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Parliament – so where are we now?

Posted by Nomocrat on June 30, 2009

We have a new Speaker to restore public confidence and ‘clean up’ their act…

And the person chosen for the post? John Bercow. A man:

  • who did the second home flipping thing when he sold two houses within one year, but who has said he will repay the equivalent of Capital Gains Tax on one of them despite denying he did anything wrong.

So that’s all right then. Not.

It remains hard to fathom why MPs think that the ‘I didn’t break the rules’ excuse cuts any ice. It’s irrelevant. More than that, it reinforces opinion about the deep-rooted dishonesty of MPs.

Regardless of what the rules say, it is clearly wrong to switch the designation of main and secondary home. Either a place is your main home or it isn’t. It isn’t something that changes depending on which of the properties needs refurbishment (with taxpayer money) or which you intend to sell (while avoiding CGT).

It is simply impossible to believe that MPs cannot see this as clearly as voters can see it. They must know they have done wrong, in which case the only conclusion is that they are lying when they say ‘I didn’t do anything wrong’. So why should we have any trust in them or their genuine commitment to reform the system? Why should we believe that they will be any less inventive in breaking the spirit of any new rules and greedily using them to their financial advantage?

  • who has switched his political views to a remarkable extent.

In the mid-80s Bercow was chairman of the pro-apartheid Federation of Conservative Students before swerving deftly to the left to the point where there were rumours he might switch to the Labour party when Gordon Brown became leader. Critics accuse him of opportunism and of adjusting his views to fit the prevailing political trend.

  • who has never hidden his ambition to be Speaker – in fact, critics suspect that the switching of his political views was because he realised he would only get the Speaker job with Labour support.

At 46 he is one of the youngest speakers and, although saying he will only hold the post for nine years, could therefore have a long and lucrative career at the (current) annual salary of £141,866, entitlement to first-class travel and luxury hotels (including taking his wife abroad at taxpayers’ expense), a chauffer-driven car and first-class train travel to and from his constituency, and a handsome pension worth  half the Speaker’s salary for life, regardless of length of service.

 And, of course, lavish grace and favour apartments. Mind you, he has said that he will not claim his second home allowance while in office.

That’s good of him.

  • who believes MPs should get a substantial pay rise to put them alongside other professionals, such as GPs, who earn around £100,000 a year.

Words fail me.

…and we have a new set of rules

The Parliamentary Standards Bill will introduce new offences to prevent MPs stealing our money by false claims for allowances, punishable by up to a year in prison, as well as various other measures to ensure they comply with rules governing their behaviour.

Oh goody. More rules. More bureaucracy. More time and money spent on keeping our representatives honest.

We don’t need more rules. We don’t want MPs who are honest because increasingly specific rules spell out how they must be honest. Rules will never be tight enough to prevent all possible abuses.

What will prevent that, and what we want, are MPs who are inherently honest. Who know what is right and what is wrong. Who fully understand the import of both words in the description ‘public servant’. Who are there because they genuinely want to serve the country and its people, and not to get rich with a nice salary topped up with expenses and making a pile out of property bought, run and refurbished by the taxpayer.

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Banker’s trough is still full

Posted by Nomocrat on June 22, 2009

While his predecessor settles back to contemplate the luxurious retirement afforded by his large pension pot, new RBS chief executive Stephen Hester starts a new week during which his £9.6m remuneration package is expected to be approved.

I’ll type that again in case the shock made you wonder if your eyesight was failing or suspect that I might have made a typo. £9.6m.

This is the same RBS that is now 70% owned by British taxpayers. The reason, and need, for bailing out the banks, is understood. However, the fact remains that had public money not been used to rescue the bank, there would be no RBS to pay large sums of money to executives.

Given the choice, I suspect most taxpayers would be happier if their money was used to protect some or all of the 9,000 job cuts announced by RBS, rather than feathering more executive nests.

Ah, but we need the best people at the top and have to reward them accordingly. Really? Given the mess that the ‘best people’ have got us all into, I find that argument rather hollow. Given the fact that RBS only continues to exist because of the taxpayer bailout, it seems to me that the ‘reward’ for the executives is still to have a job, period (unlike the 9,000 people whose jobs are being cut).

