Parliament and politics

If an MP wants the taxpayer to fund a website there should be no party politics or strong opinion on it. If an MP wants to send out a free newsletter paid for by taxpayers, it has to avoid political comment and is best submitted to neutral assessors in Parliament first before being sent out.

An MP, paid for by taxpayers, can be political, but his or her staff must not be political during time in the office paid for by taxpayers. These distinctions are important to the expenses system, but not always understood elsewhere.

When I am undertaking a school visit, for example, I need to ask the basis of the invitation. If they want me to visit as MP and representative of all my constituents, then my Parliamentary office can organise it for me. I have to remember not to make political remarks. If they want me to talk to students as a Conservative politician, I need to ask that they have invited in people from other parties on other occasions to balance , and to remind the pupils that I am speaking politically. In that case the visit should be arranged by the MP or by a political assistant paid for from party money and is probably only appropriate for six forms.

The Parliamentary office can help organise the diary, but again this should be the Parliamentary side of it. MPs have poltiical and private lives, but they should not ask taxpayer funded staff to help with these other aspects.

Many MPs have contracts with political offices to provide Parliamentary services as well. These need to be clearly recorded, and the office providing the service needs to understand the different roles and to provide value for taxpayer money when acting in the Parliamentary capacity.

There could be more issues over the use of taxpayers money to appear when all of this territory gets examined in more detail. Reform of the system will not just be about second homes.

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21 Comments

  1. Posted May 23, 2009 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    So all the McBride type advisers walk a tight rope with frequent steps off and on. In fact they don’t even bother to get on the rope, such is their arrogance!

  2. APL
    Posted May 23, 2009 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    JR: “Reform of the system will not just be about second homes.”

    No, it’s about why and how MPs have come to think that it is OK to charge tax payers for pornographic movies, why MPs think it is OK to have, not just a second home for accommodation in London to allow them to fulfill their obligations as MPs in Parliament, but another property and another property. It’s about how MPs have come to think, they can mine the tax payer for their own personal financial benefit.

    Most of all, it’s about how was it, that during the last ten years not one opposition MP thought that this behavior was, ‘a little unusual’. Or to make a speech in Parliament denouncing the system?

    There are supposed to be more lawyers in Parliament, half the house go on and on about ‘natural justice’, but it didn’t occur to one of them to wonder how this rotten system, would appear to the large majority of people who, pay taxes and others who often struggle by on less than a third of an backbenchers salary.

    Did those people who were elected to represent the wealthy and poor alike, did they once consider the iniquity of the system they have exploited?

  3. ESSEX VOTERS VOICE
    Posted May 23, 2009 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    4 main points emerged from the Group Discussions that ESSEX VOTERS VOICE has run over the past 2 days with voters from all parties.

    1. Why are MPs expenses not being judged against the clear criteria within the existing Green Book? The causes that voters mentioned include:
    * Beyond reproach
    * Necessary for parliamentary duties
    * Not give the impression of improper
    financial benefit to themselves or anyone else
    * Openness
    * Personal responsibility
    Surely there is scope as well as the necessity for repayment.

    2. Despite the PM’s claim, the public do NOT want this government to ‘muddle on’. They Do want an early general election as soon as trustworthy ‘runners and riders’ have been sifted and selected. Any date beyond early autumn is unacceptable.

    3. Whist the ‘plague on all your parties’ attitude exists there is a clear belief that the election of the Blair government in 1997 was the major milestone in the descent of decency.
    Indeed Mr Blair’s perceived lies over Iraq and his subsequent ‘nest feathering’ were quoted as significant standards that have influenced Westminster, possibly subliminally.

    4. A change of government is seen as a necessary but probably successful way re-establishing proper standards of government.

    In conclusion we can take heart that the public has at last engaged with the political process. Also they have the necessary judgement to differentiate between right and wrong and the clarity of thought to see a way out of the current mess.

  4. Brian Tomkinson
    Posted May 23, 2009 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    Reform of the system needs to be thorough and also extend beyond Parliament to all councils, public bodies and quangos. How many billions of taxpayers’ money are being paid and claimed in those bodies? Are there abuses there as in Parliament? I should expect there are. In addition to stopping financial misuse of taxpayers’ money, we need to restore the proper role of MPs in Parliament. Good governance does not come about by employing an army of overpaid social workers, calling them MPs and expecting them to vote for their party regardless of the merits of the case. I hope that we shall see these matters addressed comprehensively in the election manifestos. Nothing of substance will change whilst Brown is in power.

  5. Acorn
    Posted May 23, 2009 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    It is the same, if simpler, at local government level JR. If you get invited to present the prizes at the Easter Bonnet parade of your local school, you represent the whole of your ward. In the Council Chamber, you represent the part of the ward that elected you. But in the Council Offices you go back to representing any individual in the whole of your ward.

