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The House will now consider the Flags for Orphans bill
January 19, 2009 11:22 AM   Subscribe

UK MPs trying to block publishing their expenses - they're voting on Thursday to overturn last year's High Court ruling. TheyWorkForYou is emailing members to let them know that the UK government buried the news of this vote amongst last week's Heathrow runway anouncement. They are trying to reverse the 16 May 2008 High Court decision that MPs' expenses must, under the Freedom Of Information Act, be made public. What can you do about this mixture of Jo Moore and Krusty?

TheyWorkForYou is encouraging people to write to their local MP to ask them to vote against the bill, join the obligatory Facebook group or use their MySociety site to contact local media outlets.
posted by TheDonF (58 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
You mean their expensing wasn't caught on a surveillance camera someplace?
posted by Joe Beese at 11:25 AM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thanks for this well-done news post; I had no idea this was happening and it's a really interesting window onto UK politics.
posted by mediareport at 11:36 AM on January 19, 2009


Transparency - great in theory, but I'm sure that in practice it will be the TABLOID HAMMER OF DOOM for a few years until everyone figures out some best practices to go around it.
posted by Artw at 11:44 AM on January 19, 2009


@Joe Beese - heh, it probably has been. I walked passed my local Wagamamas this afternoon and was dismayed to see "CCTV in use" in big letters on the door.

@mediareport - thanks!
posted by TheDonF at 11:46 AM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


I like MySociety's work a lot, but I can't go with them on this one. I appreciate it's public money at stake, but the proposals will not bar the public from seeing how much money was claimed (as was the case until recently). They will merely put the expenses into categories, rather than publishing every receipted item.

I would have had more sympathy with the 'public money' argument had the previous set of expenses publications not led to a massive tabloid feeding frenzy, in which individual MPs were pilloried and single items bought with OUR MONEY were paraded in front of the public with no context other than reams of anti-politician spin. All this enlightened the public not one bit, it just gave them skewed stories aimed at getting them thoroughly outraged.

The same papers that pretend to think an MP's salary of $90k or so is an outrage are perfectly happy to pay their own star columnists four or five times as much. Even if MPs want to raise their salaries just to keep them in line with inflation, it's out with the banner headlines referring to pigs, snouts and troughs.

The wider point is that being an MP is not an easy job, and not a cheap job. If you are the MP for some remote bit of the UK, you have to travel to London for most of the week - keeping a fully equipped second home in the most expensive city in Europe should not fall on you. If, thanks to media-fuelled public hysteria, we restrict wages and expenses so that only those with substantial private incomes or lucrative second jobs can ever stand for Parliament, we are thinning the pool of people who will stand for Parliament to such an extent that it will do worse harm to democracy than a (comparatively minor) restriction on free public information.
posted by athenian at 12:13 PM on January 19, 2009 [12 favorites]


I'm not sure I agree this was buried: it was pretty high profile in The Times, Metro and other newspapers last week. That not withstanding, I find this utterly despicable. Any MP who votes in favour of the overturn completely deserves ousting at the next election, whatever their party.
posted by NailsTheCat at 12:17 PM on January 19, 2009


Athenian, you can't seriously believe that post can you?

The "political class" (as they increasingly see themselves) in this country is so amazingly out of touch with the will of the people it's ludicrous.

I think it's perfectly obvious where all the faults in your post lie but for a start their "fully equipped second homes" are paid for by the taxpayer, and as for outrage at "items bought with OUR MONEY", that's what they were doing, scamming money off the taxpayer. Why do you think they want their expenses hidden? Just for fun?

I am truly amazed that anyone can stick up for the government / politicians in England after the way the have run the country into the ground for the last 10 years and continually lie (even after they are caught out) and basically treat the people they call "the general public" (i.e. everyone who is not a politician with) utter contempt.
posted by debord at 12:33 PM on January 19, 2009


The wider point is that being an MP is not an easy job, and not a cheap job.

But it's the job they went into - to serve the public. They will have known that from the beginning; if they wanted a difficult job that paid better, then they could have made the decision to work in the private sector. The job might not be cheap, but the UK tax payers have a right to see what our money is being spent on. Unless we can actually see each receipt, how can we tell if the categorisation of MPs' expenses is accurate? It's not as if government officials are 100% virtuous, is it?

If you are the MP for some remote bit of the UK, you have to travel to London for most of the week - keeping a fully equipped second home in the most expensive city in Europe should not fall on you.

