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Busy-bee MPs have lost their real purpose, so let’s cull some

In these dark days we all try to find little moments of amusement. Fortunately there is plenty of laughter still to be had at the MPs’ expenses comedy. Now that Sir Christopher Kelly has published his plans to punish MPs for their greediness and their silliness, and consign them to miserable backstreet bedsits, we can all sit back and enjoy their squeals of unselfcritical outrage. What is much more fun, though, is the fury of the MPs’ wives at Kelly’s idea of stopping them working for their husbands. Suzy Gale, married to the Conservative MP Roger Gale, is leading a cross-party group of MPs’ wives — and a few husbands who work for their spouses — who intend to protest vehemently. There have been tantrums in the Commons tearooms and talk of joint legal action. Suzy Gale says Kelly’s proposal is a mess and “we are jolly cross”. Now that’s telling them. How I laughed. I haven’t heard that expression since I left the hockey fields of my old-fashioned girls’ school rather a long time ago. We must not judge people by their dialects, I know, but a mature and educated woman, wife to a veteran legislator, who uses such a locution at such a time can only be called out of touch. Another political female who is comically out of touch on such matters is Helen Goodman, the work and pensions minister. Kelly has recommended that MPs should no longer be allowed to charge for cleaners or gardeners on their expenses. In response to this, Goodman solemnly announced last week that women would be put off standing for parliament unless they could have cleaning ladies on expenses. What’s more, she is accusing Kelly and his reforms of sexism, because it is women who usually do the family cleaning. The best of the joke is that she earns more than £96,000 a year as a politician at Westminster. I wonder why it hasn’t occurred to her to do as the rest of us do and either clean up ourselves or pay for a cleaner out of our own taxed income. Out of £96,000 one might have thought that should be feasible. How on earth does this minister for work imagine other working women manage? Perhaps she somehow doesn’t understand that there are millions of women and men out there who are sorting out their domestic cleaning without handouts from the taxpayer and also managing to confront domestic sexism, should they encounter it, without governmental support. A woman who can’t make her husband help with the housework, one way or another, or handle it on her own is hardly likely to have the political skills one might expect even of the humblest backbencher. Yet this is the calibre of minister that the present system does and must raise up. The funniest thing of all, though, is so many MPs’ passionate protests at the unfairness of all this. “Well,” the rest of us can say, grinning widely, “now you know what it feels like. You, at our expense, have been imposing unfairness upon all the rest of us, in all aspects of our lives, so fast and furiously that we could hardly keep up with the growth of our resentments and your injustices. Of course there’s been a great deal of unfairness to MPs. But if you can’t take it, you shouldn’t dish it out.” What emerges is that we no longer have any clear idea of what an MP is for. All sorts of ill-considered assumptions have led us to the point where we feel obliged to support an MP with his spouse and children, in two households, complete with constant travel, assistants, childminders, gardeners, cleaners, white goods and all the rest. The true cost must be ferocious; it’s normally something only the rich can do. Yet until now the public has not objected to this dubious idea. Most people do object to the sleight of hand by which parliament tried to pay MPs enough to cover all this through the back door of expenses. Even so, it seems, many people still think MPs ought to be able to have a full family life in two places — London and their constituency — and travel constantly as a family between them, but perhaps without any domestic cleaning. Kelly’s idea that MPs should accept a hotel room or bedsit when away from home on parliamentary business has seemed harsh, even to those who loathe politicians: it would be rather gloomy and would be all too likely to encourage yet more adultery and home-wrecking among MPs, who are oddly prone to it anyway. However, given that the MP system is more than ready for creative destruction, if we started from first principles and asked what an MP is for, we might arrive at some radically cost-cutting conclusions. Why is it necessary for MPs to spend so much time in their constituencies anyway? What do they have to do? And why live there? In my view, MPs waste huge amounts of their time and our money in their surgeries, doing things other people should be doing, and doing better: advising people on their problems with planning, healthcare, social services, schools, racism and sexism, dealing with minor grievances and eccentrics and acting — in some places — as paralegals for large numbers of constituents who are having citizenship difficulties with the Home Office. MPs should not be social workers or amateur therapists, or ombudsmen or paralegal outreach workers. They should be something different. But what? Members of parliament once had a function in making Westminster listen, occasionally, to the voice of the shires, the pits, minorities and the concerns of the people they represented. With mass communication and focus groups, that’s no longer necessary: such things can be better done by professionals, and are. MPs once had the function of thinking and voting independently, according to their best judgment. With the parliamentary whipping system, that is now impossible, at least for anyone aspiring to real power above the back benches. MPs once had the function of deciding the main policies of the country. With the growth of the European Union, most of that has been ceded to Brussels. The truth is that the constituencies don’t need them and Westminster doesn’t need them, or at least very many of them, and there’s no good reason we should pay so many so much. We do need more of the best minds on select committees, and more of the ablest from the real world outside. But generally we need fewer MPs, much less of their time and a great deal less of the expense of them. That is a cheering thought.

The Sunday Times | Sunday, November 08, 2009

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