Tag: expenses

The Hole in the Ceiling

I do wonder how it is that people are able to support democracy, while at the same time having any understanding of the outside world.

A partial explanation has appeared in the comments to my post on Nadine Dorries’ lucid and mostly accurate explanation of the MPs’ expenses issue.

If the voters support a good policy, that’s what you expect.

If the voters support a bad policy, that’s not because voters are incompetent, it’s because of the media brainwashing them.

Therefore, all the policies that the voters actually support are good, and once we stop the media from getting them to support bad policies, everything will be fine.

The thing is that this has already happened. The establishment – the civil service, the BBC, the state education system – tells people what to vote for, and they do. The results are considerably better than would be the case if voters simply made up their minds based on the facts. The most damaging options are not even offered to the voters.

But the control of the establishment is not complete – notably, unlike in America, it does not control the newspapers. Usually, the business interests behind the newspapers stay in line, but on this occasion – and this is precisely Nadine Dorries’ complaint – the Telegraph stepped out of line, and told the voters that MPs had taken effectively twice the pay increase they admitted to since 1991, in the form of allowances.

That is what happened. I say so, Nadine Dorries says so, the commentator who was arguing says so. Why are we arguing?

I am arguing that what this shows is that the system of government in this country is a pretence. The establishment tells the voters what to vote for, the voters do it, and we thereby get a bad but not catastrophically bad government.

I suggest taking the voters out of the loop. Their independent influence is small, as we all agree, since we all agree that one newspaper read by 2% of the electorate is the real decisive factor in this story. Small as it is, I see no reason to assume the influence is beneficial. However, the necessity of keeping up the pretence leads to astonishingly bad policies, such as, in the most extreme case, trying to export the voting part of our system to countries which don’t even have a civil service/media establishment to tell the voters what to vote for! I mean, how is that ever going to work?

I want a ruler, or ruling establishment, that treats this country like an asset. I want them to say “this is my country and I’ll take what I want from it”, whether that be duck islands or third homes or 76 Rolls-Royces. If they did that, they wouldn’t need to lie to us from the cradle to grave to keep us from voting against them. They wouldn’t need to turn half the population into dependents on state handouts to keep them from voting against them. They would only need to run the country efficiently so as to maximise their loot.

Of course, this can’t happen. And the reason it can’t happen is because such a government would have to waste an even larger chunk of the country’s potential in defending itself from the mob, which believes a government is legitimate if and only if it lets them draw a cross on a piece of paper twice a decade.

The hole in the ruling establishment caused by the Telegraph letting the expenses cat out of the bag is not the point. It is a hole that shows us that the ceiling is not the sky.

Dear Ms Rantzen

May 28, 2009


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I have just listened to your World at One interview, in which you said that, in spite of Margaret Moran MP’s announcement that she will not contest the next election, you will stand as an independent if the people of Luton South want you to.

I am only one of those people, but speaking for myself, I would prefer that you did not.

It is often the case that a parliamentary election is something of a formality, where everyone knows in advance what the result will be. Unusually, that is not likely to be the case here next time; the indications are that Luton South will be very much in play, and we voters will have an opportunity to have a real say in which party will make up the next government.

I am not likely to avail myself of that opportunity, by voting for a leading party, but that is not because I see the need for a “non-partisan” or “non-political” MP. On the contrary, the major parties are not political enough for me. I will use my vote to express my strongly-held political views.

If the circumstances were different — in particular, if Margaret Moran appeared likely to retain a safe Labour seat — then your candidacy, by providing the option of a very strong and visible protest vote, would be about the best thing that could happen. Fortunately, that is not the case.

It is conceivable that your intervention was decisive in persuading the incumbent to step down, in which case you have already achieved something worthwhile. And of course, you have a perfect right to construct a political platform and stand on it, just as I have, or anybody else.

But as for standing as a non-descript “alternative” or “non-partisan” candidate — thanks but no thanks.

Nadine Dorries

Nadine Dorries (Conservative MP for Mid Beds) said the following:

No Prime Minister has ever had the political courage to award MPs an appropriate level of pay commensurate with their experience, qualifications and position; as recommended by the SSRB, year after year.

Prior to my intake in 2005, MPs were sat down by the establishment and told that the ACA was an allowance, not an expense, it was the MP’s property, in lieu of pay; and the job of the fees office was to help them claim it.

I find this quite believable. More, I genuinely sympathise. It is a reasonable explanation of what happened — MPs weren’t paid as much as they and everyone around them thought they should be paid, so “the establishment” found a solution in letting them take money under the table on the additional costs allowance.

That’s a perfectly good explanation to me, but that’s because I don’t believe in democracy. To a democrat, however, MPs are the establishment. If they are not able to pass a law giving them a higher salary, that means the electorate doesn’t want them to have a higher salary. If they conspire with officals to take the extra money anyway, then they are thieves and usurpers.