No one's expecting MPs to live in slum-like flats in London, but likewise I don't see why we should be paying for schwanky places either. And, if they want to do something about travel expenses, they could actually step in and deal with the outrageous cost of train tickets in the UK.
posted by TheDonF at 12:46 PM on January 19, 2009


debord, I am sorry to disappoint you, but I do believe it. I don't think it's great that MPs are having to cloak their expenses in this way, I'd rather they were open and we could have an honest conversation about expenses, but with the media in this country that's just not going to be possible.

Look at the phrases you use in your post: "scamming money off the taxpayer", "politicians have run the country into the ground", "[they] continually lie", "[they] treat the public with utter contempt". These aren't thought-through positions, even less is there evidence for them - they're emotional negative reactions, exactly the sort of tabloid-fuelled paranoia that you can find on every internet message board in the country.

I don't think politicians are perfect, but unless you can suggest some better way of running the country democratically they are all that we have. They do not deliberately try to run the country into the ground, even if they sometimes make mistakes. They are not scamming the taxpayer if they claim expenses within the rules that are set for them. They do not continually lie, even if they do speak in the sort of politicianspeak that sometimes blurs truth and fiction. And as for treating people with contempt, that would be a bad move when they are the only profession that requires the backing of the public every four years.

This is not a small thing - I believe, as you do, that politics and the political system in this country is becoming disengaged from the population as a whole. Unlike you, I don't think this is entirely the fault of the politicians. At least some blame has to be borne by a media that promotes a culture of cynicism by inflating every tiny indiscretion into a front page lead, and leaving every success unreported.
posted by athenian at 12:48 PM on January 19, 2009 [4 favorites]


Heh. I'm thinking about the disbeleiving looks on faces when I told people back home about the rent I was paying on a very modest flat in North London.
posted by Artw at 12:49 PM on January 19, 2009


TheDonF: I don't see why we should be paying for schwanky places either

The second home allowance for MPs, IIRC, is £23,000 a year. Sounds a lot, but assume that £200 a month of that is on things like electricity and internet, which is probably an underestimate. That leaves £1,700 or so per month, which according to Rightmove.co.uk is enough to rent a two-bed garden flat in Battersea.
posted by athenian at 12:55 PM on January 19, 2009


The constant message, drummed into the UK's subjects (we're subjects not citizens) is that if you've done nothing, then you've got nothing to fear. And, therefore, nothing to hide.

The same government that, whenever there's the slightest hint of outrage that every single moment of our life should be caught on camera, tells us that only terrorists keeps secret, jumps through hoops to hide how they spend the money that is taken off me in taxes. This isn't about paying for expenses so that they can do their job. This is about them spending £5,000 on a home entertainment system and calling it 'office furnishings'. If they're not terrorists, if they have nothing to hide, then publish and be damned.

As for the bullshit about the UK taxpayer being ripped off on a daily basis being a fair price to pay in order to get the high quality individuals needed to govern this country, I call bullshit. Hardly a one of them has ever had a proper job. If my MP resigned tomorrow, by lunchtime I could nominate half a dozen people that I know (and trust - which is more than I could say for my MP) that could do the job far better for less than half the price of my MP's income.

I, of course, use the expression 'my MP' in the loosest possible sense of the term. An MP belongs solely to their party. And, at least in this country, all parties are united in their struggle to serve only themselves.
posted by veedubya at 12:56 PM on January 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I'm sorry, but if MPs fear being shamed or upbraided by the way they spend taxpayer's money, then maybe they've been spending it wrong? I think apologetics based on the cost of being an MP are misleading: second homes, travel, food, equipment, and so on, are all legitimate uses of public money. But what about spends which are indefensible? Items which cannot be justified as necessary for an MPs work?

Openness will promote thoughtfulness among MPs and their expenses, and (hopefully, eventually) proper consideration by the public of how much and why we fund MPs. I know that tabloids (and even broadsheets) will still attack MPs over trivial and defendable items, but only so long as it remains novel. Continuing to obscure this information hands a gift to newspapers when they eventually do find out the details of an MP's expenses.
posted by Sova at 12:56 PM on January 19, 2009


if we acknowledge that MP work is expensive and that our representatives are increasingly distant from their constituencies then the point still stands - the high cost of working as an MP will price out representatives who can't afford the costs and the political class will only become more elitist and out of touch.

besides if you're electing people to help run the country and to sort out the mess that is the welfare state the least you could do is trust them with their expenses.
posted by doobiedoo at 1:01 PM on January 19, 2009


Heh, athenian is apparently Head Of Policy at Brighton And Hove City Council.

