Getting value for public money

There are signs that this big story about the expenses of the public sector is not going to stop at MPs. The Telegraph doubtless has more to say about what MPs have claimed for office costs and staffing as well as for second homes. Meanwhile the Sunday Times is working away revealing more about the claims that peers make in the Lords. I am told various local newspapers are now sending in Freedom of Information requests over Councillor and senior executive expenses and remuneration in local government. Doubtless some other media outlets, not to be left out, will be trying to find out more about the expenses, salaries, entertainment and travel for the quangocracy.

Never again will a politician be able to say with a straight face that there is no waste in the public sector. Never again will they be able to say all spending is essential, and targetted on front line services the public value. The answer to that is a luxury rocking chair or a fee for media training for an MP. These individual items may be small against the totals of public spending, but when multiplied out across the upper eschelons of the whole public sector they amount to large sums. Throughout many parts of the public sector there is a willingness to go on seminars and conferences, to hire consultants for work that could be done in house, to have extra senior staff and to spend more on IT in the hope of a solution. None of these things are wrong in themselves, and when done in moderation some may be useful. When done to excess they create serious problems in public budgets.

I assume the jolt to MPs as a whole from this story and the new rules being put in will lead to lower MP claims overall this year. Sensible people throughout the public sector would be wise to see that the same pressures could apply to them, and start to look at how they can also do more for less.

Meanwhile one or two of you have expressed worry about the idea of fewer MPs. I think we do need fewer, but with Parliament meeting more often so we each have more chance to make our points in Parliament in a timely and effective way. For much of the year I have to make my points on the website, because there is no Parliament to attend, let alone one with a debate where I could be called and make them in order. The idea of fewer MPs must not be a weaker Parliament. There should be fewer Ministers as well, and more opportunity to cross examine them. Above all Parliament needs more control over the timetable, so we can discuss what we want when we want to. The government should be able to pass its business, but only after scrutiny and when it has made its case to justify it to its majority.


  1. backofanenvelope
    May 25, 2009

    I am a bit hazy on the history of parliament, but wasn’t the chief outcome of “The Glorious Revolution” the separation of government (the King) and parliament?

    It seems to me that that is what we need now.

    1. Denis Cooper
      May 25, 2009

      Not really; in that respect it was Parliament re-asserting its ancient right to share power with the sovereign.

      The House of Commons Factsheet G4 on The Glorious Revolution is here:

      An easily readable version of the English Bill of Rights, ie with modern spelling, is here:

      It’s also on the UK Statute Law Database, with the original spelling and showing which parts have been repealed:

      Just search for “Bill of Rights”.

  2. RobertD
    May 25, 2009

    Can I suggest a couple of simple first steps. Bar paid ministers from voting on timetable motions. Allow the house to make time for debates on motions which are proposed by back benchers if the house, if the without the votes of ministers, deems them important. e.g. a debate on Carswell’s motion on confidence in the speaker.

    If members of the house can’t keep control over the timetable of the house they have little chance of bringing the government to account.

    1. Denis Cooper
      May 26, 2009

      On the face of it “Bar paid ministers from voting on timetable motions” seems a good idea. Their position is any case anomalous as they hold positions of profit under the Crown; and the more of them there were as a proportion of the MPs, the less likely that they could impose their will if they themselves were barred from voting. However, the fact remains that they can only impose their will now because other MPs allow themselves to be whipped.

  3. Jim
    May 25, 2009

    Yes, I think the reason that the Barclay Bros. aka Daily Telegraph started with MP s is that downwand pressure will then be applied, ie if MPs’ expenses are subject to rigorous scrutiny, then surely MPs will ensure that other Public Sector excesses in Town halls, Quangos, NHS, Banks, will also be subject to the same scrutiny.
    The parallel agenda is also to force a General Election before the Irish Lisbon Treaty vote, so that we get a referendum ourselves. A “no” vote would necessarily force a further referendum on EU membership.
    By that time, a new constitution of pragmatic MPs, brought into the Conservative Party and Government will be pushing the leader to the right, and possibly out of the EU.
    Experienced minds will be needed!

    1. SJB
      May 25, 2009

      It seems to me most MPs will want some distance between the recent scandal and the General Election, Jim; because of the risk of a low turnout and/or voters turning to smaller parties to register their protest.

      When the House of Commons sits again on 1 June, MPs will only have to kill about seven weeks before the House rises for the summer recess on 21 July. Hopefully by the time they return on 12 October things will have died down a bit.

      The Irish will then be about to vote (or have voted) for the Lisbon Treaty, the Poles have agreed to follow the Irish … and Mr Cameron’s offer of a referendum lapses when the Treaty comes into force shortly after.

  4. David Boycott
    May 25, 2009

    This post makes two very important points.

