Friday, 15 May 2009

Public anger can cleanse our democracy better than any enquiry

Speaker Michael Martin was quick to authorise a police enquiry into the leak of MPs' expense claims from the Fees Office. This highlights how firmly he has clung to the wrong end of the stick. It would be more appropriate to hold an enquiry into management of the Fees Office itself.

The Fees Office is managed by the House of Commons Commission, chaired by Speaker Martin. According to Kate Hoey MP, although excessive claims by MPs have been a long term problem the widespread scale of excesses has only developed in very recent years.

The limited skills of the present Speaker are well established, which places additional focus on the role of the Commons Chief Executive, Clerk of the House, Dr Graham Jack. The Clerk occupies his post by Royal appointment, a precedent dating back to 1363; his distinguished predecessors include Sir Thomas Erskine May.

Dr Jack's wide ranging responsibilities within the House, including being the Speaker's closest advisor, appear onerous (although he appears to also maintain a rewarding second career as an international novelist). He has overseen a culture fostered by the House Fees Office in which MPs have felt a right, even a compulsion, to maximise their claims.

Mixed messages concerning the Fees Office have appeared in the Press. According to the Evening Standard, over two years ago Dr Jack was warned before the all-party Public Administration Select Committee that MPs were unhappy about junior House staff questioning them over their home expenses. The MPs' message was to warn House staff off. On the other hand, many MPs, particularly the newer entrants, claim the Fees Office was virtually forcing cash into their hands, recommending they make claims to take full advantage of their allowances.

Clearly Fees Office staff and their managers have been fully aware that MPs have abused the spirit and the letter of the regulations set out in the Commons' Green Book. Speaker Martin has been content to support and take advantage of this practice. Dr Jack is also fully implicated in maintaining a system that the public now regards as totally corrupt.

But the problem with calling in the police to investigate the accounting procedures of the House is that the rules are the House's rules, voted for by MPs. There is no law above the House's law and whether or not they obey their own rules remains entirely up to MPs. Tax fraud is a matter for the Inland Revenue. But there is no law to sanction lawmakers' self-sanctioned greed.

Yet, democracy requires that MPs remain in charge of their own affairs. Despite all appearances that they have become an out-of-touch elite, MPs are not only public servants but also the public's own representatives. Listening and responding to their electorate may bring our representatives back to reality. Public anger is the only sanction our democracy has.

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