31 May 2009

Quote of the day

The Prime Minister on MPs' expenses (here):
"To be honest, what I've seen offends my Presbyterian conscience. What I've seen is something that is appalling," he said.

A bit rich, coming from a man who asked the public to pay for his Sky Sports subscription. What did your Presbyterian conscience have to say about that?

What's going on? Not a lot, it seems

Ah yes, the Labour Party's Star Chamber, sorting the chaff from the wheat in terms of Labour MPs and their expenses.

But only four MPs have been referred to it: Elliot Morley, Margaret Moran, David Chaytor and Ian Gibson. And the first two have already announced that they will stand down at the next election.

So what's the matter? Why the delays? They cannot be running out of potential candidates ...

It's the mad, staring eyes

Would you trust this man as Chancellor of the Exchequer? According to The Sunday Times, our Prime Minister would.

Big mistake ...

29 May 2009

Devotion to duty

Nigel Griffiths MP: the man who so loved BBC Scotland and STV that he was prepared to ask the taxpayer for more than £3,600 to buy tv and radio equipment for his London flat. I'm amazed that he also found time for discussions on Ugandan affairs.

28 May 2009

Quote of the day

She who must be obeyed:

If Dame Joanna says it, it must be right (from here)
"I urge you to cast a positive vote for a better future by voting Green in the European elections."

Who am I to argue?

27 May 2009

Simply complicated

Sounds easy, does it not? A referendum to coincide with the next general election and Bob's your uncle. The BBC set it out a couple of days ago:
The new system Mr Johnson favours is known as Alternative Vote Plus and was first suggested by the Independent Commission on Electoral Reform, led by Lord Jenkins, in 1998.
Under AV Plus, voters would have two ballot papers: one for their constituency representative and a second for their favoured political party.
Most seats in the Commons would be filled with locally elected MPs, but the remainder would be allocated by proportional representation according to the number of votes cast for each party.
Calling this an "elegant" option, Mr Johnson said: "This is a genuinely radical alternative that only Labour in government can facilitate."
Well it's not that simple. What follows is (grossly) over-simplified.

First of all, you (we, they?) need to decide the overall number of MPs. There is a case for a reduction from the current number of 646 MPs; it would be much more difficult to argue for an increase. But let us settle for retaining the current number of 646, at least for the purposes of illustration.

Next, how many MPs should be voted in by individual constituencies and how many by the party list system? Too few list MPs (less than 100, 150?) and the exercise kind of loses its point; too many (more than 200, 250?) and the constituency MPs are swamped. Again, let us settle - for illustration purposes - on 150 list MPs against 400 (in round numbers) constituency MPs.

Oh dear, if we are to have only 400 constituency MPs, then we need a wholesale revision of constituency boundaries. (Dismissing a few MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would not be nearly enough to get down to 400.) I suppose that means bringing in the Electoral Commission to do the donkey work, which would take a year or two. And whatever they come up with is bound to be wildly controversial.

Oh, and by the way, are we content to retain for constituency MPs the current first-past-the-post arrangements? Or should we opt for a system of elimination whereby the voters indicate preferences and the lowest-scoring candidates are dismissed, with their votes redistributed to other candidates until somebody gets above the magic level of 50%?

As for the party list elections, are these based on relatively small groupings of constituencies, say a dozen or so? Or on big regions, as in next week's euro-elections? And are we content with the arrangements established for next week's euro elections, whereby the voter has to choose the party rather than the individual candidates on the lists, thus enabling the parties to dictate who is likely to elected by putting them at the top of the list. Thus if you happen to like candidate no 4 on such-and-such a party's list, then tough (unless of course the three candidates above No 4 are elected as well).

I suppose that Mr Johnson is entitled to call this an elegant option, although it seems a bit of a dog's breakfast to me. But that does not mean we should not embrace some version of proportional representation, as it cannot be more anomalous than the present system. But let us not pretend that moving from one system to the other would be straightforward.

26 May 2009

The kiss of death

Once Lord Foulkes takes your side, you know that you are in deep doo-doo. The Scotsman reports on Mr Darling:
Friends have said that he is one of the least likely figures in the Cabinet to get caught up in the recent expenses scandal."Alistair has always been so modest and safe," said Lord George Foulkes, a former ministerial colleague and ex-fellow Labour MP.