    It is not rocket science, I did it with three separate and distinct folders for expenses and tax purposes. Democratic Services and Audit Services would politely tell you if you had got it wrong; that bit seems to be missing in Westminster.

    At this time of revolution (hopefully), would it be OK to mention separating the “executive” from the “legislature”; I don’t think I have mentioned this before.

    We need a new Representation of the People Act. This needs to be built from the bottom up. You could start by fully unitising local government in England, to match Wales and Scotland. Using the excellent ONS Geography site (still waiting to be updated for the recent unitary changes), you can build basic wards into about 180 City Counties. One executive Mayor and one MP each, representing about 0.3 million or so. Adjusting the other countries of the UK you would get a UK parliament of around 200. And stop changing the boundaries every other month. Align public sector agencies / quangos and there budgets (published) to these new counties. … (discuss, marks will be given for initiative and quotes from Dr David Starkey)

  6. Robert George
    Posted May 23, 2009 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    To my mind John, this fine hair splitting is ultimately pointless a waste of time and distracts from the MP from getting on with their job. It is also rather patronising as an underlying assumption is that the elector/constituent/taxpayer is a complete idiot unable to distinguish what the MP is about.

    My own solution would be to accept a degree of party politicking but do away with expenses altogether. I would like to see all serving MP’s paid an equal substantial allowance or grant out of which they would have to fund all their costs:- their own salaries, pensions, accomodation, office help, postage, travel, equipment, everything: but no expenses of any kind.

    Each MP should be able to spend his or her grant entirely as they saw fit but they would be required to produce an annual budget for public perusal and at the end of the year a set of audited and published accounts together with an annual report to constituents and taxpayers. That might be interesting.

    The annual grant would have to be substantial perhaps in the range of 300,000 per MP but I’ll bet it would be cheaper than the current system and certainly more accountable.

  7. Alan Wheatley
    Posted May 23, 2009 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    I agree, it is not just about second homes. Indeed, the amazing thing is not so much that some MPs are allowed to claim for a second home but that they have implemented what is a reasonable allowance in such a cack-handed way as to leave the system open to abuse and the recipients vulnerable to criticism.

    What I think the public would find acceptable is a system in which MPs were treated the same as the rest of us who have to work for long periods away from their normal place of work, in this case away from the constituency. A second home allowance should be paid as a lump sum to be spent as the recipient chooses: e.g. buying a property or renting or hotel. It would be as well to change the name to something like “Westminster living allowance”.

    As to capital gains tax, MPs are already no different to the rest of us with more than one home. The rules allow you to nominate one home as “main” for CGT purposes, on which no CGT is paid FOR THE PERIOD IT IS MAIN. If the second (Westminster) home is “main” then your other home is liable for CGT. The Daily Telegraph, and a good many others, do not seem to understand this.

    • Robert
      Posted May 23, 2009 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      Well said – there is a huge amount of complete lack of understanding or knowledge on these issues.

  8. alan jutson
    Posted May 23, 2009 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Under the present guidelines it would seem that you are wise to fund your own website.

    I simply cannot see any MP with enough self constraint NOT to venture into Party politics, if their site was taxpayer funded.

    It would seem to me that if a tax payer funded web site was allowed to contain outright Party politics, it would just be a matter of time before it became a site for single minded political propergander, and thus not worth visiting.

    The attraction of your site is not just that it contains information and your thoughts, but also much knowledge from the bloggers who use it, and who contribute their own sometimes alternative and more wide ranging views from a sometimes different perspective.

    It all makes Interesting and informative reading.

    • Alan Wheatley
      Posted May 23, 2009 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

      Here Here!

  9. Denis Cooper
    Posted May 23, 2009 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    There are some fine distinctions here, and at times it may seem pernickety, but the alternative is that public funds get misused for party political purposes.

    My worry is that none of the main political parties, or indeed most of the minor parties, show a clear determination to prevent this ever happening.

    I would have been happier if David Cameron had flatly and publicly refused to enter into any discussions about state funding of political parties, simply saying that as Prime Minister he would order a comprehensive review to root out any surreptitious or indirect use of public money by any political party.

    Of course there’s a temptation to think “They’re doing it now, and it’s unfair to us; so we’d change the system and make sure that it was more to our advantage”, but the people should be able to expect politicians to rise above that level.

  10. Brian Tomkinson
    Posted May 23, 2009 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Does anyone still believe in democracy? It is difficult when you read stories such as this in The Times online headlined: World Agenda: EU prepares to welcome President Tony Blair

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/world_agenda/article6341560.ece?openComment=true

    What do the Conservative party think about that outrageous appointment and what will/can you do to stop it?

    Incidentally your MEP colleague Daniel Hannan has written that in readiness for the introduction of the Lisbon Treaty: “18 (additional) unconstitutional or “phantom” Euro-MPs will be elected anyway and will draw their full salaries and allowances. The only concession to the letter of law is that they won’t be allowed to vote. In other words – in an almost perfect metaphor for the entire Euro-system – they will be paid without having any function.”
    So much for the will of the people!

