Hysteria? Witch-hunt? Media feeding frenzy? Or all three? I think that just about sums up the current situation with regard to MPs' expenses.
As ever, earlier on today the sage Mr Quist had some wise words to say about the expenses row. Like him, my experience of MPs is that on the whole they are dedicated individuals who work hard for their constituents and are not all in it to make money. And I agree with him that we shouldn't expect MPs to be out of pocket or living in penury when doing their jobs.
Like it or not, if you don't pay MPs properly, you'll just expose them to all sorts of blandishments and inducements from private interests who, believe it or not, may not always have the wider public interest at the top of their priorities.
But I thought it worthwhile to do an international comparison to see whether our MPs are well remunerated or not. In the USA, for instance, the salary for rank and file members of Congress is currently $174,000. If I've done my maths correctly, at the current exchange rate of $1.52 to the pound, that works out at roughly £114,473 per year - which compares very favourably with the £64,766 our MPs get. In France, the figure is slightly lower at approximately £57,228, while Germany and Italy are £80,880 and £57,756 respectively, although the Italy figure is boosted by very generous expenses. (All figures courtesy of the BBC). In other words, the basic pay of our MPs is not that excessive by international standards.
But do our MPs have excessive expenses claims? Again, not really. As the BBC points out in the same article already referred to, MPs' average expenses claim is £135,600, which does sound a lot, until you realise that the most significant part of that is the salaries that MPs pay their staff. That means that the rough total we pay for our MPs (salary plus expenses times 646 MPs) is about £129.4m (note that I'm not including ministerial salaries in this figure).
Compare that to the USA, where, to take just a few examples at random, California Senator Diane Feinstein had a total staffing bill in 2008 of $4,066,020 to serve a population of about 36.75m, while in less populated Wyoming, Senator Michael Enzi spent $1.9m on staffing. For members of the House of Representatives, the cost of running their offices, including both staff and other expenses, is between $1.4 and $1.7m each. In 2008, the cost of running the US Senate was apparently $869.3m, while for the House of Repesentatives it was about $1.2 billion. Even if you take into account that the US Congress is serving a population of about 303m, while our Parliament serves just under 61m, I think our MPs are bloody good value.
And note that the above figures for the US Congress don't even include the regular trips and junkets which are on offer from a whole host of private organisations. A lot of these are doubtless all above board and worthwhile, such as the three trips by members of Congress to Afghanistan and the seven to Iraq in the last few years. However, that compares with 34 to Antigua and Barbuda, 35 to the Bahamas, and 48 to Jamaica. OK, these aren't paid for out of public funds, but the suspicion must surely be that some of these are pleasant trips to the sun in exchange for services rendered or future favours expected.
Now, our MPs are certainly not immune from accepting hospitality from private interests - just think of George Osborne and Peter Mandelson on the billionaire's yacht in Crete last summer, for instance - but their junketing and hospitality pales into insignificance when compared to the American experience. In all last year, members of Congress and their staff accepted trips totalling just over $2.85m.
I'm certainly not saying that some UK MPs haven't been abusing or milking the system, but I don't think it's true to say that our MPs are all a bunch of cheats, rogues and thieves. By international standards, and particularly in comparison with the USA, I think on the whole we get very good value from them.
A walk through Montpelier, Bristol
4 months ago