The only 'independent' regulator is the voter

As the expenses scandal now turns towards a more constructive stage, potential reforms are thick on the ground. From wholesale electoral change (see here), to the beefing up the FoI Act (see here), interested parties on all sides are queuing up to offer their diagnosis and prescription.

Gordon Brown concentrated last week largely on the central issue of MPs abuse of the allowances system. After a meeting of party leaders Brown suggested that the answer lay in the establishment of an 'independent' regulator, empowered to police the rules on MPs expenses. As a paper written by Brown put it:

"The new regulator would oversee and administer the new allowance
system, investigate abuses and impose financial sanctions as necessary.
Its overarching purpose would be to assure the public that MPs were
operating in the highest standards of behaviour in the wider public and
private sectors, and avoiding the potential conflicts of interest that
could arise from a traditional approach of self regulation."

On the face of it the idea seems appealing; with MPs so disgraced and clearly dishonest, how can we continue to countenance self-regulation? The tacit support from other party leaders - and that of many MPs - suggests that this proposal also has some chance of actually coming into reality.

But both the diagnosis and prescription in this case are wrong - for several reasons - and the plan should be treated with the utmost caution. 

Let's start with Brown's belief that these proposals "attack at root the cause of distrust and anger in the country". Without descending too far into a debate over what the actual "root" of the anger is, what these proposals appear to attack are the officials who aided members to so expertly feather their nests; the Parliamentary fees office.

But people on the street don't seem particularly infuriated with the fees office. They're angry that their MP thought that it was legitimate to claim for cushions or a duck pond in the first place. Yes a system which then ok's such requests is broken, but the root of the distrust and anger is that 'honourable members' thought such behaviour was acceptable at all. What Brown's proposals attack are the means by which MPs enriched themselves, rather than the root cause (which was, in my opinion, a culture of complacency, secrecy and arrogance among MPs).

If one subscribes to the idea that MPs just can't be trusted to look after their own affairs then Brown's target will seem fair. But notwithstanding the fact such a belief has wider implications - how can MPs be expected to police us if they can not police themselves - the solution, an independent regulator, is also flawed.

For one the regulator is never likely to be genuinely independent. The word means almost nothing in the world of politics, and everyone should distrust immediately anything set up by government that claims to be 'independent', be it a policy review, quango or regulator. At the most basic level, power of appointment and financial control mean that such bodies can never be truly independent of Government or Parliament.

Secondly, the devil - as with all things - will be in the detail. Will the new parliamentary regulator be subject to the FoI Act? Will its powers of punishment extend to demanding the return of expenses, or just a recommendation to? Will it's remit extend to vetting MP's employees? The list of such potential problems is a long one.

Thirdly, such quangos already exist, and their value is questionable. The Senior Salaries Review Board, although not a regulator, does already make recommendations on MPs pay and allowances. Last year they concluded their review into the parliamentary pay and expenses system by noting that there appeared to be no evidence that the expenses system was being abused (page xiii). Fine work.

In the same year (2008), MPs voted to allow the SSRB to set their pay. Anyone who has read a SSRB report can understand why; by pegging MPs pay to that of doctors, judges and army chiefs, MPs pay would increase significantly. Brown has now given his support to the idea that the SSRB should have the power to set MPs pay, but unless it radically changes how it calculates it (pegging it to average earnings perhaps, rather than senior public sector workers), it will work in the interests of MPs, not voters.

But critically, is a quango really the answer to the MP's expenses problem? Is an unaccountable, bureaucratic, (no doubt expensive) parliamentary overseer the solution the public are clamouring for?

Truth is an independent regulator exists already; the public. Once they were given the information, they have done an excellent job in regulating the behaviour of MPs. The more egregious claimants have been pushed out, and all parties have been whipped into action. I doubt many MPs are currently submitting monthly claims for scatter cushions. And this is without an official body set up to police them.

Politicians of all stripes are guilty of setting up quangos to deal with difficult things, but this Government has been particularly addicted to them. In this case though, rather than leaping towards the easy option (setting up an 'independent' body), how about giving the power back to the people? It's cheaper, and if the past month is anything to go by, a lot more effective. Make the new expenses system that emerges from Kelly's enquiry completely transparent; make every bit of it, from the receipts to the angry correspondence between MPs and the fees office, be totally and unequivocally subject to the FoI Act; mandate - or at least encourage - every MP to publicise their expenses in detail each year. Allow the public to recall MPs who have behaved badly, and allow constituents to select candidates, rather than small groups of party activists.

With the help of the press, and pressure groups such as the TPA, the public is the best regulator of parliament. Showing that they trust the people with such power might just help politicians regain the trust of the people too.

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