More worryingly, the remuneration package, which was agreed by leading shareholders including UK Financial Investments (which manages the 70% held by taxpayers) includes incentive payments that will depend on share prices reaching targets over the next few years. These incentives apparently add up to around £6m of the total package.

If you were the RBS chief executive and had the choice of a) increasing the amount of lending, which is inevitably risky, and jeopardising your £6m incentive, or b) taking as little risk as possible and getting your £6m payout, which would you choose?

But the problem is that we need the banks to lend more, without excessively restrictive conditions, in order to get money flowing again and assist the country’s recovery. We don’t want them to keep all the money we’ve given them in nice safe investments. The banks were not bailed out with public money in order to keep well-paid executives in work, they were bailed out because their collapse could have destroyed the whole economy.

So what we now seem to have is a remuneration package for the RBS chief executive that actively discourages him from leading the bank to play a role in our economic recovery. I appreciate the need to increase share prices so that the taxpayer can eventually sell the 70% stake, ideally at a profit. But the priority at the moment is ‘now’, not ‘eventually’.

Until bankers resume lending, albeit with a bit more care than they did while racking up their huge bonuses in recent years, the economy and, more importantly, individual employees and businesses, will continue to suffer.

Perhaps Stephen Hester’s incentive payments should have been based on target percentages of increased lending, of increased money flow, rather than rising share prices.

Or perhaps, given the huge suffering the recession is causing to the majority of people for whom Mr Hester’s ‘basic’ £1.2m in pay is the stuff of dreams, and the fact that the banks brought us into this mess, Mr Hester and other executives should not be bribed with bonuses for running the banks we own properly.

Perhaps we should just, simply, expect them to do their jobs. At least they still have one.

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Martin bows out

Posted by Nomocrat on June 18, 2009

In his address to the Commons ahead of his resignation as Speaker, Michael Martin said he was ‘deeply disappointed’ that MPs had rejected reform proposals made by his committee in July last year and that party leaders should have shown more leadership. Many of the reforms, he said, were the same as the reforms they now backed.

In other words, MPs of all parties had an opportunity last year to reform the expenses system from which they handsomely benefited, but decided not to do so. Perhaps the naysayers were awaiting the exchange of contracts on the sale of their ‘no capital gains tax’ flipped second home, or the pool cleaning company wasn’t due yet, and they didn’t want to nuke the system before they’d snuffled the last truffle.

Details of MPs’ expenses have also now been published by the Commons after a long battle to prevent disclosure. As had previously been known, key details on the ‘official’ list have been blanked out – making it all but impossible, for example, to identify issues such as ‘flipping’, which was brought to light by the Daily Telegraph’s publishing of the ‘leaked’ version.

Meanwhile Treasury minister Kitty Ussher is the latest to step down after information came to light about her flipping to avoid capital gains tax. Ms Ussher has repeated the tired phasing of others, saying she did nothing wrong and ‘acted within the rules’, thereby showing that, like others, she is missing the point entirely. The point being that it is clearly and obviously wrong, to any right-minded individual, to change the designation of primary and second homes. A house is either your main home or it isn’t – that’s not something that can be changed on a whim, conveniently before the redesignated primary home is sold.

I understand why MPs don’t want to say they did anything wrong. But I honestly believe that if they did admit that they played and milked the system, and apologised for it, the public would hold them in higher regard (which is not the same as saying that we want them, or the expenses system, to remain in place).

What conclusion can voters be expected to draw, other than that the only reason for the current eagerness to reform is that ‘they got found out’? Most people can see quite clearly that what they have been doing is unfair – regardless of what the rules say. It is a source of frustration that MPs apparently cannot see that. They are obviously a different breed of person with a different set of social mores to the majority of voters.

Why therefore, should voters now be expected to trust them? Integrity in public life is not an optional extra: you either have it or you don’t.

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The Nomocrats – inclusive government

Posted by Nomocrat on June 17, 2009

 

What we need in a new political party is one that is truly representative and has the trust and support of the whole electorate. That doesn’t mean weak government. It doesn’t mean holding a referendum on every issue. It is not possible to govern by committee – but it is possible for elected representatives to govern in a way that is in tune with the public, as long as the party and its members are trusted.