Alistair, you might as well resign now.

Will they never learn?

They think we're stupid (part umpteen). The Times reports:
Hundreds of donations to political parties are to be kept secret under plans being slipped through the House of Lords.
Labour and the Conservatives have been accused of collusion over plans to raise the threshold above which parties must report donations from £5,000 to £7,500. The move is opposed by heavyweight figures such as Lord Neill of Bladen, former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, who said that there was no real justification for the increase.
The Electoral Commission has said: “An increase of this level has the potential to reduce public confidence in the transparency and integrity of political funding.”

What happened to the transparency that Brown and Cameron keep banging on about?

24 May 2009

Decisions, decisions ...

Imagine you're the Prime Minister. You don't like taking decisions at the best of times, which is why you are known as something of a ditherer. Nor do you like open rows with your Cabinet colleagues (although you have absolutely no qualms about your acolytes silently wielding the knife); thus, wee Hazel is alternately condemned for her "unacceptable behaviour" and praised for doing a good job.

But now you're faced with the need for a Cabinet re-shuffle in the days following the Euro elections in two weeks' time. Everyone (the media, the party, the opposition) is expecting it; if you funk it now, you will be in even worse trouble. But it's not that easy.

Take wee Hazel, aka the Dead Chipmunk Walking (copyright Benedict Brogan of the Daily Telegraph). She has now paid the equivalent of CGT on that second home she sold, admittedly only after she was found out and although there remains some doubt as to whether the Inland Revenue can or will accept it. And she did still profit from capital gains on a property acquired with assistance from public funds. Besides, you said yourself that her behaviour was "totally unacceptable". Can you possibly retain her in Cabinet, while throwing the occasional backbencher to the wolves, arguably for lesser offences? (And what about her cheeky chum Caroline?) On the other hand, if she were sacked or demoted, would you not have to do something similar to Hoon and Purnell who are arguably - at least in the eyes of the public and the party - equally guilty in terms of CGT avoidance? And that pair of miscreants appear to have been joined in the dock this morning by Andy Burnham whose complicated saga is exposed in The Sunday Times. Furthermore, Mr Darling and his serial flipping cannot be regarded as entirely out of the wood.

Then there is the problem of Peter (whose second home claims after he had resigned as an MP means that his hands are not entirely clean either). The real problem is that Peter is insisting on proceeding with the partial privatisation of the Royal Mail, even if it means relying on the Tories to ram it through the Commons. You are desperate to move him to somewhere less controversial but the only job he will accept is Foreign Secretary. But that would upset David who would turn his nose up at being Home Secretary (as, thankfully, Jacqui has "agreed" to step down).

And all this would have to be sorted out before you got to the level of the Ministers of State wherein lie some equally messy problems.

Life as Prime Minister can sometimes be a bed of thorns.

22 May 2009

Not really hobnobbing with royalty

I went to a Royal Garden Party once, admittedly more than 30 years ago. In those days, you were allowed to take your spouse and any unmarried dsughters of a certain age. Needless to say, the former had to have a new dress (and hat) and we never had any of the latter.

Because of the crowds (mainly but not exclusively senior Scottish Office civil servants) and the traffic restrictions, I had to park the car miles away. The gardens of Holyrood House were mobbed; not a snowball's chance of getting near Her Maj or any of the other royals - you had to be specially invited to form part of the exclusive circles which enveloped the principals.

Because of the crowds and the queues, you could either have a cup of tea or a wee cake; to have both demanded exceedingly sharp elbows. And there was no booze. (Who else would have an afternoon party in their garden without the offer of a glass of vino?)

So I don't envy the BNP's Nick Griffin; he is most unlikely to enjoy the occasion.

Quote of the day

He must think we're stupid. According to The Times (here):
The Prime Minister vowed yesterday to do whatever it took to clean up the system.
“I pledge to you that the country will be proud of the Labour candidates that stand at the next general election,” he said. “We will show that everything possible has been done to ensure that the public is satisfied about our political system and we will not shrink from any action that is necessary to achieve that.”