£200 a month of that is on things like electricity and internet

£200 a month on that?! Wow - I know electricity has gone up an insane amount, but you need to change suppliers. What's wrong with a two-bed garden flat? I'm assuming the MP is there on business, in which case he'll need one bedroom. Assuming it's somewhere to stay whilst working in London, a flat is perfectly acceptable. Why should we pay for something bigger than that?
posted by TheDonF at 1:01 PM on January 19, 2009


The second home allowance for MPs, IIRC, is £23,000 a year. Sounds a lot, but assume that £200 a month of that is on things like electricity and internet, which is probably an underestimate. That leaves £1,700 or so per month, which according to Rightmove.co.uk is enough to rent a two-bed garden flat in Battersea.

Well, here's a novel idea, athenian: Why shouldn't Battersea have a local MP. That'd save the taxpayer £23,000 a year on a second home allowance. Or isn't there a single person in Battersea that could do as good a job representing them as their current MP?
posted by veedubya at 1:03 PM on January 19, 2009


Heh, athenian is apparently Head Of Policy at Brighton And Hove City Council.

How dare he accuse the public of being witch-hunty! Burn him!

/brandishes pitchfork.
posted by Artw at 1:04 PM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Man, I wish U.S. politicians lived in fear of the press. Cowed by vicious journalists, always anxious their parking tickets might be plastered across the front page. That would be so weird.
posted by ryanrs at 1:07 PM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


BUSH / PAXMAN
posted by Artw at 1:08 PM on January 19, 2009


veedubya:
As for the bullshit about the UK taxpayer being ripped off on a daily basis being a fair price to pay in order to get the high quality individuals needed to govern this country, I call bullshit. Hardly a one of them has ever had a proper job. If my MP resigned tomorrow, by lunchtime I could nominate half a dozen people that I know (and trust - which is more than I could say for my MP) that could do the job far better for less than half the price of my MP's income.

The bullshit is that things would improve if only the MP would resign so that your mates could would do more for less. You are free to step up to the plate if you really find your representatives so incompetent.
posted by doobiedoo at 1:12 PM on January 19, 2009


Why shouldn't Battersea have a local MP?

I assume athenian was suggesting an MP from a remote area of England might rent a flat in Battersea as a second residence.
posted by ryanrs at 1:15 PM on January 19, 2009


Yes, I am Head of Policy at Brighton & Hove City Council. Since we're in the full disclosure game, I have also worked in the Treasury, the Cabinet Office, the Department of Health, the Department of Education, and the Ministry of Agriculture as was. I used to be a senior civil servant. I am currently a senior local government officer. I am a member of one of the main political parties - my employment contract forbids me from saying which one. I used to be the secretary of a few Cabinet Committees when I worked in Whitehall, and I know both my local politicians and a number of national politicians fairly well. I have worked with both the current and previous Prime Ministers, though I doubt they'd know me from Adam.

As I said in my first post on this thread, perhaps that makes me too close to the issue.

But on the other hand, perhaps it gives me an insight into the actions and motivations of politicians that other people commenting here don't have. I've seen how politicians behave behind closed doors, and they've talked to me at length about what they want to achieve and why they want to achieve it. Sure, they are self-interested to some extent - they want to be re-elected, a discipline I'm glad I don't have to go through. They aren't, however, thoughtless unfeeling thieves, which is how they are often portrayed. They sincerely want to make the country and people's lives better, and they are for better or worse the embodiment of the electoral wishes of the country, so they, and our democratic constitution, demand my respect.

Feel free to call me a naive fool. My shoes are here if you want to walk a mile in them.
posted by athenian at 1:15 PM on January 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


"Well, here's a novel idea, athenian: Why shouldn't Battersea have a local MP. That'd save the taxpayer £23,000 a year on a second home allowance. Or isn't there a single person in Battersea that could do as good a job representing them as their current MP?"


That's out of context - the context is that MP's from outlying areas have to be IN London for extended periods of time in order to do their job. That's why they need a second home.

MP's from London districts don't need second homes.

The point was that, on that allowance, one could only rent a place in battersea (which isn't exactly close to Parliament)
posted by TravellingDen at 1:16 PM on January 19, 2009


I assume athenian was suggesting an MP from a remote area of England might rent a flat in Battersea as a second residence.