    We need to widen the debate about MPs’ expenses into a debate about wasteful public spending in general and the associated benefits of a small state and low-tax approach

    Political reform is a matter of reforming the legislature, not reforming the electoral system (other than abolishing the corruption of the recently-introduced postal voting option for all). The House of Commons has rarely looked more ridiculous when it became clear that there was no way for an Opposition MP to force a vote on the Speaker’s future. If the legislature is to fulfil its proper role of holding the executive to account, the Opposition party – and to some extent a collection of individual MPs – must be able to call debates on subject of their choosing at short notice. Given how much time the Commons spends in recess, this should not threaten a government’s ability to implement its legislative timetable – only improve the quality of legislation implemented.

  5. Neil Craig
    May 25, 2009

    Lets hope the salaries of the quangocracy come under review. However the nearly £1 m salary of the boss of the foreign aid quango seems to have disappeared from public view. Presumably the fact that nobody has heard of him before trumps the fact that his salary alone is many times the expenses of even the worst MPs.

  6. Frugal Dougal
    May 25, 2009

    I think your reading of the signs of the times is right. I reckon that in less than 3 months British politics will be unrecognisable.

  7. jean baker
    May 25, 2009

    Dear John,

    Surely, to uphold democracy, constituents are entitled to parliamentary representation by an elected MP . Taxpayers money continues to be wasted on more and more ‘quango’s’; Labour ’employees’ reportedly reached around 5 million – the equivalent of the population of Scotland. Despite the cost to taxpayers, lack of financial regulation (according to economists) has resulted in a recession and historic levels of debt .

    Either the expense system, or the reported Labour minister responsible for approving/rejecting expense claims, is deeply flawed. Sort the crux of the problem; reducing the number of MP’s de-regulates democracy.

  8. Richard
    May 25, 2009

    Lets hope the result of all this will be a cultural change. From now on whenever people hear Brown or any other Labour minister talk about ‘investment in our public services’ they should think of MPs’ expenses.

  9. James
    May 25, 2009

    Having just heard an MEP on R4 talking about his travel expenses, the scandal about the UK’s politician,s expenses pale into insignificance. The first time this MEP tried to clain back his rail fare to Brussels he presented the rail ticket. They were not interested in having the actual receipt, instead he had to accept the flat rate for all MEPs. His actul rail fare was approx. 500 euros, but they paid him 2000 euros for every return journey. Asked how much he received in one year, he replied approx 200,000 euros.The actual cost of his fares were approx. 50,000 euros. Although he could have kept the extra 150,000 euros, he donated it to charity. As he stated, you could become very rich being an MEP.
    Westminister MPs appear to be little angels compared to their European counterparts.

  10. alan jutson
    May 25, 2009

    I believe that you are absolutely correct in your thoughts about the Public sector, its costs and lack of efficiency.

    It would seem the system helps breed a culture of group decisions only, for the inevitable cover your back stance.

    The system/computer will not allow it type of answer to any sensible request.

    The production of a rainforest of leaflets on subjects which need little explanation.

    Political correctness gone mad type syndrome using many words when one will do.

    Enforcement of The Health and Safety gone mad culture. Conkers at School banned.
    Hanging baskets may fall on your head.
    Risk assessments and method statements required for almost everything.

    The lack of overall supervision on tasks which have been outsourced, on the often incorrect original basis of saving money.
    Poor work never corrected or picked up. Road repairs, grass cutting, litter collecting etc.

    Many in the higher sphere of Public life now seem to be paid what appears to be vast amounts of money for jobs where performance is often poor.

    Millions of pounds are spent on computer systems in the hope that this will bring the answer to all solutions, when often it is the basic/wrong information that is being entered which is the only fault with existing systems being used, or lack of an experienced It persion within the organisation.

    Yes of course we have dedcated public service employees who work hard and do not get paid a fortune, and it is to them that any change should benefit.

    Change needs to help those who work in the system to work more effectively, and should help those for who the system should be working (the general public).

    Anyone who has worked in private industry, and then goes into a Publically funded organisation, comment that the difference is like chalk and cheese.

    it really seems to many to be another World.

    Time to get to grips with correcting it.

    1. alan jutson
      May 25, 2009

      Just seen an artical in the Telegraph today Harry Wallop page 15.

      A 178 page report which took two years to complile and cost taxpayers £500,000 has come up with the findings that.
      Wait for it:
      Consumers want Trains to run on time !!!!!!

      Funded by the Rail Safety and Standards Board, which gets £12,000,000 a year from The Department of Transport.

      Sack all those who made the decision for the need for this survey, take back the £11,500,000 thats left.

      Sack those in the Departnment of Transport who gave this lot £12,000,000 in the first place.

      This really does say it all.

      Its Taxpayers Money !!!!!!.