    • Citizen Responsible
      Posted May 24, 2009 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

      It could be worse, it could be Berlusconi. I would have thought Germany would favour a president from a country in the Euro zone. It says no one is keener on a permanent EU president than Mrs Merkel. There are federal elections in Germany in September and Mrs Merkel’s coalition government could come unstitched. In which case, she might also be an EU presidential candidate.

  11. A Griffin
    Posted May 23, 2009 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    Milgram’s experiment helps me understand some elements of the MP’s expenses.The social environment encouraged the claiming. It was and is mainly a moral issue not a legal one, as were the bank credit excesses. It all flourished because groups of people found ways of behaving which encouraged more of the same. We live in a society where it is very difficult to be a lone voice let alone a whistle blower.The expenses saga was part of the bubble. There is a big moral backlash going on that is a regection of ‘show’ and material wealth as being how we value everything. The only way out for parliament and society is to find a way of rewading different views which encourage healthy debate.This would build natural breaks into the system. Perhaps proper debating needs to be taught in all schools rather than just how to eat healthily etc. Parliament has ceased to be a proper debating chamber, there was no emotional reward, so some just took the cash and lifestyle. If you look at John Redwoods education and career to date, it is clear to me that he has given up a great chance to make much more money in the private sector, in order to contribute to the political debate that tries to help the country. Others are quietly doing the same in all walks of public life. Not all MP’s are worth their pay and expenses but some are actually worth a lot more!

  12. Posted May 23, 2009 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    Lady Di was “the People’s Princess”. Our Tony was “the People’s choice”. The Big Tent was open to anyone and it was therefore the People’s Party. That is why Our Tony threatened to destroy the Tories for ever: they were not anything to do with the People, just Toffs.
    So the People’s party was right to take the people’s money and use it for the people’s things.

    This idea is very dangerous and you are right to question it.
    Too bad the BBC and the Labour Party don’t read your website!

  13. backofanenvelope
    Posted May 23, 2009 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me that the first and most important change we need is to separate Parliament and the government.

  14. Posted May 23, 2009 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

    I am glad that you have finally got the message that Parliament has got something to do with politics. But we don’t know just what yet.

  15. hughev
    Posted May 23, 2009 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    on your blogroll Nadine Dorries has disappeared. oh well, just a few months early. isn’t it dreadful how the general public(the voters)can be so ungrateful as to vote out hardworking members when given the chance.
    God, the stress the MP’s have been put under. now enjoy the same tactics you have used on GP’s for 6 years. At least they work for their emoluments

  16. Posted May 24, 2009 at 1:18 am | Permalink

    What you say is interesting but I’m not sure how you can draw the line. Part of an MPs job is to formulate and vote on policy. Different political parties will have different policies, parliament is the place where these are debated. If an opposition MP informs constitutents about their opinion on policy and voting intentions I’m not sure if I see a dividing line between parliament and politics. If you’re appealing for votes or attacking rival candidates in your constituency then that’s political but it must be a judgement call to some extent. I think the most people are able to make those judgements. I personally want my MP to be as well informed as possible. I want them to have the best satellite system to pick up news from around the world. I want them to have teams of researchers investigating the latest data on every policy issue imaginable. That I don’t mind paying for. I object to kitkats.

    Reply: Yes, I understand. The issue is where do you draw the political line? Presumably the taxpayer should not pay for political leaflets sent out to encourage people to vote. The point I am making is that the current system tries to draw a line quite tightly.

  17. colin
    Posted May 24, 2009 at 1:18 am | Permalink

    The three main parties all refuse to listen to the opinions of the electorate on the E.U..Without that it is nonesense to talk as though we live in a democracy.With senior politicians drawing large benefits from the E.U.,Kinnock,Mandelson , Blair waiting hopefully in the wings and dear knows how many others,the interests of the country are ignored and indeed only the Irish voters have been allowed to express an opinion.The corruption involved in the M.P.’s expenses scandal is only a part of a much more serious situation that needs to be tackled.Cameron does not show any sign of realising this.

  18. Javelin
    Posted May 24, 2009 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    Before the House starts to reform itself the expense abusers need to step down. For the same reason you cannot have an expense abuser as the new speaker you cannot have expense abuser voting on expenses. John you are right to separate Party from Parliament. An MP shouldn’t touch a Government blog (such as the Milliboys brief effort)- they should be touched by civil servants. Press officers should be limited to FOI requests from the press and not political announcements or spin. FOI should be the rule not an exception.

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, He graduated from Magdalen College Oxford, has a DPhil and is a fellow of All Souls College. A businessman by background, he has been a director of NM Rothschild merchant bank and chairman of a quoted industrial PLC.

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