Monday, March 30, 2009

Form Filling Challenge

I feel really sorry for Jacqui Smith and her husband, and indeed for all MPs at this time of year. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the situation with MPs' expenses seems to work like this: Members of Parliament fill in long and complicated forms, and then a panel of journalists choose a few of them and publicly humiliate them on the grounds that they filled in their forms incorrectly in a sufficiently entertaining way. For these purposes, the rules about what is judged to be the correct way to fill in the form change randomly all the time.

If the aim is to produce entertaining stories of dubious expense claims for the amusement of the people, I would suggest opening up 'Form Filling Challenge' to other groups of professionals such as company directors and, indeed, journalists.

The only thing which limits my sympathy is that politicians do actually have the power to do something about Form Filling Challenge. They have managed to set the current system up in such a way that their entire job and working environment is totally incomprehensible for most people. So when Form Filling Challenge takes place, people don't think 'be fair, all they did was fill in a form wrong - we've all done it' but instead think 'that's really funny/how dare they'. Changing the expenses system is certainly needed. But more than that, politicians ought to be thinking about how they can show people what being an MP is really like so that when the fake hysteria gets stirred up, people empathise with them rather than laughing or shouting.


At 10:10 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

In fairness people like Harry Cohen ("it's part of my salary" MPs were told "go out boys and spend it") don't exactly help their case.

Nor do the, as yet un-caught, good old boy Tories representing outer-London seats and living on the tube lines but still claim second homes allowance.

I have next to no sympathy with a group of people who have:

a) official advice on the rules
b) staff to make them aware of relevant developments
c) a life-style (Mon-Thurs hours) that is positively conducive to keeping on top of all this
d) done next to nothing to call for simpler paper-work for benefits, tax credits, etc. or for an end to means-testing.

Yep, MPs have to work weekends and stay late at work, but apart from time away from the kids it's not much more stressful than many other jobs - certainly not the civil service roles that the salary is notionally pegged to. This is no excuse for them failing to keep on the right side of the rules.

If the Inland Revenue took a sympathetic attitude to SME's (the nearest equivalent to an MP's office in this case) not declaring accounts properly then people would be rightly pissed off.

Most MPs can hold themselves back from breaking the rules - or avoid getting caught doing it. These losers only drag the party of Lansbury, Hardie, Henderson, and countless others who served TGMOO without a huge MP's salary down with them into the mud and defeat.

This is an issue that should be considered along with campaigning activity at reselection.

It's Jacqui Smith's kids I feel sorry for. They're entirely blameless and must be having a crap time. Whereas it's worth remembering that the television package wouldn't be causing her half the trouble if she hadn't, er, massively taken the piss on home allowances in the first place.

Oh, one other thing - journalists working in the Commons do have to fill in forms declaring outside interests relevant to the fact they have a Parliamentary Pass. They, er, seem to do ok at this.

At 9:25 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dearest Anonymous,

I agree with you that MPs need to be more careful when filling out their ACA forms and that obviously those who willfully play the system deserve to be villified.

However, your post shows little understanding of what an MPs life is actually like. If you really think that Members are overpaid for the work they do, keep to their 'Monday to Thursday hours' or that their job is less stressful than the civil service, I think you must have been working for a Tory.

Furthermore we'll never know if journalists working in the Commons are fiddling their expense accounts or not because funnily enough they don't write much about that, do they?

Anonymous. x

At 3:26 pm , Anonymous Anon, again said...

Clearly I put the argument with too much finesse.

The point about Mon-Thu hours is not to suggest they're short or easy, quite the opposite, but that the role of an MP means they get to chose when they work
on what, aside from the demands of the whip and requirements to go to SI
committees, and that they are left hanging around Westminster until late in
the evening with nothing to do; a suituation quite conducive to getting
paperwork done correctly if you can be bothered.

I say this having worked for an MP who spent a huge amount of their
communications allowance and only half their costs of staying away from the
main home in the latest figures - you know what I'm getting at here - and
has managed to serve in Parliament for years without anyone laying a glove
on them.

Civil Service pay - MPs get uprated in line with SCS increases. A member of
SCS typically runs an entire tax division at the Treasury, a defence base
with a staff in the thousands, press for an entire government department and
doesn't get to set their working patterns. But yeah, campaigning three times
a week for the next general election can be very stressful...

The other way of looking at it is that a £63k salary and £2-3k council tax per year on a one person household puts you in the top 1% of
the population for pay with 58 million people getting less than you according to the ifs online calculator.

Note I'm not quibbling with them having a travel allowance or costs of
staying away from the main home - just being idiotic in how it's used.


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