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Parliament, power and expenses

On the day when the average person will discover how much bailing out the banks is going to cost them personally, it’s good to know that the prime minister is proposing that a select group will get something like an extra £25,000 a year, tax free, just for turning up to “work”.

Who are these deserving souls? They are the 646 Members of Parliament, who, if not in the government, are only on about £65,000 a year at present plus allowances and expenses. You can see how hard it is to get by on such a small salary.

So hard, in fact, that many – including the home secretary - have been caught abusing claims for second homes and other items, to the point where even Gordon Brown had to admit yesterday that “the issue of expenses is casting a cloud over the whole of Parliament” and “that the country has lost confidence in the current system".

Brown is desperate to get some changes introduced before details are published in July of about a million expenses claims dating back four years. MPs tried to keep these secret but a vigorous campaign by an investigative journalist led to a High Court judgement in her favour last year.

What is being proposed is an “attendance allowance” – a payment simply for clocking on at the House of Commons. Estimates suggest that this could leave MPs up to £25,000 a year better off – or £40,000 if you take into account that we’re talking tax free here.

Of course, it would be a lot bigger if Parliament actually sat more frequently. Throughout 2009, MPs will only have to turn up for a grand total of 128 days – the lowest figure since the days of Margaret Thatcher, who had a contempt for Parliament only matched by New Labour. An average worker, meantime, could easily have to turn up to work on 245 days, allowing for 15 days holiday, and, of course, gets paid a lot less than an MP.

When it comes to the gravy train, MPs have nothing on former ministers, who use the contacts they made in office to land lucrative positions in business. Take former defence secretary John Reid. Last month it was revealed that weeks after taking Reid on for £50,000 a year to offer “strategic advice”, the security firm G4S was awarded a four-year contract to supply private security guards to military sites across Britain.

Other ministers have also done well since leaving office. Patricia Hewitt, the former trade and then health secretary, has posts with Boots, BT and a private equity firm worth £160,000 a year. That’s nothing compared to former prime minister Tony Blair, who gets an estimated £2 million a year for advising US investment bank JP Morgan.

Brown claimed yesterday that urgent measures were needed to “restore our faith in Parliament and the good that it can do on the public's behalf”. This won’t wash. Parliament, as we have shown, is a toothless part of the state that exercises little control or influence and no government is going to change that reality.

Real power in Britain is hidden behind closed doors, in deals between ministers and those who wield economic and financial muscle. A 2006 survey showed that two-thirds thought large companies had real influence in the political process while only 17% thought ordinary voters had a fair amount of power. No fiddling about with MPs expenses, creating yet another gravy train, will alter that.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor
22 April 2009

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