For a decade now we have been sold the mantra that public spending is investment and that every penny of it is well spent and well judged. If any of us suggested some of the spending was wasteful, or undesirable, or not a priority we were immolated in a fire of words claiming wrongly we wanted to sack teachers or throw nurses out onto the streets.
It took an 88p basin plug to help undermine that. It’s unfair on both the inoffensive plug and the Home Secretary. If Parliament allows MPs to claim for the costs of maintaining second homes, then the odd plug will qualify for the careful and bureaucratic MP who remembers to keep the receipt and fill in the form. If only all public sector claims were so small and practical. One has to assume the MP or her assistant installed the plug themselves on that occasion, unlike normal practise in the public sector where procuring and installing a new plug would be a complex and expensive task involving the expenditure of much more than 88p. I wonder how much a new basin plug in the executive loo at the local Council costs to buy and install? It would be a lot more than 88p, and would not appear on the list of personal expenses of the Chief Executive.
The passion and anger over basin plugs and the like reflects the public mood that MPs, along with much of the rest of the public sector, just does not offer value for money. If you look at the full extent of the £93 million MPs claim you will soon realise that the main cost by far is the cost of employing people, not the cost of plugs or even patio heaters.
Some of my fellow MPs think it is grossly unfair that all these figures for our total expenses get published. They point out that when the local Chief Executive of the Council gets some adverse publicity for being on a large six figure salary no-one also adds in the salaries of his or her deputy, assistants, secretaries and other hangers on. When some quango head gets done for his exotic travel at the taxpayers expense or for his energetic wining and dining for the public good, no-one adds in the cost of running his private office in the quango, yet that office spent time and our money organising the trips or the jollies.
I think they are missing the point. The anger directed to MPs is a good sign that there is some health and life left in our democracy. People think it is worth being angry about MPs, because they might be shamed into spending less or changing the rules so they are less offensive to the public that pays the bills. People do not think they can make other public sector bosses responsible for larger abuses elsewhere in the public sector accountable in the same way.
The searchlight of public opinion needs to be well directed to start to get us some value for money out of this vast increase in public spending the government has presided over. If MP s together are claiming too much by way of expenses, then so is the whole public sector. There is a generalised culture in quangoland and Whitehall of travel, eating and drinking at the public expense, of employing more staff to do your work, and contracting out anything difficult or risky. The biggest cost by far is the cost of employment. It is the surge in the numbers of administrative staff, spin doctors, secretaries, case workers, regulators, glossy brochure writers, press release authors and the like which characterises the poor value public sector.
This culture is obvious in Parliament, in quangoland and in many a local Council. Some MPs have staff to write press releases, to produce blog text, to write speeches, to draft questions, to attend meetings about important issues. Surely an MP wants to ask their own questions or make their own speeches? If we can’t find 645 people who do want to do that and are capable of thinking for themselves, let’s have fewer MPs. The same is true of many quangos and Councils. I am often approached by paid staff at these bodies urging me to send out a press release they have already drafted for me, complete with a quote from me! This is from people who have never met me, let alone taken the trouble to find out what I think about the issue by reading my website or books.
The best response MPs could make to the criticism of the £93 million is to do it for less next year. My expenses were £40,000 below the average in 2007-8, and I intend to reduce my costs further. That’s what private enterprise is having to do. Why should we assume we can tax everyone else more to pay the extra? We do need a wind of change to sweep through the public sector, concentrating money on the public services and transfer payments people want, and reducing the rest. I am happy to pay for the basin plug, but not so happy to pay for all the spin doctors and quangos that have multiplied like crazy in recent years.