  11. Rod
    May 25, 2009

    I hope someone starts on that rotten organisation called the EU. When are we going to see accountability from them.

  12. Demetrius
    May 25, 2009

    There are some very big nasties out there to be found. It is useful to remember that a good many of the Parliamentary Labour Party did time in local government before getting a seat. Quite who was involved in what is complicated, but it is all a lot bigger in total money terms than the MP expenses affair. For a start “flipping” is not the only property racket.

  13. Mike Stallard
    May 25, 2009

    Hooray! I think you have got it! Also watch out MEPs who were even put under scrutiny by the BBC today.
    Mr Cameron made some reassuring noises in the Telegraph this morning too: if he puts them into practice, the problems of parliament will be half way solved.
    And, at last, the boot is morally on the right, not the left.
    Very encouraging all round.

  14. Graham Doll
    May 25, 2009

    ‘Sensible people throughout the public sector would be wise to see that the same pressures could apply to them, and start to look at how they can also do more for less.’

    Have you any idea how breathtakingly ridiculous that now sounds? Parliament has not one jot of the moral authority required to make such a suggestion, not until the current crop of crooks are voted out and parliament itself is reformed. The horse must go before the cart.

  15. Matthew Reynolds
    May 25, 2009

    That is very sound thinking indeed ! Let us hope that this leads to a sea-change in terms of getting value for money from the state sector. The IMF and others are right that slashing public spending to balance the books is the way forward. I sense that this expenses fiasco might create the right context to reform the public sector so that there is less demand for higher public expenditure and thus lower budget deficits.

    The public feel over-taxed and are cross that MP’s have in many cases been milking the system while voters are suffering. Parliament & the number of MP’s needs to be reduced with fewer perks – then armed with that moral authority public spending cuts can be enacted to save the UK economy from any more Carter style Malaise. The Irish are doing this and I think that if pain is felt at the Westminster Village then it will be more tolerable for the electorate to face cuts in government expenditure and possibly tax hikes.

  16. Brian Tomkinson
    May 25, 2009

    Never again will a politician be able to say with a straight face that they didn’t go into politics to make money – but they will! They will also draw around £100,000 when they lose their seats or retire at the next election. On top of this they will enjoy the best index-linked pensions in the land. This scandal has shown just how so many MPs think that public money i.e. taxpayers’ money is in fact their money to do with what they please. Hence, government spending has spiralled completely out of control. This applies also to many Conservative MPs. Some MPs such as Alan Johnson are already trying to take advantage of this crisis. They really do think we are fools.

  17. Denis Cooper
    May 25, 2009

    “The idea of fewer MPs must not be a weaker Parliament.”

    Sorry, but I believe that is EXACTLY the idea – not on your part, I hasten to add, but on the part of some others who are trying to subtly convey the impression that the current problems have arisen from having too many MPs.

    Nonsense, of course – it would have made little difference if over recent decades we had had only 581 MPs, most of whom were poor quality, rather than 646 MPs, most of whom are poor quality.

    I’m not alone in sensing that there is a plan to gradually “salami-slice” the Westminster legislature out of existence, in the same way that its legislative scope has already been “salami-sliced” almost out of existence.

    I sse that today that Boris Johnson has written:

    “”We need … far fewer MPs (400 would do fine)”.

    Yes, and no doubt at some point in the future, “200 would do fine”, then “100 would do fine”, and so on, until in the end “It hardly seems worth having it at all”.

    That is how the EU project is pushed onwards, step by step, as we are all now well aware.

    If there were reasonable arguments for addressing the present difficulties by down-sizing the House of Commons, I would support them; but there, in reality, no convincing arguments at all to support that proposal.

    Reply: The USA has 435 Congress and 100 Senators, and has a more vigorous democracy than we do.

    1. Acorn
      May 26, 2009

      It appears that the “top down” reformers are offering various discounts on the number of MPs. I expect there will be an “elect three get two” offer soon, in a reverse supermarket offer.

      As JR says, the US represents 300 million people with 435 MPs (Congressmen) representing the people and a 100 Senators representing the States in the Union. It is not how many you have but how and what they represent on behalf of the people.

      I maintain that the UK and England in particular is a complete mess of administrative geography. That is why I am in favour of fully unitising the UK into locally recognisable units that can generate a sense of community with a common vision.

      You will be aware that most MPs represent areas based on balancing population numbers. Those areas in most cases are not coterminous with a council boundary, health service boundary, police boundary, multiple quango boundaries; in any manner that is naturally recognisable to the citizens. A great strategy if you want to divide and conquer from a Westminster / Whitehall point of view.

      Some of these natural areas show up in data such as ONS “Travel to Work Areas”. The easiest way to spot them is to stand at a City / Town centre Bus Station, and see where all the buses are going.

