In my last post, I felt driven to comment on the current scandal surrounding British Members of Parliament and how they have been able to abuse their expenses. In that regard, I have been like most people in Britain, who have been talking to each other with outrage about the actions of some of our greedier MPs. Now I want to stop talking about what MPs did and how they got away with it for so long. Now I want to talk about what we should do about it.
The first observation to make is that MPs deserve some credit for outing themselves. In 2000, Parliament passed the Freedom of Information Act. The purpose of the act can be succinctly explained as follows:
The Freedom of Information Act gives you the right to obtain information held by public authorities unless there are good reasons to keep it confidential.
From the website of the Information Commissioner’s Office
Then along came a journalist. She did something that only a tiny proportion of journalists do, but something all the other journalists find useful to write about. She did some original research. Heather Brooke asked about the expense claims made by MPs. Five years later, and after winning her case in the High Court, those expenses have still not been officially published. What has been published is a leak of the information collated to satisfy Heather Brooke’s original question. If Heather Brooke had not asked her question, and won her case, then nobody would have compiled the information that has now been leaked.
Then along came John Wick. He is an ex-SAS officer who now works in risk management. It seems the government, so keen on collecting data about honest law-abiding citizens, and so careless with protecting it, should take his advice on managing risks. With help from an anonymous accomplice, Wick obtained what he called “an unregistered copy” of the expenses database “as a result of lax and unprofessional security procedures used in the House of Commons”. He also says that “the protective classification given to this project was described to me… as offering the same protection as a wet paper bag”. Looking through the data, Wick was unhappy with the way the original and complete list of expenses was being tarted up for publication – by censoring the uncomfortable truths it contained. Wick then leaked the database to the Telegraph, so they could print the full details, without any omissions.
Thank you, Heather Brooke. She used the law for a good purpose and asked a question that needed to be answered. She fought for the answer in the law courts, and she prevailed. Thank you, John Wick. He took a personal risk in order to do a public good. That decision has been vindicated. The Metropolitan Police and the Crown Prosecution Service have reportedly stated that Wick will not face any charges because the information he leaked is in the public interest and is not a threat to public safety. Final thanks should also go to our MPs, or rather to the MPs who voted for the Freedom of Information Act in 2000. Their reasons for passing the Freedom of Information Act were good. It is just that some of them did not anticipate the good consequences that would follow – good consequences in general, bad consequences for those particular MPs that submitted expense claims in order to fiddle the taxpayer. It is also a shame that some, like the reprehensible former Speaker, Michael Martin, then wasted even more taxpayer money on trying to block the consequences of this law to promote transparency. He was more concerned with hiding dirty laundry than upholding the laws his Parliament had written. This has also been a victory for Parliamentary incompetence over Parliamentary corruption. MPs will pay dearly for spending so much taxpayer’s money on legal obstructions to keep expenses secret, whilst spending so little on the security of that information.
Since the scandal broke, there has been an overwhelming tidal wave of resentment towards MPs. Passions are high. Unfortunately, when blood runs hot, brains often freeze up. The scandal has provoked a spectrum of proposed solutions. These range from demands that the expenses system should be independently policed, to voters saying they will switch allegiance to the BNP. You could also say the proposals range from the stupid to the very stupid.