The Nomocrats would be about ‘small’ government – literally by cutting the number of MPs by about half from the present number, and metaphorically by reducing the role of the State. Central Government would focus on national issues and international relations; it would set broad policies and collect and distribute taxes. Many existing (mainly recent) laws would be repealed where they impinge on individual rights, freedoms and responsibilities, and power that has been increasingly centralised would be devolved to Local Government, whose elected representatives would be better placed to address local issues.

Law must also be based on justice and must be framed with the support and in the interests of all. For example, there is a principle – with good reason behind it – that laws should not be applied retrospectively. However, in unique times, unique options might be considered. If public money, our taxes, has had to be used to bail out the banks, then it is clearly unfair that bankers have earned huge bonuses as a result of risks on weird and insubstantial investments which brought about the collapse of the banking system and the recession that affects us all. So, it does not seem unfair that a law could be passed to require all bonuses earned by bank employees over, say, the last three years, to be repaid to the Treasury – along with excessive pensions – which would make some inroads into the amount invested to keep the banks afloat. What’s that? We need to leave the past, present and future bonus system alone in order to attract the top bankers? Well, instead of the ‘top’ banker, let’s settle for the second best…or the third best…or the 50th best. I can’t believe there is much more than the thickness of cigarette paper between them.

With fewer MPs at Westminster, government would be inclusive in that Parliament as a whole would be involved. Every MP would be a full time MP, with no ‘outside’ job paying them money and taking their time. Part of their role would be to liaise with their local representatives and constituencies, but they would also be actively involved in government. Greater use would be made of committees, who would bring recommendations to Parliament for voting. Government would be by representative Parliament, not by elite Cabinet.

It has been suggested that a new political party arising from popular demand and disgust at the current system would lack the expertise to deal with the important issues of State (rather than just dealing with the expenses scandal). No problem. With fewer MPs, it would be possible and necessary to invite relevant experts from outside Parliament onto those committees. The full time civil servants in the various Government departments also have considerable collective knowledge and expertise to offer. How many times have we read about Government projects being cancelled at the cost of millions (followed by the rapid cliché response that ‘lessons will be learned so it doesn’t happen again’? It happens time and time again. Yet in many cases, experts outside the Government predicted the failure and know how it should have been managed to reduce the likelihood of failure. I read a letter to a newspaper recently from a surgeon, who said (I paraphrase): if the Government wants to know what is wrong with the NHS and how to fix it, why don’t they ask the people working in it? Quite.

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Darling Blears

Posted by Nomocrat on June 17, 2009

That’s two names, not an affectionate reference to Hazel.

The fun and games carry on as politicians continue to show us that their main preoccupation is self-preservation and self-promotion.

Blears has apologised for the timing of her resignation and comments about Brown. At a time when there are reports that her constituency may deselect her as an MP. The two things are obviously unrelated.

Darling was interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning. He did the usual politician thing of not answering direct questions but instead turning every question into a pad from which to launch his pre-rehearsed comments about how great he has and will be in helping the UK through recession with his budgets and spending plans. Towards the end of the interview he was asked by presenter Jim Naughtie whether there had been any discussions about his position prior to the Cabinet reshuffle. Darling waffled that he never commented on such things.

But ‘such things’ are important. Why? Not because of prurient interest but because it was widely reported ahead of the reshuffle that Brown wanted Darling out of the Treasury. When the reshuffle was announced, Darling stayed put. Darling does not look like a leader in waiting, a rouser of the Labour backbench and Cabinet pack, and nor is he a particularly popular figure with the voting public – so if Brown wanted to move him how hard could it be? What prevented it?

It is hard not to come to the conclusion that Darling knows where some bodies are buried; that he has something on Brown that could damage him. And that is why we need to know.

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The Nomocrats – nature and purpose

Posted by Nomocrat on June 14, 2009

In a free society, the guiding philosophy should be that ‘everything is allowed except that which is expressly forbidden’. Today it feels like that has been turned on its head, and instead we are banned from doing anything except that which the Government considers acceptable.

