, accommodation, assistants etc. He could make this budget part of his election manifesto – and be held to it. Thrifty candidates might not want to claim all of the allowance.
To ensure that the MP knows who his employers are, the amount would be collected by Council Tax – a relatively small amount per household. The MP’s accounts would be audited annually on a common format and made available to electors at their local Council House. Receipts and fuller details to be available on reasonable request.
This would transfer the oversight from Westminster to the people. It would also be a massive transfer of influence from the party machines and highly transparent too– something which politicans say they want but rarely achieve.
(I am indebted to Stuart Wheeler’s Book “A Crisis of Trust” available from the Bruges Group price £7.50 firstname.lastname@example.org , Tel 020 7287 4414)”
An excellent suggestion where cutting out the middle man is concerned, however where I would differ from one aspect of that suggestion is to query: why should Parliament set the maximum figure – why should Parliament have the power to set any figure? In this context I would refer readers to an article which appeared on this blog under the title: “All politics is local“; from which:
“If MPs are elected locally then why should those they are representing not also decide their terms and conditions of employment together with their level of remuneration?”
Politicians of all parties tell us they want “localism”, that they want to devolve power to the people in order that they may decide local matters. Those are, indeed, brave intentions and are to be applauded – but as with any suggestion by politicians to do just that, they are but words as politicians have no such intention to so do because so to do would result in their loss of power. As the European Union is based on the precept that no power [supposedly] willingly ceded can never be returned, so likewise do our national politicians operate within our system of representative democracy – the only difference being that our national politicians have usurped said powers through the negative assent of the people and thus likewise have no intention of returning power.
Bearing in mind Demand #2, Demand #5 and the content of my post linked to above, details of how and under what conditions MPs are employed should be left to their electorate, embodied in each local constitution because if we are to have localism it must follow that the terms and conditions concerning an MP’s employment are also decided locally. As Edward Spalton suggests, this remuneration could indeed be collected via Council Tax as a separate precept along with those for the police etc. It is by such means that we see democracy being brought closer to the people with both local and national government under the direct control of the people. After all, anything else isn’t democracy – is it?