Let us examine the idea of “independent” scrutiny. It is a fantastic idea – there is a job that needs doing, so let us give it someone else to do. Make it SEP – Somebody Else’s Problem. It is exactly the kind of thinking we hear after every public mess. Going back in history, it is exactly the kind of thinking that got us into this mess. Our MPs are already independent. They are independent of the King, or Queen. That is why we have a Parliament, to curtail the arbitrary rule of the monarch and to govern the nation based on the consent of the people. The British Parliament is the most independent body in Britain. Everything else depends upon it. The Queen has the power to dissolve Parliament and have an election, but in practice she never does this without being told to do it by the Prime Minister. All other sovereign power comes from Westminster (let us skip arguments about the European Union for now). Parliament and Parliamentarians may sometimes break the laws, but Parliament always gets to make the laws. The courts can only curtail Parliament when Parliament breaks its own laws, and even if the courts did intervene, Parliament could just decide to change the law to suit itself. If MPs decide to suspend elections indefinitely, they can pass a law and do it. If MPs decide to pay themselves a one-off bonus of £2 million pounds each, they can pass a law and do it. If they decide they want to punish someone for doing something they think wrong, they can pass a law and then direct the expenditure of millions of pounds on hunting that person and having them punished. They can do that if the person committed the crime before the law they broke existed. They can do that if the person broke a British law whilst in another country where their actions are not considered illegal. If that seems a bit arbitrary, it is, but the public loves it all the same. The public has no problem with arbitrary laws to punish ex-Nazis who never expected they might be subject to British laws, or to punish paedophiles who visit Asia to get their kicks. In short, Parliament already has any and every power needed for absolute rule. The reason they do not tyrannize the nation and plunder its wealth is not because somebody created an “independent” body to stop them. The reason is because we – the collective British public – would stop them.
King John of England was a tyrant of the worst order. His murderous, avaricious and lustful excesses were so infamous that England never had another king named John. Yet he agreed to the Magna Carta. In 1215, the Magna Carta proclaimed that everybody – Kings included – was subject to law. Its principles have had an inestimable impact on the history of the world, influencing the development of constitutional law all over the planet. It enshrines freedoms for all, whilst making all subject to due process in the execution of the law. For example, clause 29 states:
NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.
Wonderful though Magna Carta is, King John did not agree to it because he was a generous fellow who wanted what was right for his people. He was forced to agree to it. King John was forced by a rebel alliance amongst the most powerful barons in Britain. They were tired of John’s taxes and his pursuit of their wives and daughters. To force John to compromise, the barons occupied London. Magna Carta was a peace deal, designed to impose balance. It demonstrated that power could be taken away from a ruler, if other men acted collectively. Magna Carta embodied the idea that if a ruler is unjust, then it is just for his subjects to band together and usurp the ruler’s authority. That principle has been carried down to today, and still underpins democracy. Although Magna Carta is a written document, the principle does not exist in words alone. For there to be balance, just people must be prepared to band together and act when their rulers fail them.
To borrow from US President Harry Truman, the British Parliament is where the buck stops. The people with the ultimate power to create an “independent” body to oversee the expenses of people in Parliament is… Parliament. The people with the ultimate power to decide who works for that body, what they get paid, whether the body is scrapped or reformed is… Parliament. Yes, Parliament can pass laws to get in the way of itself, just like it passed a law which the unintended consequence that we all got to see MPs expenses. It could also have repealed that law. Asking for an extra quango, paid for from taxpayer money, to supervise the actions of MPs is an irrelevance. What we need is for the British public to be public-spirited, and to act like Heather Brooke and John Wick. The British public needs to supervise the actions of MPs, not some unelected body that must ultimately be appointed by the Parliament it is meant to supervise. We must recognize that our rulers answer to nobody, unless they first answer to all of us.
MPs are already subject to plenty of independent scrutiny. The MP for the Isle of Wight, Andrew Turner (Conservative) has the most independent scrutineers. These scrutineers may also be described as eligible voters. There were 108,253 in his constituency at the last general election. The MP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, Angus MacNeil (Scottish National) gets by with the least, with only 21,884 constituents in 2005. The great thing about these independent scrutineers is that they are cheap, because they are us. Except, we did not do a very good job. We voted red or blue on a moronic party-driven basis, and forgot to ask questions of the individuals that were being elected. We may not have known about the expenses, but how many of us thought to ask? Any one of us could and should have asked our own MPs to voluntarily publish details of their own expense claims. Public pressure would have made them do it, just like public pressure is now making a lot of them write big cheques for refunds. Some would have gladly done it. Douglas Carswell, the Conservative MP who was a leader of the revolt against the Speaker, was one MP who voluntarily published all his expenses before there was any scandal. It voters cannot expect Parliament to supervise itself, it should not expect an “independent” body to do so either. Voters need to be the ones who keep an eye on their representatives. Like they say, if you want a job done well, do it yourself.
