MPs sitting in the House of Commons: the Members Estimates Committee said today that MPs must be banned from using public money to buy furniture and renovate their homes, June 25, 2008.
"Here's an Easy Way to Save Taxpayer £100m — Dump Half Our MPs"
Op-Ed, The Scotsman
May 13, 2009
Author: Azeem Ibrahim, Former Research Fellow, International Security Program, 2008–2010
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
WE HAVE learned about how MPs in Westminster have misused their expenses, kept more houses than they need, paid relatives to do no work, and generally squeezed every drop of benefit from a system based on trust rather than oversight. Everyone agrees the system needs reform We await the inquiry of Sir Christopher Kelly's committee on standards in public life, but there are more fundamental questions to be answered.
Do we need so many MPs? We have 646 to represent 60 million people. By international standards, that's a lot. Germany has 46 fewer MPs but a population a third bigger. Japan has 176 fewer MPs but about double our population. Russia has 196 fewer MPs and five times our population.
Second, though many individuals work hard, there are awkward questions to be asked about MPs' overall quality. We are entitled to ask how much they do for their money. Most of the year, parliament does not sit. Last year, it had 165 working days. In working weeks, many MPs are there only from Monday to Wednesday evening.
If parliament were a business, solutions would be clear. We would cut the numbers employed, bring more talented people in, and give them the resources to get on with doing a better job. The same solution is right for parliament. This means reducing MPs' numbers to improve their aggregate quality. Does anyone really believe we need more than 323, half the current number?
There would be four advantages to this. First, it would be more cost-effective, saving taxpayers just under £100 million.
Second, it could be an opportunity to enhance democratic representation by moving decisions closer to the people. Halving MP numbers would be an opportunity to devolve more power to local areas, which would encourage people to get involved in decision-making. At the moment, election turnouts are low, and many feel no connection to their MP.
Third, it would be popular and give MPs as a more informal authority and legitimacy. In a recent YouGov poll, 54 per cent agreed with a proposal to reduce the number of MPs, as against only 23 per cent who disagreed.
Fourth, it would be an opportunity to reform constituencies. Some have many more people in them than others. The Isle of Wight, for example, had 108,253 in 2004, while Na h-Eileanan an Iar, formerly known as the Western Isles, has only 21,884.
The next task is to bring more talented people into politics. We need to attract MPs who have more life experience and have had a job in the real world. Halving the number of places available would ensure parties picked the best candidates, and a political version of market forces would see the most qualified and competent MPs remain. MPs should also be offered a higher salary — as any recruiter knows, this is the only way to attract experienced candidates from other, higher-paying professions. Vince Cable, a former chief economist with Shell, is an example of how insight and experience combined with the public profile that politics brings can enrich the national debate.
Finally, remaining MPs should be given the resources to get on with doing a better job. Expenses for irrelevant items should be cut. Allowances for expenses directly relevant to their work, such as research and hiring better quality staff, should be increased. Talented MPs would survive and talented candidates would become MPs. In time, parliament would emerge more effective, leaner, fitter and fairer.
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