Richard Heller: How MPs can resolve to restore the public’s trust

MPs need to resolve to regain the trust of voters in 2016, says Richard Heller, by working harder.
MPs need to resolve to regain the trust of voters in 2016, says Richard Heller, by working harder.
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A FEW months ago Lord Bew, the eminent historian who chairs the Committee on Standards in Public Life, was very gloomy about the prospect of restoring trust in Britain’s politicians. He said: “In the short term, it simply is not going to happen.”

His gloom was overdone. To lift their reputation, MPs should adopt some simple New Year resolutions – and stick to them.

“I will work harder.” Although they frequently whine about their workload and the stress on their family life, MPs have one of the easiest jobs in the world.

Their only real duty is to turn up and vote on a three-line whip. All other activity is voluntary. Three-line votes almost never happen after Wednesday, so a long weekend is guaranteed even if the House is sitting – which in the last Parliament averaged less than half the year.

The strain on MPs’ family life has never compared with that faced by service personnel, junior doctors, aircraft and merchant navy crews, people keeping small businesses afloat and millions of workers who face long hours or demanding travel or difficult shifts.

However, MPs unblushingly gave themselves “family-friendly” hours in 2012. These made it even easier for the government to control them, and ensured that in the final 12-month session of the last Parliament MPs sat for 989 hours – an average of 19 hours a week.

Constituents’ problems call for another resolution: “I will work harder at my real job.”

Far too many MPs turn themselves into glorified social workers or super-councillors for their constituents. They work prodigiously and proudly on issues which have nothing to do with them, such as re-housing or local bus routes, or get immersed in individual grievances.

It is a regular trap for new MPs – using the constituency as displacement activity because they cannot find a worthwhile role in the House.

MPs generally spend far too much time in their constituencies. Any government is always happy to see MPs disappear from Westminster. This makes it that much easier to misgovern the country.

“I will be a better legislator.” For at least 50 years, MPs have been rotten in their primary role of scrutinising legislation. Inevitably, they will pass bad laws from time to time but there is no excuse for passing laws which are defectively drafted and have to be cleaned up by volunteers in the House of Lords.

This happens regularly because Government MPs, whether in committee or on the floor of the House, are expected to get the Government’s business through and opposition MPs table amendments for obstruction, point-scoring and grandstanding.

MPs of all parties should automatically refuse to pass any clause in a Bill which they cannot understand.

MPs should also pay better attention to the immense body of law which they nod through as statutory instruments – which almost never get debated.

The Government brought in over 3,500 of them last year. Some sound as though they might have been important – for example, the Deduction from Wages (Limitation) Regulations – but only four MPs even looked at them, the unsung members on the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

In October, the House of Lords outraged the Government by throwing out a statutory instrument. It affected millions of people, by limiting eligibility for tax credits. Despite some protests, MPs had nodded it through. When was the last time MPs rejected a statutory instrument? It was 1979, over price controls on paraffin – and almost certainly this happened by accident.

MPs should also be more active on EU legislation, which is processed by 16 gallant souls on the European Scrutiny Committee. MPs cannot stop any of this stuff, but it would boost their public standing if they occasionally forced the relevant Minister to say: “I can barely understand this measure and what I can understand I don’t believe in and we’re doing this only because of the EU.”

In 1983 Alan Clark said something like this after a long wine-tasting session, but no Minister has shown the same honesty since then.

“I will abolish expenses and allowances.” MPs should vote themselves a proper salary with no hidden frills or extras, and the same sort of contributory pension scheme as a private person on the same salary.

They should add one fixed allowance for the cost of office services to their constituents. Their use of this should be completely transparent – if any of it is spent on a life partner or relative, their electors should know and judge this.

“I will pay tax on any free trip or gift I receive.” MPs should honestly admit that no one would give them a set of handkerchiefs unless they were MPs.

Any hospitality, gifts and free trips should therefore be taxed at the top rate as part of their income.

This would give a small uplift to the Exchequer and an even bigger uplift to their reputation. If it deterred MPs from accepting freebies and jollies, so much the better.

Underlying all of these is a simple resolution. It should be automatic but lately it has been much neglected, which is why politicians have lost so much trust and respect: “I will behave the way my constituents are expected to behave.”

Richard Heller is a former adviser to Denis Healey.