      There is no reason that such City Counties (circa., a third of a million people), can’t be represented by one MP (with appropriate staffing) and one elected Mayor and Cabinet. These would be big jobs with status and highly visible to the electors (like Boris). I will leave the local financing of such new Counties for another day; but, suffice it to say it would be mostly local forms of taxation.

      1. Denis Cooper
        May 27, 2009

        And, in your scheme, would people have any say on whether they were bundled into City Counties (aka the EU’s “City Regions”?), sharing one MP between a third of a million (voters or total population?) therefore with the House of Commons cut down to 135 – 180 members?

        1. Acorn
          June 2, 2009

          Denis, Travel to work areas have grown up naturally based on where the work occurs. So I would guess that they have already chosen to a certain extent, the geography and demography of a city county. I suggest that they would have a greater interest in the state of the road or the bus service between where they live and where they work. One council that covered that geography, to me, makes sense.

          EU regions, and government office regions, would be the last thing to be accommodated. They have only technical reasons to exist (EU voting); they have no “local community” purpose. As our current administrative geography is constructed from Wards, and we are dealing with the British here, I expect there will be some Wards declaring UDI.

          The last set of Unitary Councils that were formed this year, covered on average a third of a million population. I envisage about 180 MPs for the UK.

          This is just another idea Denis. But I am a believer in sorting out from the bottom up. The concept of a powerful cohesive local government structure, will frighten the lives out of the Westminster and Whitehall centralisers.

  18. Adrian Peirson
    May 25, 2009

    It’s obvious that there is some fraud going on, but equally, if the rules are lax then some people are going to fall foul of such ambiguity.

    This situation is remakably similar to the Banking collapse caused by complete deregulation.

    Can anyone spot the common factor,

    could it be argued that both the banking system and our Parliamentary system were deliberately sabotaged so that they can create their ‘New World Order’ from the resulting chaos.

  19. Andrew Johnson
    May 25, 2009

    Less MP’s sounds attractive, but how does no taxation without representation fit in? Under our current voting sytem, there are now millions of voters and non voters whose votes and views count for nothing.
    I used to be a fervent supporter of our first past the post system – not any more. Some kind of PR is required. Power has to be taken from the whips, and MP’s have to become more accountable to their electorate, something that is now easily achievable via modern technology and communications systems.
    I truly believe the anger over the expenses comes from huge frustration that the main policies of the three parties are increasingly indistinguishable from one another. e.g. Pro European; pro-immigration, pro -globalisation – intent on ignoring British agriculture, manufacturing, not tackling the housing crisis, transport crisis, crime crisis, and the ever increasing damage being done to our nation’s citizens by the corruption of a welfare system that was designed to be a safety net, but has now become an alternative lifestyle.
    All of this is going to take a great deal of courage by politicians who have the nation’s interests at heart not their own or their party’s.
    Please will someone tell me where they are? Some of us would like to vote for them.

    Reply : PR strengthens the hands of the whips. Most PR systems give the party more power over choice of candidate and placing of that candidate.

  20. thespecialone
    May 25, 2009

    It is well known that the public sector is very extravagant in its expenditure. You only need to look at the jobs advertised in the Guardian to see what a joke most of these jobs are. Not only that, the wages offered on virtually all these jobs are massively more than the average wage.

    When you the Tories get elected, you need to do a wholesale review of all Quangos, and I am sure millions could be saved by ditching most of them who produce absolutely zero of value.

    Next, all reform should filter down to local councils, and all government departments and that includes the sacrosanct NHS. Councils should be told to stopped wasting money on ‘outreach workers’ and all the other non-jobs. All the myriad of minority groups that they lavish money on should be told they will not get another penny. However, councils should provide money in areas open to all such as youth clubs, care for the elderly etc.

    I could go on and on as I am sure many other readers could. The next government have no choice but to get to grips with government and local authorities spending. We really are going down the pan if you dont.

  21. Stuart Fairney
    May 26, 2009

    OT but apparently this lot think your blog is worth $7,000

    An interesting contrast insofar as Mr Brown is likely to have used public money for his comfortable and natural looking appearance on youtube, yet I understand you fund this and actually generate value. This struck me as a nice contrast

    Reply: Thanks. I have received various offers of ads for this site, but I prefer to run it at my own expense pro bono.

  22. DiscoveredJoys
    May 26, 2009

    When I used to work in a privatised industry I used to tell my team that every pound they, or I, claimed in expenses was a pound that “a little old lady” had to pay on her bill for services.

    I sincerely believe that the most scary thing about the expenses scandal rolling around Parliament (and possibly beyond) is *not* the amounts falsely or unwisely claimed, but the idea that the money is ‘free’.

    Every pound claimed is a pound that “a little old lady” has paid in tax on her pension, or VAT on her ‘leccy, etc. Not such a ‘victimless’ source of funds now, is it?

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