Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Looking back in anger?

The public is more sophisticated in its attitude to MPs’ expenses than we are sometimes led to believe

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Though it was barely two months ago that the Telegraph began outing MPs over duck houses and bath plugs, it’s hard to remember the time before the expenses scandal rocked the political establishment. Just this week, MPs have been debating the parliamentary reform bill that will reform the system of parliamentary pay and expenses. But while political leaders have been falling over themselves to propose new reforms, the public have been left out of the debate.

This is something Demos and Ipsos MORI sought to address when it held a citizens’ convention in early June on the issue. In a glass-fronted room on the South Bank, overlooking Westminster, Demos and Ipsos MORI brought together a group of 53 British citizens from a range of social backgrounds, ethnicities and age groups to try and reach some sensible conclusions. There was no hidden agenda and no preconceptions about what they might say. We wanted to find out what kind of system of reform the public would support if they were given the opportunity to engage in a constructive debate.

The convention was presented with the details of how the current system works, along with the pros and cons of various new proposals. They also had the chance to hear from and quiz experts about the role of MPs and the nature of their job. On each of the controversial issues that have surfaced in the last few weeks – pay, second homes, oversight of expenses and staffing – the convention debated different options in depth, before voting on an overall reform package.

Clear signals emerged for the politicians across the Thames. First, the convention said the most effective cures for some of the abuses we’ve seen were simplicity and transparency. Most people present at the convention supported scrapping the second home allowance altogether and providing designated flats for MPs as happens in Sweden. Not a single person at the convention supported the current system in which House of Commons staff sign off expenses. The most popular option amongst the participants at the convention was for this function to shift to an independent body outside Parliament. And the majority of citizens participating in the discussion thought all expense claims should be published online.

About half of the participants at the convention felt current levels of MP staffing were about right – and a few even thought they should be increased further. Perhaps surprisingly, most participants at the convention accepted that MPs should be allowed to employ family members so long as they can demonstrate they are doing the job for which they are hired.

All this sits oddly with the coverage of public anger so far, which tells us the ‘people’ would vengefully slash salaries and allowances. The rational quality of debate at the Demos – Ipsos MORI citizens’ convention shows how much has been simplified. Far from the directionless venting of Question Time or the blogosphere, the group of citizens who participated in our deliberations wanted to understand the issues and reach fair conclusions. Amid the anger at the betrayal of trust, there was also a reasonable understanding that MPs need resources to do their job well. ‘They are not accountable enough, but they are not paid enough’, was a typical comment.

And this is the key. So far the public have only been spoken for on this issue, as politicians deflect criticism by racing to announce plans to clean up the system. Party leaders have made the mistake of trying to show strong leadership when they should have been listening. The parliamentary reform bill is being rushed through with only three days of debate. Meanwhile, nine out of 10 of the public hearings held by the independent Kelly inquiry into expenses are in London SW1 and the public are allowed to listen in on proceedings, but no more. It seems the direction of reform continues to be determined by Westminster insiders.

The convention’s deliberations prove that a quick fix won’t be enough. Our participants demonstrated a hunger – not just for new faces, or fresh elections – but for more influence. A commitment to use citizens’ conventions with outcomes that are binding on government would go a long way.

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Sonia Sodha

is a former adviser to Ed Miliband and writes for Progress in a personal capacity

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