I’m not a fan of swimming against the tide, because it’s an energy-intensive pastime and in politics you have to take people with you if you’re going to be effective. But I can’t help thinking we’ve all got rather too hysterical about MPs’ pay and expenses in recent days.
I don’t wish to exonerate Jacqui Smith, Tony McNulty or any other MPs who have submitted dubious expenses claims. There are bad apples in every barrel, and I don’t know whether they count as bad apples or not – we have a parliamentary standards commissioner to judge that. What I do know is that being an MP is a fiendishly difficult job, and that people need to understand that before they condemn MPs for what they earn and claim.
When you’re an MP, your life is barely your own. You’re expected to be on call pretty much the whole time, you’re every move is monitored, you can’t even get irritated with an overzealous parking attendant without someone seeing it and citing it as a bad example of how to behave. The hours are long, job security uncertain, and the privacy virtually non-existent, to the point where it can drag in innocent victims like an MP’s partner and children.
It’s better for those in the south-east, because they spend less time travelling than those from further afield, but it’s hardly surprising many spouses end up working for their other halves – it may be the only time they see each other! I’ve never met an MP of any party who hasn’t had moments of wondering whether it’s all worthwhile, nor a parliamentary candidate who hasn’t questioned whether he/she is a mug for standing (this mug included).
You may say it’s a voluntary profession that one doesn’t have to apply for. But many people go into politics to do some good and are then sucked into an artificial world where the original aim gets lost in the mire of political mechanisms. So if they’re paid £63,000 a year and are allowed to claim some expenses, is the system really at fault, just because a few people abuse it and one prominent MP’s husband watches a couple ‘adult’ films?
Of course we could pay MPs the average salary of around £30,000. But then a lot of good people will decide it just isn’t worth the hassle, we’ll end up with a worse House of Commons intake, and we’ll be moaning about the quality of our politicians even more than we do at present. Do we really want that?
I’m not saying nothing should be reformed. MPs must stick to the letter and spirit of the rules, and the idea that MPs with London constituencies should have second-home allowances is ridiculous and open to abuse.
But let’s get our priorities right. Most MPs are clean, and paid less than their counterparts in other countries (and MEPs). And if we’re going to have a go at Jacqui Smith, it’s much more important to condemn her actions over holding suspects without charge, ID cards and other threats to our civil liberties than whether she’s signed an expenses claim that includes a couple of films her husband watched that we wouldn’t want our children seeing.