Really? How many MPs is he going to sack in order to achieve candidates of which we can be proud? 60%, 70%, 8o%? It's not very likely, is it? Some of us might settle for candidates that we did not actively despise ...

21 May 2009

Cushioning the blow

Did you wonder why so many of these Tories seem (relatively) content to stand down at the next election? Well this (from The Independent) may have something to do with it:
All MPs who step down, or are defeated, at an election are paid a "resettlement grant" designed to compensate for loss of salary. It ranges between six months' and one year's pay depending on age and length of service in the Commons.
An MP aged between 55 and 64 who has been in Parliament for 15 years will be paid a year's salary – £64,766 at current rates. The first £30,000 is tax-free. In addition, all MPs can claim a maximum of £40,799 for "winding-up costs" to pay off staff and end office leases. Politicians also benefit from a generous final salary pension scheme heavily subsidised by the taxpayer.

But perhaps I am excessively cynical.

Getting your ducks in a row

That duck house:

More here.

Quote of the day

Simon Carr in The Independent (here):
Who's that Labour MP who supports the Speaker. Tommy Sheridan, is it? Someone Sheridan. He wants sketch writers banned from Parliament for making "personal and racist attacks" on MPs. What rot. The fat Scots git.

20 May 2009

That wake-up call

Q. Why did the Scottish Labour MP spend £250 of taxpayers' money on an alarm clock?

A. Probably because it had lots of bells and whistles.

And another Labour seat will fail to be retained at the general election.

Cooking with gas

The Herald revels in gloom and doom:
Six in 10 Scots children do not know how to boil an egg.

Look on the bright side - nearly four in 10 Scots kids do know how to boil an egg.

Baron not particularly hard-up of Springburn

It could be a lot worse. And he will certainly be better off than the bulk of his constituents. A comfortable pension of over £80,000 a year (index-linked of course) - not in the Fred Goodwin class but not to be sneezed at - and a seat in the House of Lords.

19 May 2009

Plenty of wiggle room

At the risk of boring everyone to tears, I would like to pontificate a little more on the subject of MPs' expenses.

All the political players seem to be agreed that the present system of rules is inadequate and needs to be replaced. There would not appear to be the same level of agreement on what the features of the new system should be. I may return to this in future posts.

The other aspect of the matter concerns what should be done about those who have 'abused' the existing or previous system. Having watched the Prime Minister's press conference earlier this evening, I remain confused. Mr Brown suggested that MPs who 'defied the rules' should be not be allowed to stand in the next general election. He pointed out that the Labour Party had suspended two MPs (because of imaginary mortgages) and that a minister had been asked to stand down (arguably not because of his expenses but for failing to declare a rental subsidy on his main home). On the other hand, despite suggesting that Ms Blears' behaviour had been 'unacceptable', he argued that she had not broken the law nor the rules of the House of Commons. So does Ms Blears escape further punishment?

And what about the Home Secretary? Listing the boxroom in her sister's house as her primary residence thus enabling her to claim thousands of pounds on her second home where her husband and family live may be within the rules technically but I doubt if anyone would cite it as exemplary practice. So is she OK as well then? And while we're on the subject of Ms Smith, she certainly broke the rules in claiming for her husband's porn films; but she has now repaid the money. Does that mean that it's all right to defy the rules provided you say sorry and repay the money? Or does that only apply to Cabinet Members?

Of course, a strict interpretation of the rules (even the old rules), particularly with the need for expenses to be justified with reference to parliamentary duties (see paragraph 2.1.1 here), might bring all sorts of sins into play. The Prime Minister ducked the issue at this evening's press conference, but was his claim for his Sky Sports subscription necessary for the performance of his parliamentary duties? Defying the rules?

It is too early to draw firm conclusions, but if Mr Brown thinks that he can get away with throwing half a dozen minnows to the wolves he may have to revise his thinking.

The problem with surveys

The Scotsman reports:
THE truth has been revealed about lying. From fabricating chunks of their CV, trimming a few inches off their waistline, or rounding down the number of notches on their bedpost, it seems many people shun honesty in order to impress and get on in the world.
A poll of 2,000 people across Britain has uncovered a litany of untruths commonly told by people about their lifestyle and employment history.

