How trust broke down in Britain
The Bruges Group is pleased to announce the publication of A Crisis of Trust by Stuart Wheeler. It examines, in detail, the political culture that has grown up in Britain since our accession to the EU. And it shows how the expenses crisis is thoroughly the consequence of our suffering from a ‘Europeanised’ political class – with lavish expenses, PR and centralised party machines all playing their part.
A Crisis of Trust is a counter-blast to the conventional wisdom on the Westminster MPs expenses scandal. The speed with which the three main parties have fallen-in behind the recommendations of Sir Christopher Kelly’s Committee on Standards in Public Life is widely interpreted as proof that the next Parliament will be cleansed of the abuses that have brought our political life into contempt. If only it was this simple. For, as Stuart Wheeler demonstrates in this trenchantly argued critique, the new rules are based upon flawed logic and fundamental misconceptions. They will fail to restore our faith in our politicians because they misconstrue what the proper role of a modern MP should be.
It would be tempting to imagine that a change of government will solve these and many of the other problems that beset our public life. Unfortunately, we are likely to be disappointed by David Cameron, who for all his grandstanding on the subject, has shown an unerring ability to spot the main political advantage from the expenses scandal without demonstrating an appreciation of what needs to be done. His party’s formal submission to the Kelly Committee defended the payment of mortgage interest relief to MPs. The idea that the public purse is there to subsidise the private profit of politicians has been one of the most noxious aspects of this sorry saga. If the leader of the Opposition does not get that, he has not got very much.
We have seen how politicians, left to regulate their own pay and allowances, have behaved. Kelly has therefore concluded that they should relinquish their responsibility, with their pay and allowances being set by the Senior Salaries Review Board (SSRB) and administered by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA). In reality, this divorce is not the path to reconciliation.
Stuart Wheeler shows how far from rescuing democracy, this approach abrogates it by insulating politicians from proper accountability. MPs have to have a say on their pay so that the public can have a say on their pay. MPs milked the system because there were able to keep their claims secret. It is full disclosure, not the existence of unaccountable bodies like the SSRB and the IPSA that will instil modest and appropriate claims at the taxpayer’s expense.
For Kelly’s approach risks producing the worst of both worlds – stripping politicians of being accountable to the electorate for their terms and conditions without having the means to meet out fitting punishment to those who break the rules. The IPSA’s main sanction will be to withhold future payments to MPs it finds have made improper claims until they have repaid their ill-gotten gains. Tough on crime? It is a chancer’s charter.
Indeed, it could hardly be otherwise. For the effectiveness of Kelly’s proposals are fatally undermined by rules that ensure that any regulatory regime dealing with parliament has to observe the convention that only the House of Commons can discipline its own members. This is simply wrong. Fraudulent expenses claims should be treated as theft plain and simple. As Wheeler points out, just as the church and the military have their own courts, so should Parliament. In addition to normal penalties for theft, this judicial body must have the power to expel guilty MPs from the Commons.
By contrast, the Kelly approach risks achieving precisely what it should avoid – the entrenchment of a political class, regulated like a wing of the civil service and retaining all the full-time employment rights including a “resettlement” (redundancy in any other language) payment when they lose their seats at a general election. Wheeler argues that we will all be the losers if legislators are further encouraged to remove themselves from the wider community. If an MP can be expected to take a second job running a government department, why can an MP be deemed ineligible from gaining any other form of experience?
What indeed are MPs for? Are they there to submit legislation to detailed scrutiny or behave like a one-stop-shop for constituents unhappy about the quality of service provided by their local council? In the past decade, the number of staff assisting MPs grew from 1,753 to 2,694 – and all this at a time when devolution within the UK and the transferral of powers beyond it to Brussels lightened the politicians’ responsibilities. Wheeler calls for an urgent re- examination into what MPs are at Westminster to do.
Wheeler calls for our MPs to be independent of their leaders. MPs subservient to their party machines, and dependent upon them for their place in the Commons, cannot be expected to argue in the national or local interest. A grievously flawed consensus – on Europe, on the environment and the on the economy – has been the direct consequence of this profound lack of independence.
A Crisis of Trust is an invaluable guide to what has gone wrong and how our shattered parliamentary institutions may yet be put right, written by one of Britain’s most successful and well-informed businessmen. It is essential reading at a time when the issues it addresses have never been in more urgent need of a workable solution.
Copies are free for members of the Bruges Group, and otherwise, £7.50