Yeah, I got that the picosecond after hitting the button. Apologies to all. It's no excuse, but the red mist descends as soon as the topic of MP expenses comes up.
posted by veedubya at 1:17 PM on January 19, 2009


Whoops - I must have deleted the bit in the first post where I said 'perhaps I'm too close to it' when I was drafting. But anyway, perhaps I'm too close to it.
posted by athenian at 1:18 PM on January 19, 2009


You are free to step up to the plate if you really find your representatives so incompetent.

This assumes, of course, that anybody outside of the party system, and not a celebrity running on a single issue campaign, could have a hope of being elected. When was the last time that happened?

This isn't about apathy, or ignorance, this is about a political system where, if you're not part of the party solution, you're part of the problem.
posted by veedubya at 1:22 PM on January 19, 2009


Feel free to call me a naive fool. My shoes are here if you want to walk a mile in them
Are they really? Those posh civil servant brogues are pretty expensive and exclusive, unless you have a taxpayer-funded expense account.

And spare me the high moral histrionics, when Derek Conway is paying for the lifestyle of his awful fairly on the taxpayer, when MPs are furnishing their homes from a pricelist apparently based on the most expensive possible item that could be found in each category, and when every time even the dimmest, weakest bulb is shone upon their doings they are discovered to have their snouts in every possible trough.

They sincerely want to make the country and people's lives better
Then they can realise that they are public servants, and that, as they often tell us, if they have nothing to hide they've nothing to fear. The Sun isn't going to be able to make a splash out of "Er, look, he spent £48 on tube tickets". They are on FOUR JAGS AND MORTGAGE PAID ON A HOUSE HE USED FOR THREE DAYS A YEAR.

As I said in my first post on this thread, perhaps that makes me too close to the issue.
Actually, you said nothing of the sort. You just complained -- as a high-level insider -- about arguments on this being presented "without context" by the media. I choked on the irony. But, unlike some, I can't expense the non-NHS treatment I'll now need.

(Full disclosure: I'm a journalist, and have long witnessed these weasels attempting to avoid exposure as charlatans)
posted by bonaldi at 1:30 PM on January 19, 2009


Time I FOI'd Brighton And Hove, actually.
posted by bonaldi at 1:31 PM on January 19, 2009


This isn't about apathy, or ignorance, this is about a political system where, if you're not part of the party solution, you're part of the problem.

I think you've always had to make some concessions whatever political system you're in, that's what makes politics difficult, it's a compromise.

I don't know how much you get involved in politics local or national, but complaining about your representatives without getting involved is no way to get anything changed. One of the things you've got to consider are the social changes that led us to 'the professional politician'. The sort of social organisations like churches, trade unions or working mens clubs that launched people with social concerns into political careers no longer exists, we no longer have the same civil society glue that joins the public with the politicians. Politicians may be more distant professionals these days and there may be some loss of faith, but I don't think you could hold any one group responsible for that.
posted by doobiedoo at 1:36 PM on January 19, 2009


Regardless of how noble you think our politicians are; I think there's more than a whiff of hypocrisy about a government intent on creating an ID-carded, CCTV'd, data-shared, biometric surveillance state, going to such lengths to hide its members from scrutiny.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:47 PM on January 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


Bonaldi - when Derek Conway...

That's whataboutism. I'm not saying that every politician is honest and upright, I'm saying most of them are. I'm not saying that every expense should be kept secret, I'm saying that as much should be disclosed as possible, ideally everything, but that there's a counterweight in the way that the media will treat that information, and the consequences that will have for political engagement (Sova sets out the best case).

BTW, I think it's a bit off to imply that I'm defrauding taxpayers by claiming expensive shoes (they're Converse trainers actually) and health care (NHS all the way for me).
posted by athenian at 1:50 PM on January 19, 2009


athenian, I've always enjoyed your contributions here, but your first post leaves me wondering who the hell you think the British people are? The kind of focus-group claptrap of modern politics that imagines we all buy the Sun and lap up every word unmediated by our class, community and a thousand and one other factors is as much a poison in the body politic as the cynicism you rightly identify. If we're going to have a democracy, at some point this will involve trusting the people.
posted by Abiezer at 1:53 PM on January 19, 2009


Abiezer - that's a very fair point. I don't think that people are completely motivated by what they read in the press, they wouldn't vote at all if that was the case. My worry is that the attitude is more widespread - I read a lot of political discussion forums, and the mainstream ones (Have Your Say, Comment is Free, Daily Mail etc) take it completely as read that politicians are evil and self-serving. European polling shows that the UK has, and has had for some time, unusually low levels of trust in politicians and the political process - perhaps our politicians are much more corrupt than those in other EU member states, though I doubt it.