But what if the people polled are telling lies about telling lies?

An awful lot of mince

I think that the Labour Chief Whip should investigate this MP who claimed £18,800 in unreceipted expenses for food over four years.

Oh, it is the Labour Chief Whip ...

18 May 2009

Music of the week

Some Steely Dan for you:

Why parliament is disappearing up its own fundament

Ah yes, the Speaker and that no-confidence motion. The Guardian explains:
What is happening to the motion?
It will be printed on the Commons order paper tomorrow. Carswell is tabling it under "future business", which means that it is set down theoretically for debate that day (ie tomorrow), but that it is not expected to be debated that day. In other words, it is for debate on a "named day". That is not the same as an "early day motion" (EDM), which is a motion down for debate on an "early day" (in practice never). Carswell had been planning to table his motion as an EDM. But EDMs have no practical effect whatsoever.
Will it be debated?
Not necessarily. It is not unusual for backbench MPs to table motions for debate on a "named day".

Are you any the wiser? There was a time, about 30 years ago, when I spent hours sitting around in the House of Commons, trying to get to grips with this kind of stuff. Nowadays, I merely smile and pour myself another glass of pinot grigio.

I'm trying hard to be sympathetic, but ...

More than slightly embarrassing. All those MSPs sitting on potential profits earned by virtue of the soon-to-be-defunct Holyrood accommodation allowance. I rather sense that they were hoping that we might just forget about the matter. Then that LibDem leader had to go and say that his Westminster MPs would hand back any profits from selling their second homes down south. But did he think about Tavish the Viking with a potential profit of £100,000 on his property transactions?

And, of course, the profits won't be realised before the house concerned is sold. I don't imagine that Tavish could cough up £100,000 just like that. The same goes for the Presiding Officer (£125,000) or John Swinney (£95,000). But, assuming house prices resume their upward movement shortly, the longer they leave it, the more the profits (and the potential cash payback) will grow.

Furthermore, is it fair that wee Hazel gets away with only having to repay the equivalent of capital gains tax (rather than the entire profit)? Hugh Henry (£92,400) would no doubt have a view.

But, if one of then caves in to the demand for hand-back, then the rest of them might have to follow suit. It will all end in tears, I fear.

Helpfully, The Herald lists the MSPs who are crying into their beer.

17 May 2009


How nice to see - here in The Sunday Times - the correct use of the subjunctive:
The voters are entitled to one great expectation: that the prime minister of this country show leadership in a crisis.

Shades of grey

I usually admire the writing of Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer. But this kind of stuff is just playing to the gallery:
David Cameron can instruct his new scrutiny committee to remove the Tory spivs and scam merchants. The committee can be empowered to strike off the approved candidates list any Tory MP found guilty of making unethical claims. On the Labour side, the party's national executive committee will this week discuss a proposal to conduct a clean-out. Gordon Brown should support this at once and ensure that there is a tough mechanism for imposing deselection on the fiddlers and fraudsters on his benches.
The problem is deciding which of the miscreants is an outright cad worthy of being cast into the outer darkness and which is an idiot who has made a simple mistake or two in compiling his or her expenses claim. We could all agree (perhaps) that Messrs Morley and Chaytor should be compelled to spend more time with their imaginary mortgages, while Ms Blears should pay a severe penalty for her capital gains tax avoidance (and for being extremely irritating). But do Mr Darling's flipping, Mr Straw's excessive claim for council tax, Mr Willetts' light bulbs, Mr Letwin's leaky pipe under his tennis court and Mr Salmond's gluttony constitute sins of an equal magnitude? Maybe they do, maybe they don't.

I realise that it is tempting to opt for a 'when in doubt, chuck them out' policy. But I really think that we need to draw some sort of dividing line between the villains and the clowns. Drawing such a line would require the wisdom of Solomon, however. Mr Rawnsley's pat solution is no real solution at all.

16 May 2009

Will it never end?