Yes, we need laws that protect individuals, society and the country so that people can go about their day-to-day lives in peace and safety. But we don’t need legislation on the minutiae of life. Of course, governments like power, and passing laws enables more power to be taken by the State.

We do not live in a Police State. We are governed and policed by consent, so perhaps its time to withdraw some of that consent. We don’t want MPs enriching themselves at our expense (whether they act within the rules they made for themselves or not); we don’t want police ‘kettling’ and assaulting innocent people during demonstrations; we don’t want a country where there is a ‘political class’ and ‘the rest’.

We don’t want to live in communities that are terrorised by criminals; we don’t want to live in environments strewn with rubbish and graffiti; we don’t want a society in which ‘looking after number one’ is the only priority nor one in which that is the only way to be safe and to succeed; we don’t want homeless people forced to sleep in doorways.

We want a fair society, with law that is focussed on what is just rather than how cleverly an expert lawyer can argue about the complex small print; in which those who need support can find it but everyone understands that they need to play their part.

We want politicians – whether Westminster or local authority – and civil servants to remember that there are two words in ‘public servant’, and both deserve equal emphasis.

Of course, none of this is radical or original thinking, and nor is it easy to achieve. But perhaps a start could be made if government was inclusive rather than exclusive; if it was truly: government of the people, for the people, by the people.

And that would be the essence of my fantasy political party – The Nomocrats (NO MOre CRAp ThankS).

Key principles would be: inclusive government; small government – not just metaphorically but literally, with the number of MPs cut from the nearly 650 at present to probably nearer to 300, and with all of those MPs involved in government, not just an elite Cabinet.

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MPs still don’t get it

Posted by Nomocrat on June 11, 2009

Labour’s poor performance in the recent elections have led to Opposition parties crowing about their own successes now and in terms of projections for the next General Election; while the internal unrest in the Labour party has allowed its members, as well as Opposition MPs, to focus on Brown’s perceived failings. All, of course, amid the cacophony of MPs rushing to declare their commitment to ‘Reform’.

These recent events have moved the expenses scandal down the news agenda a bit, so perhaps MPs are thinking: yesterday’s news, let’s move on.

I don’t think so. Public anger is still high. Attempts to ‘move on’ by promising future reforms, or by stressing that only a minority of MPs actually broke the rules, entirely miss the point.

While it’s hard to blame individual MPs for claiming as much as they could within the rules (who amongst us would not do the same?), what is upsetting is the knowledge that MPs have been living the high life with an allowances system topping up their salaries – an allowances system that they are collectively responsible for. Everyone understands that MPs, like anybody else, should be reimbursed for expenses incurred in the course of their work. But that does not mean large mortgages on grand second homes, nor hundreds of pounds on food bills, nor £250 a month in undefined ‘petty cash’.

The public want to see MPs contrite. They want to see resignations and sackings and, if fraud was committed, prosecutions. They don’t want to see some MPs and Cabinet members continuing in their posts despite exposures of claiming accountant’s fees for personal tax returns (which nobody else can do) or admitting to incorrectly claiming because they were ‘too busy’ to sort out their expenses.

And until that happens – until the public are convinced that MPs recognise that they are at fault (even if acting ‘within the rules) – then trust in MPs, in the Government and in Parliament will remain damaged. Until that trust is repaired, all assurances that they understand the public anger and are committed to reform will fall on deaf ears.

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Yah boo politics alive and well

Posted by Nomocrat on June 7, 2009

Is it cynical to wonder about the sincerity of MPs, of all parties, now rushing to claim their commitment to ‘cleaning up the system’ – not just the expenses rules but other areas that need reform?

I don’t particularly expect MPs to wander around in hairshirts while flagellating themselves, but I suppose I did expect a certain amount of gravitas given the current popular mood. I expected a more serious, measured, restrained tone. Not a bit of it.

I don’t hold any particular brief for Brown (nor Cameron nor Clegg nor…anyone) but the fact is that Brown is not solely responsible for the expenses crisis – the whole Parliament was responsible for allowing the existence and continuation of a system that could be abused.

Yes, the furore over expenses was a factor in the recent elections and yes, Labour fared worse than other parties. That does not mean the other parties are off the hook, however. I am no fan of Harman, but I agree with her comment that Labour was routed because it is in government and the scandal broke ‘on our watch’.