I want to make the political system better, more participative and more representative, and that definitely means trusting the people. But we can't get change if the people needed to create it start from the (IMO inaccurate) view that the whole political world is beyond redemption.
posted by athenian at 2:01 PM on January 19, 2009


No, athenian, for it to be whataboutism there has to be some principle involved -- eg, "America espouses freedom for all, but whatabout the fact that its prisoners are mainly black? Therefore it's all bunk."

There's no apparent principle involved in your stance, other than "sometimes politicans who have run up hard-to-explain expenses bills are often made to explain them, and then they get treated meanly by the press and public ... therefore they should be allowed to keep them secret. After all, they're quite nice chaps. I've met and worked with some of these boys, and they're jolly decent".

(Converse or no, your shoes are not available for the walking of miles in. The NHS thing was a dig at MP-expense claimers)
posted by bonaldi at 2:05 PM on January 19, 2009


European polling shows that the UK has, and has had for some time, unusually low levels of trust in politicians and the political process

This situation is not repaired in the slightest by MPs exempting themselves from the already scant FOI requirements.
posted by bonaldi at 2:07 PM on January 19, 2009


Have Your Say, Comment is Free, Daily Mail etc
You're a braver man than me. The speak-your-brains on there tends to attract a certain type I reckon, and I wouldn't take it as altogether representative. I'm sure you don't.
I think bonaldi's right - a bit more obvious transparency and people will by and large be fair minded. I recall the campaign for MPs to be paid was to allow working class representation rather than just the independently wealthy and I'm sure no-one but the most died-in-the-wool cynic would object to fair remuneration. And if it is fair, why not transparent too?
posted by Abiezer at 2:14 PM on January 19, 2009


err, dyed in the wool. Not that it matters other than self respect.
posted by Abiezer at 2:15 PM on January 19, 2009


Athenian "they're emotional negative reactions" etc.
That's because I have seen my taxes squandered and politicians behave like scumbags for far too long. Not because I read the tabloids.

I normally think of it this way: who would want to become a politician? All the smart, useful to society, all round decent people I know would never become politicians.

Why do people get into politics? It's definitely not because they want to help people. Most of them (in the UK at least) look and act like the most weak willed, stupid, ill informed, out of touch, pathetic specimens who wouldn't lift a finger to help anyone in "normal life".

One can only suggest that they get into politics to try and get a bit of power and inflict their will on others because they were bullied at school or something. Or because they know if they succeed they will be able to get decent board positions with big companies and rake in the money.

I'm sorry if you feel you're too close to the issue to debate this properly. I don't want to throw stones, but you're also probably too close to the issue because I would imagine that your work in the civil service has given you a guaranteed state pension. Whereas the rest of us who've been paying national insurance etc. towards our pensions our whole lives are likely to not get a pension when we retire because this government has been so useless with our money.
posted by debord at 2:27 PM on January 19, 2009


I'll beleive the lack of bullshit tabloid feeding frenzy when I see it.
posted by Artw at 2:31 PM on January 19, 2009


Does anyone have specifics on what they would have to reveal, and what they will be revealing under these proposals, other than a cherrypicked one? (i.e. summarised High Court judgement, draft Bill etc.)
posted by djgh at 2:36 PM on January 19, 2009


I'll beleive the lack of bullshit tabloid feeding frenzy when I see it.
Policy shouldn't be written because of tabloid feeding frenzies, even potential ones.
posted by bonaldi at 2:41 PM on January 19, 2009


The issue of regaining trust in politics and politicians won't be solved by publishing expenses. This isn't about how preferable transparency is, I don't care much either way and I doubt it will much of a difference beyond the initial hysteria. All it will do is solicit more cynicism from a supposedly cynically fatigued public courtesy of an equally unscrupulous media and then be forgotten until the publishing of expenses itself becomes a ridiculous drain on taxpayers money because of the time taken to authorise, digitise, file, store, archive, recall, overseer and sign off on all the necessary paperwork.

