Monday, 11 May 2009

MPs expenses - an issue of engagement?


If I am honest there is a part of me that has really enjoyed the furore over MPs expenses. In particular I enjoyed the suggestion that there is fun to be had in reporting your own MP to the government's own fraud hotline (dwp.gov.uk/benefitfraud if you need to know).

How did it come to this?

I think it's less to do with the rules (we acted within the rules!) and much more to do with the psychology of parliament itself. There is a perception amongst parliamentarians that they are underpaid. I think this is influenced by three things: the growth of a political class - a type of person who has never done anything else than politics - by the bonus culture politicians have witnessed (and endorsed) at close quarters over the past 20 years and by a cultural tradition of entitlement passed down through the ages. The House is a club, not a service.

In any other institution we would say that this is partly a problem of employee engagement. They turn up for work (sometimes) but they don't really engage in it. MPs clearly do not see a link between their actions and the plight of the taxpayer. It all seems too removed. This is why Gordon Brown apologised for "the last few days", not for the many years of systematic expenses abuse. I bet it all feels less removed now.

What strikes me is that if this really is a problem of culture, then the expenses system is likely to be only the thin end of the wedge. I can easily imagine further, more serious betrayals of trust being revealed in future. And I can imagine more fundamental questions being asked about whether the form of democracy that the House (and public sector) offers is relevant or useful to the modern world.

That would be welcome of course, but I suspect what will happen is a tweaking of the rules, with little thought about the fundamental cultural problems embedded in our system of government.

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