It is rather sad to be reduced to highlighting those MPs that have not done anything wrong, but The Independent reports:
A few MPs have emerged as the good guys. Some from all three main parties do not claim a second homes allowance, even though they are entitled to do so. Labour MPs Martin Salter, Celia Barlow and Geoffrey Robinson do not claim the allowance. From the Conservatives, Adam Afriyie, Richard Benyon, Philip Dunne, Anne Milton and Rob Wilson turned down the money. On the Liberal Democrat benches, only one member from outside London, Cambridge MP David Howarth, has turned it down. Environment Secretary Hilary Benn claimed only £147.78 a year on food. Ed Miliband claimed only £6,300 to rent a terraced house.

That's it.

Meanwhile, quote of the week belongs to Diane Abbott (here):
Diane Abbott, the Labour MP, raised fears over public anger. "Saying sorry isn't enough. Giving money isn't enough. The public ... want to see dead MPs hanging from lamp-posts," she said.

13 May 2009

Not a lot of people know this (part 14)

Synecdoche. According to The Guardian:
But what does synecdoche mean? It's one of the great vexed issues of English grammar, up there with "what is a zeugma?", "are my litotes straight?" and "are semi-colons functionally worthless?". A synecdoche is a figure of speech in which part is responsible for the whole. Examples: in "20 head of cattle", the word for part of a cow (its head) has been substituted for the whole; "All hands on deck!" is not a call for mass mutilation. Instead, "hands" here stands for all the sailors on a ship.

Now, if I only knew how to pronounce it properly, I could drop it (casually like) into the conversation ...

12 May 2009

Swimming pools, chandeliers, bath plugs and glittery loo seats

Here is the rollcall of shame.*

That a whiff of petty greed should from time to time emanate from the green benches is not altogether surprising; there were bound to be a few rotten apples in the barrel.

What was not expected was the widespread prevalence of dubious activity among the more senior MPs. The number of MPs who can truthfully be described as honourable (and despite everything there are more than a few) seems nevertheless to diminish by the day.

* so far

11 May 2009

Oh Gordon

Why does he carry on? Despised and ridiculed by the media, by the Opposition and even by members of his own Cabinet. Former cheerleaders like Polly and Jackie are pointing him towards the door. Outmanoeuvred by a fading actress. His staff cannot even keep private his make-up routine.

What's the point in clinging on to office? Why put yourself through the hurt, unrelieved by throwing about mobile phones and printers? How can you get up every morning as if everything was normal? And it's not going to get any better when the June election results come through.

You're 58 and reasonably well off, with a decent pension to look forward to. You could have a pleasant life without all the hassle. If nothing else, why not think of your family? Is retirement such an unthinkable option? Anything must be better than the present situation.

Quote of the day

From The Telegraph (here):
David Willetts, the shadow universities secretary, claimed more than £100 for workmen to replace 25 light bulbs at his home.

There has to be a joke somewhere here. (And it's on us, the taxpayers.)

09 May 2009

Snout in the trough?

I suppose it was inevitable. Other MPs may build up property portfolios or invest in attractive kitchen and bathroom facilities. But our Alex thinks of only one thing. The Telegraph reports:
MPs can claim a maximum of £400 per month for food, without having to produce receipts, but questions will be asked why the First Minister spent so much. Commons records show Mr Salmond claimed the maximum allowance for eight months in 2005/6, a total of £3,200.
However, included in Mr Salmond's claim was £800 for the months of August and September 2005, when the Commons was on its summer recess. Mr Salmond voted on July 12, 2005 but was not required to take part in another division until October 12.
The SNP's victory in the 2007 Holyrood election curtailed his appearances at Westminster, but the food claims did not stop.
In the 2007/08 financial year, which covers the period between the end of March 2007 and the start of April 2008, he voted on only six days in the Commons.
However, he still claimed £1,751.50 for food, or more than a third of the maximum allowed for the entire 12 months.

I confess that I do not really understand why I should be expected to subsidise the First Minister's grocery bills when he is on a parliamentary recess ... But yes, you guessed it - it was within the rules.