Extravagant expenses where they are a problem should be dealt with by good auditing (I mean what kind of idiot will OK a £1600 cleaning bill for windows??), not by submission to the punch and judy panto of predatory politicians and the eternally victimised public.
posted by doobiedoo at 3:11 PM on January 19, 2009


1. I feel that politics is a tough job where you can't possibly know all the consequences of a given piece of legislation, and whilst there certainly are venal little crooks out there abusing the system, a large number of these guys genuinely are trying to do a good job through the myriad distractions and difficulties and unknowables that are so easy to reduce through cherry-picking and unnuanced self-righteousness to rhetorical broadsides that do nothing to further the discourse and improve the country but simply exist as a means to feel good about one's own moral failings as we drink with our mates in the pub.

2. I feel massively disenfranchised by the current political system. When I watch the news there's usually only one story - Event has transpired, labour is rushing out some kneejerk action about it, conservatives say that what Labour is doing is totally and utterly wrong. Media is shrill about event in one direction or the other depending on their political position. I have no time to make sense of every single issue, you can't investigate each story if you've a full-time job and eventually the noise just wears you down.

2i. When I see a politician being interviewed on the news and he's repeatedly avoiding a simple question with a simple answer that the interviewer knows the answer already it drives me spare. But there's no party or politician out there with any candour to actually answer these things straight, and the interviewer has no real interest in extracting the knowledge. It's pantomime that makes me feel like neither side is on my team, but as long as everyone's handling the interviews this way, there's no incentive to be honest for any of them.

3. I disagree with a large number of politicians' actions. The neverending stream of cases and incidents on privacy, from CCTV to centralised databases to schooling to national health where I don't feel the government has any interest whatsoever in doing the right thing by the average person and creates a system that they themselves can opt out of through money or contacts or legislation hurts, really hurts my perception of the whole process.

4. I don't trust the governments' competence, even when I trust its intentions. This is most true when it comes to storing information on people - ID cards, all manner of ethnographic databases. Our public workers routinely lose things, leave things places, post things to the wrong addresses. Why do they have the right to all of our information, when they have shown on a number of occaisions they can't be trusted with it, and then deny us information that really is important?

5. I can't bring myself to read Private Eye, in part because of the unpleasant tone and in part because the stories in there, if even only 20% of them are as much as 20% true, are enough that we should just burn the whole establishment down, the politicians and the journalists and everything in between, and return to feudal times.

6. The tabloids are continuously in a feeding frenzy. That's what they do. If it's not expenses it'll be something else - an attractive child found dead, something about Our Brave Boys without adequate armour (of all the things I hate the tabloids for it's their appropriation of soldiers that angers me the most. No, sorry it's all the baby P stuff). Given this fact, full transparency on expenses isn't that big a deal in headline terms, and nothing in comparison to the not-infrequent mess ups that politicians get caught trying to escape from. It's important for me, on a 'feeling that perhaps we all live under the same set of rules after all' level that this sort of transparency exists.

7. I work in government.

Phew. Sorry about that.
posted by Cantdosleepy at 3:17 PM on January 19, 2009 [4 favorites]


Why do people get into politics? It's definitely not because they want to help people.

No, it really really is because they want to help people.

Take for example Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary. I loathe her. I disagree with her policies on civil liberties, illegal drugs, policing, surveillance, privacy, and so on. I think she's foolish and weak and wrong.

I also firmly believe she got into politics because she wanted to make the world a better place, and the vast majority of our MPs did. The younger left-ier ones might talk of fighting for causes, the older right-ier ones might mention duty, but they are there to represent us and do what they (misguidedly) think is right, not to put their snouts in the trough.

Good article by Daniel Finkelstein: MPs' expenses: a silly squabble.
posted by alasdair at 3:35 PM on January 19, 2009


I actually just wanted to chime in to say thank you to people making this a non-froth-at-the-mouth discussion, for the most part.

After being involved in politics in Canada, I'm just starting to dip my feet into it in my new home. I'm learning a bit about UK political culture from this thread, weirdly.

I normally think of it this way: who would want to become a politician? All the smart, useful to society, all round decent people I know would never become politicians.

With respect debord, this statement really bothers me. It's a sentiment I was seeing more and more of in Canada, and it seems far more entrenched here. It irks me because it takes such a subjective experience and perception and tries to write it onto something large, like the political system.

In left-leaning circles in Canada, you can hear people saying the exact same thing; just replace the word "politician" with "soldier" or "cop".