At present, MPs’ bigger fiddles seem to be worth somewhere between £10,000 and £20,000. There are 646 MPs in total. If MPs ripped off the state by £10,000 on average each year (and we should remember that not all of them are corrupt) then the annual cost to taxpayers is about £6.5 million. That makes this the expenses scandal an argument about principles and good goverance, not an argument about money. This year it looks like the government will borrow a total of £175 billion to pay for all the things deemed vital for a happy prosperous Britain but which the government cannot actually afford. They borrowed £8.5 billion in April alone, a record for that month. We should all be able to agree that Britain has some more serious financial issues to deal with than the pilfering of £6.5m by MPs. Compare the amount that was cheated from the public purse to the amount that will be spent, from now until the crack of doom, if Parliament creates an independent quango to monitor MP’s expenses. To begin with, the quango will need to have a leader who is highly-qualified, very respected, utterly impartial, and well enough paid to be incorruptible. That should mean a salary of at least a £100,000 per year, plus pension pot and other benefits giving a £150,000 per year total package. His or her office will need a staff. Assume five people to deal with the claims themselves, which would equate to about 20 mandays per year being spent reviewing and checking each MP’s expenses. Anything less and you might as well not bother; it would be too easy to cheat. Then you can add another five people in the office to handle all the other nonsense of running a small organization as imposed by laws, rules and regulations (Health and Safety etc) plus the huge amount of time that will be spent communicating with and answering questions from both the media and from private individuals. The total payroll is now looking like it would be half a million pounds at least. Then they need to work in an office somewhere – probably somewhere expensive in central London so they are close to the MPs, and they will need computers, phones, desks and all the rest. We can comfortably reach the point where this independent body needs an annual budget of £2m. What starts out looking like an exercise in saving taxpayer’s money soon ends up an exercise in wasting taxpayer’s money, except in a different way.
We should use another comparison to create some perspective. The Telegraph, the newspaper that leaked the contents of the expenses database in order to boost its circulation and profits, sells between 800,000 and 1,000,000 copies every day. The cover price of the Telegraph is 90p. If Telegraph readers gave up the newspaper for a fortnight, and paid over the money they saved to the taxman, they would more than cover the MPs’ abuses. The cost of this scandal is about 10p per every British citizen per every year it has been going on. That puts it near the bottom of the list of shocking wastes of taxpayer’s money. On the other hand, many more millions are spent every year by private citizens who just want to be aware of the news. That money is well spent, if it means the populous is informed and willing to act to curb the excesses of its rulers.
If we want to clean up Britain, we need to do it. It is not possible to delegate the job of cleaning up public life. Standards in public life are a reflection of standards in all aspects of British life. Our rulers are likely to be as corrupt, lazy or self-serving as we all are. We voted in the corrupt MPs, we were the ones who dropped our guard and failed to ask pertinent questions of our rulers. It was private citizens like Heather Brooke and John Wick, not career politicians or salaried public servants, that acted decisively and unveiled the corruption. We live in a democracy, and the people need to play their own part in ensuring we have good government. As Aristotle noted, government by the many can be either good or bad. He called the bad version “democracy”. The good version he called “polity”, implying we should all be politicians if we are to enjoy the healthy version of a democracy. The furore about MPs’ expenses has prompted many suggestions about how to replace our rulers. Too many of the suggestions would only replace a bunch of career power-seekers who have been proven to be corrupt with a bunch of career power-seekers who are likely to be corrupt. There is an alternative that can guarantee the participation of the people in government. Aristotle would have been familiar with it. I will tell you more in my next post.