So here’s the situation: If we live in a democracy, then our MPs are thieves and usurpers. If we don’t, then… what the hell are our MPs? Not anything good, surely.

Dorries’ further point, and the reason her blog that I took the quote from exists now only on Google’s cache, is that the press were in on this all along but the Telegraph decided to blow it open only now, in order to cause a sea change in British Society by getting a few more minor party candidates elected as MEPs, or something. Personally I think having sharks with laser beams attached to their heads would be a better strategy, but there you go.

The real story here is this: MPs did not believe that voters had the right to determine what they were to be paid. MPs did believe that some “establishment” consisting of party whips and civil servants did have the right to determine what MPs were to be paid. The MPs worked for this “establishment”, and not for the voters. Therefore our democracy is a complete fraud. If voters can’t be allowed to decide what MPs get paid, what can they be allowed to decide? If nothing, what are MPs for anyway?

The normal conclusion to draw is what I was told this afternoon by the “No2EU” party (which turns out to be an alliance of the RMT and a few minor leftist parties) — that we need to “restore” our democracy. Of course, I disagree. The voters really aren’t capable of making sensible decisions, about MPs pay or anything else. The conclusion that should be drawn is that we need to abandon our democracy, and the establishment that runs the country needs to stop pretending.

But since most people still believe we should have a democracy, admitting that we don’t is just asking for trouble. Is that Dorries’ point? I don’t think so.

On reflection, she probably believes that we have a democracy that works adequately for everything except deciding MPs’ salaries. It’s a possibility that didn’t initially occur to me, but might make sense to MPs.

MPs Expenses

May 23, 2009


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Let’s bring back blame.

The natural response when something has gone wrong is to find out whose fault it was and, in some way, punish them.

That’s not always the right thing to do. But it’s not always the wrong thing either.

However, within an institution, throwing blame around is unpleasant, and not just for the blamed. It can go too far, so that people are always worried about being blamed for something, rightly or wrongly. Participants in the institution can attempt to shape it by getting other people blamed for things.

We therefore don’t like to blame people. However, when something has gone wrong, some kind of response needs to be made. The natural response today is to say “we have changed the system so that this cannot happen again”.

Sometimes that’s the best response. But if the problem isn’t the system (by which I mean the institutional rules), but the people, then it’s the wrong response.

The current problem is that many MPs have taken manifestly excessive expenses. Therefore, they are now talking about changing the system so this can’t happen again.

This is clearly the wrong response. More than almost anybody, MPs are supposed to be personally responsible for their actions. Their actions were wrong, they were found out. They can be blamed, and again, more than almost anyone else in our society, there is a mechanism for acting on that – it’s called an election.

If the responsibility is moved to anyone else at all, it will be moved to someone less easily blamed than an MP.

The system worked. For once, the people who really are responsible for some problem are the very people who can be held responsible for it. If they are re-elected despite this, so be it.

The only problem with the system was that they nearly got away with it, and indeed did get away with it for a while, before they were found out. But the change that needs to be made already has been made – it’s the freedom of information act that allowed us to find out about the expenses.

Therefore, the only changes to the system that need to be considered are changes to prevent the actions of MP from being kept secret. And, since the precedent has now been set, that means no further change is needed. Any change that allows MPs to keep more secrets can be presumed to be a fix to the problem that they got caught, not the problem that they took too much money.

The problem, as I said, with always finding someone to blame for any problem is that the corrupt can use the allocation of blame to shape the institution for his own ends. But how much more true is that of changing rules in response to any problem. We should be more suspicious of “changes will be made to procedures” than we are of “the people responsible have been sacked”.

And the broader lesson is not anything about forms of system or organisation, it is that we must not expect too much of those who are supposed to work on our behalf. Their personal interests and their group interests will compete with our own, and while our diligence and their openness will help to hold them to our interests rather than theirs, there are limits to this and the limits are not very high. The best we can hope of government is that it will do a few things and get them right.

Previously: MP’s discipline, Cheques and Balances, Margaret Moran

Margaret Moran

May 10, 2009


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An M.P. is supposed to spend time in the constituency she represents, and also in Parliament. Margaret Moran represents Luton South.

Now, it is perfectly possible to live in Luton South and work in Central London – I know, because I’ve done it for over a decade. I’ve spent 2 hours a day, five days a week on a train for that time, costing me getting on for four thousand pounds a year at today’s prices. Note that this is not considered a legitimate expense, so I have to pay income tax on the money I spend traveling.

So I’m a little bit miffed that my MP gets the maintenance of her second home in London counted as a legitimate expense that she doesn’t have to pay tax on. More than that, since the expense is paid by her employer, the state, she not only doesn’t pay tax on it, she doesn’t pay at all.