Mr Moral Compass

If you are feeling sorry for Gordon Brown, well stop it. Here is Littlejohn in The Mail:
When he was Chancellor, he had a grace-and-favour apartment in Downing Street and a bolt-hole flat nearby, which he bought in a fire sale from the estate of the late crook Robert Maxwell - appropriately, you may think, given that Gordon appears to have modelled his pensions policy on Captain Bob's.
Until shortly before he became Prime Minister, Brown designated his bolt-hole as his 'second' home for the purposes of claiming allowances, which included paying his brother six grand for 'cleaning services' - as you do.
With all the accounting acumen for which he is legendary, he even spread the cost of a £9,000 new kitchen from Ikea over two financial years, which allowed him to stay just within the maximum second home allowance limit.
When he inherited No 10, he followed the example of any shrewd businessmen looking to keep as much of his own hard-earned as possible - he put the flat in his wife's name.
This left him free to switch his house in Scotland to his 'second' home. Consequently it, too, has now been extensively renovated at the expense of taxpayers, who also pick up the tab for his gardener and cleaner.
Another bonus is that if he sells the flat when he's kicked out of office next year, he won't be liable for capital gains tax - which he would have been had it remained his 'second' home.
Cute, eh? No loopholes, exemptions, avoidance or special allowances there, then. But given that he's lived pretty much cost-free in Downing Street for the past 12 years, we might ask why Gordon has charged anything on his expenses. After all, just because he can, it doesn't mean he's obliged to.
He's not short of a bawbee or two and is famously parsimonious. And as Prime Minister he's paid £194,250 year and rarely has to put his hand in his own pocket. He's got a six-figure, index-linked pension to look forward, too, and no doubt a few directorships in the pipeline.
So why does he stoop to charging taxpayers for tarting up his house in Scotland and paying his gardener and cleaner, let alone picking up the tab for his lightbulbs and Sky Sports subscription?

07 May 2009

Having a good crisis

Unexpected tribute to Ms Sturgeon in - of all things - The New Statesman:
The star of the swine flu outbreak has surely been Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s deputy first minister and health secretary. There is something reassuring about that soft Scottish accent – I suppose it has to do with memories of Dr Finlay’s Casebook on television – and one feels that, thanks to her charm, good sense and calm but brisk manner, we shall all be safe from this new terror. Can we put her in charge south of the border as well?
Unfortunately, she belongs to the Scottish National Party but, since outsourcing is in fashion, I see no reason why our health arrangements couldn’t be delegated to the SNP. I would rather trust Sturgeon than Boots, Tesco, Richard Branson or any of the other figures proposed to run the exciting polyclinics planned by New Labour in place of GPs’ surgeries.

Incidentally, did you catch the SNP party political broadcast last night (see here)? Our esteemed First Minister looked distinctly, well, tubby ...

06 May 2009

In a hole and still digging

Me, I blame that Lord Mandelson. He's the one who's pushing it. The Times reports:
Downing Street and ministers gave short shrift to a proposal from the Compass think-tank to turn Royal Mail into a not-for-profit company, under a similar model to Network Rail, rather than selling off at least a third to an overseas competitor, arguing that there were better ways to modernise the organisation.
Pat McFadden, the Postal Affairs Minister, immediately turned down the idea, saying that Downing Street had dismissed the suggestion as “unworkable and not under consideration”. The minister said that the Royal Mail needed “transforming”, partly because of its huge pensions deficit, not a “political fix”.

And how exactly is selling off one-third of Royal Mail to a Dutch competitor likely to contribute to the necessary transforming?

And, if your party offers what at least appears to be a compromise, would it not be sensible to treat it seriously rather than dismissing it out of hand? OK, it might not work, but give it an even break.

04 May 2009

It's not getting any better ...

Hmm, it must be worse than I thought. On this morning's Today, Ms Harman unequivocally (well, as unequivocally as you can get) ruled herself out as a candidate for the Labour leadership.

02 May 2009

What is the point?

No disrespect to Ms Duffy - who seems as worthy a candidate as any other - but do we really need a poet laureate? Especially as the appointment seems to have been more influenced by the government than the sovereign. Can anyone remember any decent poetry produced by a poet laureate as part of his official duties?

I suppose that it's cheap - butts of sack are not particularly expensive - and adds to the gaiety of the nation. But, for me, poetry is a personal thing rather than an exercise in prostituting one's ability in order to celebrate national occasions.