The sight of Cameron, Clegg and others crowing about their ‘victories’ and trying to move the debate on to their resurgence and prospects, suggesting people voted for them because they believe they can clean up the system is…irritating, to say the least.

And the resignations of Cabinet Ministers is equally unedifying. My view is that they are jumping ship in the hope that their subsequent lower profile will allow them to dodge the spotlight on expenses abuse and misuse, and perhaps to position themselves as foes of Brown in the hope of rejoining the Cabinet of his successor if there is a change in leadership. Personally, I would be far more impressed if they stayed in post, showing the courage to face and deal with the fallout over expenses and other issues rather than ducking out.

I don’t want Labour to continue in power: but neither do I want any other party to assume power as a result of a backlash against Labour, rather than a positive vote for their policies. Calls for Brown to resign are an irrelevant distraction: Labour will, I’m sure, lose the next general election – whether or not Brown is still at the helm.

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What is a Nomocrat?

Posted by Nomocrat on June 6, 2009

An admission: I thought it was a made up word. More accurately, an acronym conceived in an idle moment at a time when, like many, I was becoming increasingly angry and frustrated about the daily diet of news about bankers, MPs’ expenses, police ‘kettling’ and lashing out at demonstrators and a host of other things, all against a backdrop of deepening recession.

Frustration with the ‘way things were’ had been there for a long time, but the news of greed and corruption and the huge impact of the actions of the privileged few on the majority brought it to a head.

I fantasised about a new type of political movement that would get back to the basics of good government. The acronym came from a phrase that seemed to sum up my feelings: NO MOre CRAp ThankS.

Not exactly an elegant phrase but expressive of a desire to stem the flow rules and revelations that broadened the gap between the rulers and the ruled; the haves and the have-nots; those in power and those over whom power is exercised.

Does that sound like a plea for anarchy or some sort of nirvana communist state? It’s not. It’s a desire for some basic principles of fair play and justice; for those in power to serve and not rule; for governance that enables rather than restricts; for a society in which the majority view of what is ‘right and just’ is reflected in the views and actions of those who govern.

So Nomocrat, and Nomocracy, were invented terms. Then I searched for the term on Google and found that the word already exists and has meaning. A nomocrat is one who believes in or exercises the principle of government under the rule of law. There are aspects of that that fit with my ideas, although the description also has undertones of a police state, which is far from what I had in mind.

Of course, a political movement has to have a defined set of goals and objectives, and a description of its nature and purpose. In the coming days, I’ll work on some basic ideas – to amuse myself if no-one else.

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Smoke and mirrors

Posted by Nomocrat on June 5, 2009

James Purnell has now resigned from the Cabinet and told Gordon Brown to step aside, saying his continued leadership meant electoral defeat was more likely.

It’s never a pretty sight to watch ‘rats deserting a sinking ship’. Are the deserters putting some distance between themselves and Brown in order to increase their chances of regaining Cabinet posts under a new leader? Or are they running in fear of more revelations about their expenses or in the hope that, having resigned, any demeanours already published will be quietly forgotten. Smoke and mirrors? Distraction from the expenses scandal that has fuelled public anger over the system? Opposition parties, too, are using the public disquiet to trash the Government while offering themselves as the solution to clearing up the mess and rebuilding trust.

In the expenses row there appear to be three categories of MPs – those who may have committed fraud; those who ‘worked the system’ but stayed within the (lax) rules; and those who played the game and claimed little. Fair enough, but the fact remains that all are guilty of working with a system that was obviously in need of reform. Claiming that they had always wanted reform, as some are now doing, cuts little ice. If they had wanted reform they should have been shouting about it and doing something about it, not waiting until the system of abuses was outed to public outrage.

Yes, MPs have to work in two places, their constituencies and London. But having a place to stay does not mean a second home that is a mansion or large London house. They should have one ‘home’, which they pay for, and if necessary an allowance for hotel stays or small rented ‘digs’. Most people understand that anybody who incurs expense in the course of their work should be reimbursed: nobody accepts that expenses should be a top up to a salary or a way to build up a profitable property portfolio.

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