10 May 2009

No expense spared

The Daily Telegraph has been enjoying itself this week, watching the government squirm as it teases out revelations about its MPs' expenses. While this is heralded as a great scoop by the Telegraph, it's hardly Woodward and Bernstein - and symptomatic of the decline of investigative journalism. Rather than spend months tracking down a story, it's easier to just pay an insider for a bunch of emails and reprint them more or less verbatim. With little understanding or context provided for any of the expenses claims, it's the easiest, laziest way of generating a salacious story - but one that is, of course, ultimately of parliament's own making.

The risk here is of losing sight of why we have such systems, as much of the embarrassment relates to the provision and furnishing of MPs' second homes. No-one seems to have bothered to say that it is very important MPs should have accommodation in London, payed out of taxation, in order to allow them to do their duty. A return to Rotten Boroughs is the implication of any other system. So clearly there must be a middle ground - a way of providing for anyone to perform the duty of MP regardless of income, while eliminating the sort of expenses claims that makes Enron look like a model of probity. And I think I have discovered it.

The Palace of Westminster, to give both houses of Parliament their formal name, is a pretty large place. Large enough for 13 bars, countless committee rooms, expansive reception chambers and offices. So why not build a block of one bedroom apartments for all MPs whose constituencies are beyond greater London? This would both ensure that all MPs could have room and board to be able to perform their duties, they would be close enough to attend all the late sittings they so vigorously whine about, and miss out on a tiresome commute during the day. If I were feeling generous, I'd throw in a gym and canteen - it would certainly be cheaper than paying for fixing dry rot, private security patrols or second lavatory seats. The Palace itself is well protected, so there would be no question of added security risk.

If MPs weren't satisfied with this, of course, they'd be perfectly entitled to rent their own accommodation off-site, out of their salary. Indeed, since they would have been given Westminster accommodation, they could use their salary to pay for their normal house back in the constituency they represent, thereby getting around the problem of "flipping" benefits from their London house to their constituency house that has been widely reported. Of course the career of an MP can be risky, and for those unable to secure a mortgage on a constituency home would be entitled to receive a government mortgage to cover the cost, and even give a grace period for a "bridging loan" to allow them time to find a new job, should they be unfortunate to be voted out of office.

If you ask any MP why they chose to run for office, the stock answer is that they want to make a contribution to society. With my system we'd be able to test if this were true, and not the other way around.

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