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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Politicians on the make


The image of members of Parliament (MPs) in Britain has been damaged by recent revelations about the way in which MPs — including ministers and some senior members of opposition parties — have taken advantage of the rules about expenses to feather their own nests. Some MPs have also been accused of treating their membership of parliamentary committees as an optional chore rather than an important element in their duties.

British MPs are not highly paid, but nor do they receive only a token salary. Their annual salary of just under £65,000 is in the medium range for British salaries. It compares unfavorably with salaries paid to parliamentarians in some other European countries and to the salaries received by many members of the European Parliament, but it is not a pittance.

When MPs first received salaries in the early 20th century, most members regarded their parliamentary work as supplementary to their everyday jobs. Recently however, MPs have come to regard politics as a profession and many of them no longer have other paid work. So they have tended to compare their parliamentary salaries with those in other professions and have tended to conclude that they ought to be better rewarded.

Many constituents, on the other hand, complain that their MP is more interested in getting promotion to a ministerial post or, in the case of the opposition, a shadow ministerial job, than in looking after the interests of their constituents.

The better MPs do a conscientious job. The others who fail their constituents are likely to lose votes at the next election, but as some constituencies are more or less safe seats for either Labour or Conservatives such loyal party members may succeed in being re-elected. They can then reckon on quite a reasonable pension for being reliable "yes-men."

The greed of bankers and the bonus culture where people expect to be given generous bonuses for just doing their job conscientiously has sadly infected politicians. As there is no bonus system for parliamentarians — and it is difficult to see how one could be devised — MPs and ministers who also receive not ungenerous ministerial salaries have taken advantage of the systems devised to cover their essential expenses.

It is justifiably argued that an MP from a constituency outside London needs both a house in his constituency and some accommodation in London to enable him or her to attend parliamentary proceedings and deal with constituency matters involving government departments.

But the rules, drawn up by MPs and approved by the speaker, have been, perhaps deliberately, loosely drawn and even if the letter of the rules has not been broken, the spirit seems to have been consistently breached by some members.

The following are a few glaring examples of the way in which expense claims seem to have been abused. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith claimed that the room in her sister's house in London, which she occupies, is her main home. This enabled her to claim expenses for her house in her constituency, which was used during the week by her husband — who is employed by her as her constituency secretary. He put in a claim for the cost of renting videos, which included two pornographic ones, and was forced to apologize. She is also said to have claimed for the cost of barbecue equipment for use at home.

MPs with constituencies in or near London have made claims for second homes in the London area. One minister lived in a government property that was granted to him in his ministerial capacity, rented out his London home and claimed expenses for another property in his constituency. One opposition member claimed nearly £400 for taxis in one month. Another claimed over £400 for food without producing receipts.

In the eyes of the general public the system stinks and is in need of radical reform. It will inevitably lead to cynicism among British voters and increase the number who see no point in casting their votes for greedy politicians.

But is the position in Britain really worse than that in other countries? I doubt it. Pork barrel politics is sadly pretty universal. The term probably originated in the United States and President Barack Obama has sadly not been able to eliminate it from the next U.S. budget.

Japanese members of the Diet are not known for austerity or for turning down donations from companies or individuals who may hope to gain special favors. Many Japanese have as a result grown increasingly cynical about the motives and behavior of their representatives. They also note wryly the way in which some parliamentarians manage to pass on their seats and connections to the next generation in their family and in some cases to grandchildren and even great grandchildren. Politics for some can clearly be quite lucrative as well as providing access to power and prestige.

If democratic institutions are to survive and thrive and we are to be saved from rightwing or leftwing dictatorship, we must clean up the way in which our politicians are paid and shame those who exploit the system for their own advantage.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.


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