It made me uncomfortable then, too, because it's fantastically unproductive and immediately shuts down any possibility of reasoned debate.
posted by generichuman at 3:45 PM on January 19, 2009


Extravagant expenses where they are a problem should be dealt with by good auditing
There has to be a pressure for good auditing to be implemented, and it won't arise while politicians and civil servants can keep their expenses and activities entirely or largely out of the public gaze.
posted by bonaldi at 4:06 PM on January 19, 2009


If there's one thing that doesn't need duplicating between constituency and office, it's your cocking iPod. Really, just don't take the piss. Changing the law after the glare of attention merely gives the impression that there is going to be a lot more piss-taking in the shadows, and that it will be implicitly tolerated by the Good Apples in Parliament and there is nothing we can do about it because it is cross-party approved. Some media outlets might encourage the feeding frenzy, but there's still plenty of room for other issues to be aired, as there always has been. (And that Times article compares it all to abuse of the stationery cupboard. Does that mean all Times journalists merrily loot their offices?)
posted by 4eyes at 4:27 PM on January 19, 2009


I'm agnostic as to why people go into politics. However, inhibiting openness and transparency despite a High Court ruling to the opposite doesn't leave a great range of interpretations. A person who goes into the public sphere needs to acknowledge that they will be accountable for their public actions, including the spending of public money. I want to trust that the people auditing the expense claims do a good job, but I also want to feel that public scrutiny is always a positive.

If newspapers and television have degraded their role in public debate, then more pity them, especially now we have so many alternatives. But how do we balance the potential for abuse of this information with the actual value to the public sphere? Taking the view that the level of abuse warrants withholding the information only strengthens the force of the abuse when it does happen. MPs could have declawed the media on this issue, but they fluffed it.
posted by Sova at 4:52 PM on January 19, 2009


After an expense row which forced the Leader of the Scottish Tories to resign, the Scottish Parliament institued new measures on transparency for MSPs expenses. You can now search online the expenses of any MSP. AFAICR, this has not subsequently led to a rash of outrages at individual receipts. Rather, it lets us see what's being done with our money. Every other public employee can be subjected to this level of scrutiny e.g. Auditor General John Bourn, who was forced to resign over expenses, so why should MPs be a special case?

If it's designed to avoid embarrassment over individual items, well fuck 'em. If you're going to be embarrassed about a particular receipt, maybe you should have thought of that when you forked over public money in the first place.
posted by Jakey at 5:12 PM on January 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


My take on the fiddling of expenses is that it is a pass-time only for the most stupid form of aspiring fraudster. At least that has been my experience from working in large businesses, travelling and going through the rigmarole necessary to claim my money back and break even on my trips: first of all I have to attempt to verify each line item with a receipt, then I have to fill in and print out the correct version of a complex form. My boss likes to go through this very carefully with close reference to the corporate guidance document saying what we are and are not allowed to claim. One erroneously claimed newspaper and I am probably an aspiring Bernie Madoff. If he deigns to sign the form it is sent off to another department where it will be re-checked and carefully filed by an anally retentive clerk: one minor error and the whole thing comes back to me again. Nothing is scrutinised as closely as travel expenses and I suspect con-men are therefore fastidious about making them add up perfectly. That way nobody will suspect them of bribery, embezzlement, nepotism and outright theft.

I don't trust most politicians very far but I am willing to bet that those who are bad apples will submit flawless expenses.
posted by rongorongo at 6:00 PM on January 19, 2009


Hey generichuman, sorry that statement bothers you, perhaps this attitude is getting more prevalent because it's getting more true, I think it is. with the exception of the army: I deeply disagree with Iraq etc, but all the people I know in the army are very decent types who just want to help, whatever crappy situation our glorious leaders have put them in.

On the other hand, someone I know in the police is desperate to leave because they've been made a virtual pariah because they're not as happy as their workmates to rough up prisoners and make arrests violently. Nice eh...
posted by debord at 6:03 PM on January 19, 2009


Can publishing information in the name of public scrutiny and accountability foster trust or change opinion without addressing the persistence of our own bad faith?

Criminal statistics are a great example where publicised information has done nothing to change public confidence or opinion. The past half century's experience of high, increasing crime and the perception of government incompetence has become institutionalised in what and how the media reports crime - even though crime has been continuously declining since 1995. Public opinion hasn't changed and this is partly down to the popular perception of offenders as calculating, parasitic incorrigibles beyond reform which in turn allows a conflation of everyday, mundane crime with high profile, dramatic violations.

