A number of my American friends have asked me to explain the furore, the public’s mood of disgust and anger. It’s simple, isn’t it? Our politicians can bend the rules and obscure the truth. Orwell’s 1984 has landed in 2009. “Expenses” is “pay”, as the political pigs take over the trough.
Those who have worked in the commercial sector will know that being imaginative with expenses is both an art form and a duel with scrutinising accountants. When I had a company car, a car wash payment of £1.00 was once disallowed on grounds that I should have washed the vehicle in my own time. I argued that this was unfair, arbitrary and wrong. On appeal to the managing director, my claim was upheld. No surprise there: I knew the MD claimed the same expense.
This case goes far beyond a one-pound car wash, however, especially in a time of self-imposed national austerity. It is argued by Westminster wonks that it has not been possible to pay these public servants the market rate. What market? They now earn £67,000 annually, a sum far in excess of the UK average wage.
To supplement these meagre earnings, a system of expenses was devised by civil servants in the 1980s which has evolved into a massive abuse of privilege. While expenses have always been a grey area, the MPs have turned it purple. It seems that in the bubble that is Westminster, many of our representatives believe they are entitled to the maximum expenses as a right, with greed taking over from common sense and decency.
Members' expenses now have a life of their own, labyrinthine and distinct from the practices of lay persons as they take-home pay into six figures. A culture has developed where cheating becomes acceptable; fictions such as “flipping homes” are the default position and tax evasion, if not avoidance, is legitimate. I have no doubt that newly elected MPs were encouraged by experienced pols, not to mention the rubber-stamp fees office, to perpetuate the system and not to rock the boat by exposing its excesses.
I understand why Americans are confused by the dark practices of Westminster. Members of the US Congress currently earn a salary of $174,000. Party leaders and the Speaker of the House are paid more. Significantly, however, no allowances whatsoever are permitted for a second residence, notwithstanding that virtually every American federal legislator has a longer commute than any MP.
Less affluent junior members live in their offices and shower in the House gym. Many operate on what is called the Tuesday to Thursday Club, arriving in Washington DC late on Monday or early Tuesday and leaving Thursday evening to save money. Another arrangement, one more likely pursued by senior members, is to move their family to Washington and maintain a small residence, use the home of a relative, or even "live" from a mailbox address in their Congressional district.
The cost of trips to Washington is defrayed from an expense account created from monies raised by the legislator, not taxpayers. Travel and rental of office space in the district is paid out of this account. All receipts and payments must be published and are scrutinized by both federal and state authorities.
In a land where speech is equated with money, it is comforting to know that legislators are both legally restricted and strictly scrutinized on sums which can be converted to personal use. The American system is transparent and seems to be simplicity itself.
I do not suggest that all American legislators are squeaky clean. Illinois Governor Blagojevich was caught with fingers in the cookie jar just a few months ago when he tried to sell the Senate seat left vacant by the then President-Elect Obama. But the contrast needs to be emphasised. As it stands, American legislators must make a positive decision to cheat; British counterparts need to make a positive decision not to do so. The clean up of the expenses system has started but has a long way to go. I am fed up with hearing that an expense is “within the rules” when individual MPs must have known that the rules themselves, the rules of the club, were wrong.
There is now talk in Westminster that we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change our informal constitution and make our legislators more accountable. One idea being floated is to remove the Prime Minister’s prerogative of choice of date of an election. Surely much more is needed. We suffer from an overwhelmingly powerful executive which has increasingly strangled the initiative of the legislative branch. We have an unelected second chamber, some of whose members sit in the judiciary as the most senior judges of the land. Separation of powers does not exist.
Lesser reforms could include changes to Prime Minister’s Question Time, often a farce as stooges put forward sycophantic questions designed to put the government in a good light rather than test our chief executive. For those readers who have sat in the Commons watching a debate, they will know it is poorly attended and remarks made from the benches are often the worst kind of sledging, more fitted to a soccer field. It is time for the Parliamentary boys and girls to behave as responsible men and women, answerable and transparent to their electorate.
America has a written constitution which has stood the test of time and works, with separation of powers strengthening American democracy. In the 1980s, the Senate was exposed for its un-American privileges, such as committee chairs being chosen by longevity, not ability. It took little time to reform its practices.
The beauty of American democracy is that no one needs to trust anyone else. Checks and balances take care of that. President Clinton expressed his jealousy of Prime Minister Blair’s powers for good reason. Governing should be difficult, but under our British system, passing a law is simplicity itself if the prime minister wants it. Arguably, if our cabinet had a tougher political life seeking to pass legislation, it would pay greater attention to MPs as a more independent scrutinising body. In turn, it would have kept its eye on the ball and not allowed both Houses of Parliament to fall into disrepute over grotesque cheating in the expenditure of public funds and exchange of money for legislative influence.