When I talk to teenagers about politics one of the most common reactions I hear about the Conservative Party is summed up a 15 year old girl who said to me:
‘Conservatives – aren’t they just for posh people?’
If we are honest, most of us in our hearts know that the biggest image problem we have is the perception of many people that we are a party for the comfortably off, or at lest for those who aspire to be comfortably off. That is an image that we fundamentally have to change if we are to win the next election.
Now oddly enough it is the MPs' expenses issue that may give us the opportunity to do this.
The question that we need to raise in public debate is this. How many ordinary people could afford to become either an MP or a member of the House of Lords? If this answer is ‘not many’ then we have a problem with our democracy.
To become an MP not only do you have to give up a huge amount of time to as a candidate – something many of us are happy to do; you may also have to fund some of your own campaign; then during the actual election campaign pay your mortgage and support your family while you have unpaid leave from work. This may be no small issue if your spouse has given up their career to concentrate on the family while you are out campaigning. There were in fact a number of Conservative candidates reported to be facing serious financial hardship during the last election campaign. Others have spoken of it having taken several years to pay off their overdrafts after previous unsuccessful election campaigns. This in itself is an issue that we need to address.
Then if you do get elected you have to continue supporting your family without receiving any pay until parliament actually sits. Meanwhile, you will have vast amounts of casework piling up immediately. You will need to rent an office, employ staff etc. You will need to find money to stay in London, either the cost of a hotel or advance rent on a flat. In short, you are likely to run up several thousands of pounds of expenses paid for from your own bank account, which you will have to wait for IPSA to repay. Moreover, under the way IPSA currently operates, this situation appears likely to continue – with newly elected MPs, some no doubt with already significant overdrafts from the election period, being owed hundreds if not thousands of pounds on a regular basis by IPSA.
Now if you are fortunate enough to be appointed to the Lords – and ‘fortune’ is probably the most apt word – the situation is even worse. Even though the Lords sit for similar lengths of time to the Commons, members of the House of Lords are not even paid at all, they can merely claim expenses, a situation which almost inevitably leads to a culture of maximising expenses. For which reasons one cannot help but suspect that there may well be a few more expenses scandals to come out of the Lords.
I suspect that more than half of us on the last parliamentary candidates list, if offered a seat in the Lords, would have to think very hard indeed about how we would support our families. This is a situation that is fundamentally unhealthy for the second chamber of parliament and needs urgent reform, whether or not it is accompanied by a wider reform of the Lords.
The MPs' expenses scandal ,as with many problems in the public services, appears to be partly due to the culture in the organisation. This was not merely a culture among a sizeable minority of MPs. It was also within the Fees Office, which actively encouraged MPs to claim their full ‘expenses’ and when the expenses scandal broke appeared frustratingly reluctant to investigate some well supported complaints of expenses abuse, despite pressure from the Parliamentary Commissioner’s office. The problems that have emerged with IPSA also appear to be due to the management culture of the organisation that seems to focus more on ‘not letting anyone get away with it’ – than on what should be its primary function i.e. ensuring the smooth running of the nation’s parliament at a publicly accountable cost.
We have forgotten why parliamentary expenses were introduced in the first place. It was to ensure that in a democracy anyone, regardless of wealth, could afford to be elected as a Member of Parliament.
The problems are compounded by IPSA’s lack of public accountability for its own actions, something that stems from the oddity of its constitutional position. The British constitution that has evolved over the last 800 years rests on the relationships between three bodies – HM Government, Parliament and the Judiciary. IPSA, uniquely, does not actually fit into any of these because it is not a government department and, unlike the Commons Fees Office, is independent of Parliament. As such, it is a powerful public body that in practice is accountable to no one for its actions. This is a situation that Parliament urgently needs to find a way of addressing.
Now, given the very justified public anger at the expenses scandal, it is no easy matter for either Parliament or the Government to propose changes to the way IPSA, the body set up to replace the Fees Office, works. The old adage ‘legislate in haste and repent at leisure’ certainly seems to ring true.
However, an opportunity to solve this conundrum can be provided by the party leadership giving a concerted focus to presenting the party as an inclusive party of people of all income groups, who are working together for the national good. This needs to go much further than just reforming IPSA. However, as far as IPSA is concerned I would suggest that they be given not a prescription of what to do, but a set of principles to apply.
I would suggest that these principles should include:
1. It should be possible for anyone to become an MP without needing to have any private savings or wealth to draw on. This is fundamental to the working of a modern democracy and IPSA needs to have that much more clearly in focus than they appear to do at the moment.
2. In a democracy MPs are elected to pass carefully considered legislation and to hold government ministers to account. It is therefore essential that the amount of administration they have to do in relation to claiming expenses essential to fulfilling that task be kept to a minimum. Stories of MPs sitting up until midnight completing administration required by IPSA would suggest that the current system may be undermining the ability of MPs to do what they were elected to do.
3. IPSA should focus on MPs being accountable to the public who elected them, rather than accountable to IPSA, which as a non-governmental body is actually accountable to no one. That is how a democracy works.
4. The regime must be family-friendly. It is entirely reasonable that those who as a result of sitting in Parliament are routinely separated from their families during the week, should be provided with accommodation near Westminster that allows their spouses and school age children to stay with them in London during school holidays.
5. Members of the House of Lords who sit for similar lengths of time to MPs need to be treated in a comparable fashion. It is essential that any reform of the House of Lords includes members of the second chamber being paid a salary comparable to MPs. To expect people to work nearly full-time without a salary is almost inevitably to invite misuse of expenses, as well as excluding all but those with independent private incomes from the second chamber.
Principles such as these could be worked out in a variety of ways. For example, MPs could be provided with a series of publicly-owned flats all within a mile or so of Parliament, in which they are not responsible for maintenance, utility and council tax bills etc. Such solutions could actually save money in the medium term; Staff employed by MPs could be paid directly by IPSA, thereby removing some of the administration load from MPs and the need for them to use their own overdraft facilities. However, it is important that IPSA be given the principles and allowed to come up with solutions itself.
It is essential that the public hear a clear message that this is being done to ensure that anyone, regardless of wealth, can become an MP. That is essential to a modern functioning democracy.
It must also be accompanied by a series of other measures designed to get across the message that the Conservative Party is there for everyone, regardless of wealth, income or social background. Quite how we do that would be an extremely useful discussion for us to have on ConservativeHome. However, I would suggest at least one further specific measure in that respect that should be considered.
The message we need to get across to the public is that we want to make it possible for ordinary people, including those from the caring professions, charity workers, teachers, nurses etc to be able to become MPs. A very practical step to enable this to happen would be allowing parliamentary candidates who have taken unpaid leave from their employment between the nomination date and the day of the election to claim a tax free grant of around £2,000 provided they gain more than 5% of the vote i.e. retain their deposit. This could alleviate some very real hardship among parliamentary candidates and would be a relatively small part of the cost of holding an election. It would not only be the right thing to do in terms of widening participation in democracy, it would also send out a clear signal that the Conservative Party is the party of aspiration, where anyone regardless of wealth or social background can aspire to be an MP.