A similar pattern of suspicion and conflation extends towards politics, it doesn't matter if it is warranted or not, what matters is that perceptions aren't derived from fact but socially conditioned by various institutions. In such a situation public scrutiny only acts to confirm our prior anxieties, not to deliberate and discuss. The Scottish condition differs from that of the UK in that it has a stronger tradition of progressive social reform that appeals to the common good, as you can see they have a lot more trust in their politicians.
posted by doobiedoo at 6:28 PM on January 19, 2009


even though crime has been continuously declining since 1995

That kind of depends on who's figures you believe doesn't it?
posted by debord at 10:45 PM on January 19, 2009


doobiedoo, your link is to a Scottish, not UK survey. It shows that Scottish people have more trust that Holyrood rather than Westminster will act in Scotland's interests. I don't think that is a surprising result, given that Holyrood is solely concerned with Scotland and Westminster has a wider remit, but it's a different result from what you imply.

And, Scottish public attitudes aside, I think it's safe to assume that after claiming two high profile scalps in expense scandals (I forgot McLeish's famous "muddle, not a fiddle" earlier), the Scottish press have been all over the open data, thus far to no avail.

I disagree with your suggestion that increased public scrutiny would act to confirm anxieties about the conduct of our politicians. I would argue that this is the case under the current system, where each detail has to be teased out piecemeal by repeated FOI requests, leading to a string of mini-revelations, each serving to stoke the fire a little more. This kind of situation is completely defused under an open system.

The likely result under such a system at Westminster would be a one-off bonanza of embarrassing revelations when the historical data is revealed, as expenses that MPs never expected to see the light of day are examined. Going forward, it would be likely that they would exercise a little more discretion in how they spend public money, and would be seen to be doing so. That's a win-win. The only excuse for the current proposal is to cover past embarrassments, and it just serves to confirm the opinion of those who see politicians as venal money-grubbers.
posted by Jakey at 2:32 AM on January 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


Many MPs that I have been in contact with certainly appear to be in the job 'for the right reasons', whether or not I agree with their method or motivation. It is a very hard job requiring every waking hour, if it is done with intention.*

There are also those who are in the job 'for the wrong reasons' and they can often scupper the work of their more well intentioned colleagues due to their sociopathic tendencies. It takes a lot of time, money and effort to get anything done in Westminster and the actions of one less than scrupulous politician can ruin months, or years, of hard work.

The idea that politicians only work for themselves is anti-democratic and was a favourite of Thatcher (and the writers of Yes, Minister), if you are repeating that idea you should consider why. The prevalence of this idea has done immense damage to UK political discourse.
..fringe economists such as Friedrich von Hayek, whose economic models left no room for altruism, but depended purely on self-interest, leading to the formation of public choice theory. In an interview, the economist James M. Buchanan decries the notion of the "public interest", asking what it is and suggesting that it consists purely of the self-interest of the governing bureaucrats. Buchanan also proposes that organisations should employ managers who are motivated only by money. He describes those who are motivated by other factors—such as job satisfaction or a sense of public duty—as "zealots".
I support the FOI act and believe that the expenses of politicians should be audited, published and are part of the public domain. Whether the feckless media get a few stories out of it is inconsequential.

aside/ Cantosleepy - 'Our public workers routinely lose things, leave things places, post things to the wrong addresses.'

However, none of this information has every been demonstrated to have been used to defraud any member of the public, or any other person. In short it appears that the release of information has been the only victim of the 'spate' of data loss by various government employees. The result seems to be that doing research into government figures (such as the work done by the DWP) is hindered unnecessarily.

How does this effect us? Well it means that the government and/or the press can make spurious claims about issues (such as asylum seekers) without any facts or figures to support or undermine their statements. A great deal of public money is wasted on pursuing purely political ends with policy to the detriment of our society.

* IIRC Steven Fry is one of the few people who works as hard as a politician, according to an interview I saw. Here he is with his take on politicians.
posted by asok at 7:43 AM on January 20, 2009


Gordon Brown today retreated from plans to exempt MPs' expenses from the Freedom of Information Act.
posted by gregjones at 5:23 AM on January 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Blimey. It looks like the Internets won. According to MySociety.org, over 90% of MPs were emailed about this, despite the proposal only being raised last week. Perhaps a small boost to public engagement to show changes can be achieved with a little effort.
posted by Jakey at 6:08 AM on January 21, 2009


This is excellent news - I'm really happy. mySociety is saying that over 90% of UK MPs were emailed about the issue, which shows how strongly people felt about the issue. Hopefully it might get through to parliament that we expect them to be honest and not waste our money.
posted by TheDonF at 2:09 AM on January 22, 2009


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