TOPIC GUIDE: MPs expenses

"The response to the 2009 MPs expenses scandal will strengthen democracy"

PUBLISHED: 22 Jan 2010

AUTHOR: Dolan Cummings

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INTRODUCTION

In May 2009 the Daily Telegraph newspaper obtained previously unpublished details of the expenses claimed by Members of Parliament (MPs) and paid in addition to their salaries [Ref: Daily Telegraph]. When the paper ran a series of articles revealing some of these expense claims, a scandal erupted [Ref: Daily Telegraph]. It transpired that most politicians, of all parties, were claiming more than the public had expected, and that some were claiming extravagant amounts. Rather than claiming only for work-related travel or to cover office costs, for example, some MPs claimed for expensive items for personal use, such as widescreen TVs, or, notoriously, a duck house [Ref: Guardian]. MPs are also allowed to claim for the costs of a second home, since they have to spend time in Parliament in London as well as in their often far-off constituencies, but some MPs ‘flipped’ between homes in order to claim as much as possible, or even claimed for homes used by other members of their families [Ref: Guardian]. The media filled up with angry condemnations of these practices [Ref: Sun], and demands for reform [Ref: Guardian]. The government responded by establishing the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to propose changes. Some see this as an opportunity to restore faith in politicians [Ref: Independent] and strengthen democracy [Ref: Western Morning News], but others worry that the anti-politician mood is more likely to institutionalise cynicism and damage democracy [Ref: Guardian].

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MPs expenses DEBATE IN CONTEXT

This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Why did MPs expenses become such a big scandal?
Even when they are directly elected by the public, politicians are rarely very popular. In the past generation, though, membership of political parties has declined, and the public has shown much less interest in politics. Critics worry that whereas politicians in the past often had experience in business or the trade unions, and had a proper understanding of their constituents’ needs and interests, today’s ‘political class’ is cut off from the rest of society. The expenses scandal seemed to confirm the suspicion that politicians were only out for their own interests. Partly because of their unpopularity, however, politicians have long been reluctant to vote for higher pay for themselves, even in line with rising salaries across the rest of society, and expenses thus became an informal supplement to MPs’ pay. In that sense, the scandal reveals a deeper problem with the relationship between politicians and the public [Ref: Open Democracy]. Moreover. coming amid a major economic downturn, the issue became a lightning rod for broader dissatisfaction with the political class, even expressing a loss of belief in politics itself [Ref: spiked].

What changes have been proposed?
In general terms, critics of MPs’ expense claims - as well as politicians themselves - have called for greater transparency about how MPs are compensated. Some have argued that they should be made to make do with less, but others have suggested they should be given a pay rise [Ref: The Times] to enable them to live reasonably well without questionable expenses [Ref: Independent]. Crucially, though, it is widely agreed that MPs should no longer be allowed to decide their own pay. While this might seem an odd privilege that should obviously be got rid of it is important to remember than MPs are elected by the public. According to the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, no outside body has the right to interfere in the business of our elected representatives; if we are unhappy with their conduct, it is up to us to vote them out [Ref: Parliament]. Nonetheless, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority looks set to take on responsibility for deciding MPs pay when it becomes operational in April 2010, and it is expected to be a popular move with voters.

What is at stake in the debate?

One important aspect of the debate is a conflict between different ways of thinking about MPs. Those calling for change often ask why politicians should have special treatment: in any other line of business, employees have to account fully for their expenses, so why should MPs be any different [Ref: Guardian]? And given that they work for us, shouldn’t we the public have full knowledge of how they spend our money? Others insist that, as elected representatives, MPs are not just civil servants, but delegates of the people, and thus worthy of respect [Ref: London Review of Books]. From this perspective, treating MPs like naughty children actually degrades democracy, while rules imposed by unelected officials undermine the principle of parliamentary sovereignty [Ref: The Times]. The House of Commons is the one part of the state directly elected by the people, and thus traditionally takes precedence over other political institutions. Supporters of this principle argue that only MPs themselves have the right to make and change the rules, as only they are directly accountable to the public. Nonetheless, the expenses scandal has highlighted the fact that few people today look up to politicians as leaders, and the proposed changes would reflect a more modest and mundane understanding of the role of MPs. Whether this represents a degradation or strengthening of democracy depends on what kind of democracy we want. Supporters of these changes argue that, with a general election pending, curbing the power of MPs to set their own pay will help restore public faith in government [Ref: BBC News]. Critics argue that bashing politicians and curbing the authority of parliament will weaken rather than strengthen democracy [Ref: spiked].

ESSENTIAL READING

It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

FOR

From anger into change

Anthony Barnett openDemocracy 22 June 2009

Democracy ‘will be strengthened by scandal’

Western Morning News 22 May 2009

We’re at a true turning point. The future must be fairer

Steve Richards Independent 14 May 2009

AGAINST

Who else was going to cut my lawn? The cat?

Anne Widdecombe Independent 24 May 2009

A climate of loathing towards all MPs is bad for democracy

Andrew Rawnsley Observer 23 May 2009

Paying politicians is good for democracy

Tim Black spiked 13 May 2009

Pull the bath plug and let out the dirty water

Matthew Paris The Times 8 May 2009

IN DEPTH

The Irresistible Itch

Colin Kidd London Review of Books 3 December 2009

Why I couldn’t draw a full MP’s salary

Anneliese Dodds Guardian Comment is free 23 November 2009

Taking refuge in the rhetoric of reform

Frank Furedi spiked 25 May 2009

KEY TERMS

Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.

BACKGROUNDERS

Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

ORGANISATIONS

Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.

IN THE NEWS

Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.

AUDIO/VISUAL

MPs expenses: Towers and Garlic Peelers

Sky News 10 December 2009

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