Now, a bunch of people have been complaining about all this for a while. Good luck to them, but in my merely “miffed” state, I haven’t bothered to join in.

After all, there is one small difference between me and my MP. I chose to live 20 miles from my place of work, her role as an MP means she more or less needs to. So there is some thin kind of argument about her 2-location life being more of a necessary expense than mine. Irritating, but not worth making a huge fuss about.

And now details have been published, it emerges she claimed GBP22,500 for dry rot treatment for her second home.

In Southampton.

OK, now I am no longer miffed.
(For the geographically challenged, Southampton is 80 miles from Westminster, and 94 from Luton)

There is a video of her making pathetic justifications on the BBC. Again, the reason why my employer is not allowed to pay my train fare, even if it wanted to, is because I do not have to live such a distance from my office. There are all sorts of good reasons why I choose to do so, but at the end of the day, I have to pay the fare out of my taxed income because it’s my lifestyle choice.

Moran says that it is essential for her to have three properties because her partner lives in Southampton. Well, guess what. My wife lives in Luton, but that doesn’t mean I can claim the costs of being based in Luton and London as a business expense. It was her choice to come to Luton to run for Parliament, and it is her choice to have a partner who won’t move from Southampton, and reasonable as those choices may be, they are her choices to spend her own money on.

(There was a time when candidates who came to an area in order to stand were frowned upon. I don’t think that’s important – the “local” element of M.P. work is not sensible – but if candidates do want to move from their homes to another area where they think they’ll get elected, they can do so at their own expense.)

Cheques and Balances

April 21, 2009


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Apparently Gordon Brown is clamping down on M.P.s’ expenses. It’s good to see the executive branch fulfilling its traditional role of holding Parliament to account, particularly on spending matters.

Actually that sounds slightly odd somehow… well, whatever.

Being serious, I think M.P.s turn to shameless looting as they come to terms with their dwindling influence. It’s not that they’re completely powerless. If that were the case they would have nothing to lose by actually taking a principled stand against the government, and might cause some actual disturbance. But as we know, the job of the civil service is to make sure the chips stay up, and M.P.s are left with just enough power to keep them playing. However, this is not enough to justify having devoted one’s life to climbing the greasy pole, so they satisfy themselves with mere money.

MPs' Discipline

May 26, 2008


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The fiction which gives legitimacy to our government is that the process of having elections every five years disciplines MPs to act in the general interest. Whatever comes out of Parliament is the “result of the democratic process”.

The significance of Ann and Alan Keen counting ten thousand a year of what is basically an investment as an expense, and getting it signed off as such, is not in the cost itself – the hundred million a year or so that MPs take for themselves is a small part of their impact – it is that this conclusively disproves the legitimacy theory.

If, as the theory holds, MPs are constrained to act in the public interest, then everything they officially do must be in the public interest. Pocketing an extra ten grand a year, effectively in cash, is not in the public interest. Therefore the MPs are not so constrained. Q.E.D.

As a corollary, there is no reason to believe that anything else they do is in the public interest either.

via Devil’s Kitchen


March 8, 2008


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I haven’t yet commented on the spectacle of numerous Members of Parliament being caught with their hand in the till.

I didn’t see it as an immediately pressing issue; the money would be taken from us anyway, because they can, and if they didn’t steal it they’d only squander it on public services. Why should some worthless Capacity Building Officer or PFI salesman get the money rather than the Speaker of the House or a Tory MP’s children?

It’s not even unfair. Nobody is excluded from political power by birth. Anyone with the sheer determination and single-mindedness to dedicate their entire lives to the soul-destroying business of working politics, can, with only a little luck, achieve lucrative office. A modicum of intelligence or charisma can help, but are clearly not essential: it’s just a long hard slog of inane meetings with morons, and overriding your own idiotic beliefs at every opportunity with whatever different idiotic opinions will advance your career. No worthwhile human being would take the job on for the prospect of a million a year, so there’s little reason to worry even about pulling people away from productive work.

On the other hand, so long as the politicians’ avarice and dishonesty is sufficiently publicised, it will have immense practical benefit. So many people in this country labour under the illusion that government exists to serve the people. Dispelling this will draw attention away from what government purportedly does for us, and onto what government does to us. Democracy or not, the people have some influence over government by virtue of their capacity for civil disobedience, riot, and assassination, but this influence is currently misdirected towards what the government does with its ill-gotten gains, rather than to what it takes and what it does to secure itself.

So corruption: I’m in favour of it, and I want to hear all about it.

I didn’t always think this way about MPs, but when my MEP, one of the only elected representatives I have ever voted for, attracted some controversy, I was immediately delighted – the notion that EU funds could end up in any better place than his private bank account never occurred to me.

See also this old Theodore Dalrymple article, suggesting that Italy’s murderously corrupt governments have been generally for their country than our relatively honest ones. (via Brian Micklethwait)

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