Sunday, 19 April 2009

It's in the culture, not the nature.

You can see this morning’s episode of the Big Questions here. Once again, despite having my hand up, I didn’t get a chance to speak.

So here is what I would have said:

The problem is not with the MPs themselves. Taking the example of expenses, we need to look at the other professionals in the UK (let’s not waste time comparing ourselves to other countries and then giving ourselves a pat on the back).

Other professionals, such as lawyers or businessmen, have to fill in their expenses to the penny, accounting for all that they have done and spent. My dad used to come back from business trips armed with wads of receipts for small items, such as cups of coffee, and had to go through all of them meticulously.

Currently, 52% of Conservative MPs are from a legal or business background, and 50% of the Labour MPs who were voted in at the last election have come from a professional background. These are not fundamentally scandalous individuals, whatever Guido Fawkes would have us all believe.

The problem is the culture and the system into which the MPs are integrated – a culture that expects them to claim as much as they can, a culture that remains at the regulatory whim of Parliament, and that until recently allowed MPs to purchase items of up to £250 without a receipt. The public has every right to feel outraged at what it has seen in the last two weeks, but the anger should not be directed at the MPs.

Possibly the most important question – how can this be changed? Given that they are self-regulatory, the only change will be from a party in power who promise to clean up the image of MPs, who promise to make them professional again.

The ball now lies very firmly in David Cameron’s court.


  1. Well wait a minute. If the system exists at the behest of MPs, then are MPs not the people to be attacked for failing to change a system which allows such flagrant abuse?

  2. Thanks for your comment Phil.

    Essentially, no. The MPs themselves as individuals have very little chance of implementing a change. Those in opposition will not get a chance unless they come up for a Private Members’ Bill, and even then the chances are that it will be timetabled out of existence.

    Those in government will be unlikely to pressure their leaders for a change in the law, and those who lead the parties will be unlikely to pursue a change because that will bring about resentment from their own party, which will no doubt lead to a lower tolerance of mistakes in other areas of their leadership.

    The reason that they rules have been kept so long is that it is more convenient for those in power to keep them, and potentially damaging to seek a change. The only time anything has ever changed is when there has been sufficient media attention on the issue.

    Now, due to the current attention, there is a rare window in which much can be achieved. As I said above, Cameron must seize that opportunity.

    Please let me know if this does not sufficiently answer your objection.