Monday, May 11, 2009

MPs' Expenses - A solution

The topic of MPs' expenses has gripped the nation, or certainly given the media a timely distraction from depressing news about the recession. It seems to me that the whole idea of paying for second homes is out of line with 21st century working practices.

The argument for the allowances is that MPs have to work in two places and therefore need two homes. This might have been true in the 19th and maybe the 20th Centuries when they had to meet constituents face-to-face and also be present at Westminster. But now people can contact their MPs over the phone, meet them face to face on Skype, send them questions by email, contact them through facebook and comment on their blog. MPs are teleworkers and should be able to work satisfactorily from one base with occasional visits to the other when they have to be face-to-face.

Looking at the Commons chamber on an average day, the argument that MPs need to be ther for the debates is clearly rubbish. Except for times like PM's questions or a really close vote very few MPs are present. When they are in the building they listen for the division bell and then rush into the chamber to vote, usually following instructions from the whips.

So what we need is an Internet age work pattern for MPs. They should be able to vote remotely, engage in debates over the Internet and should keep their constituents informed by having a blog. Using video, they can hold face to face consultations and meetings and avoid excessive travel as well as second home allowances. There are plenty of people who do real jobs who have to travel to customers but who don't get a second home allowance.

But the real indication that Gordon Brown and other MPs of his generation are out of touch with the modern workplace came from his solution to the problem. He proposed an attendance allowance which would be paid for every day that an MP came into the palace of Westminster. This is 19th century thinking about work. It assumes that people can only work when they are in a particular building and completely ignores the way many people, including MPs, now organise their working lives.

To add insult to injury, Gordon Brown chose to make the announcement about this clever solution on YouTube. This is one of the new media that allow people to communicate without having to be in the same place and is an icon of 'Generation Y' who don't see why we have these antiquated work practices that are based on presenteeism.

So we can continue to try to solve the 'allowance problem' by tweaking the payments system, or we can use this opportunity to make a more fundamental change in the working practices of MPs and bring them into the Information Age. Nobody needs an allowance for a second home, because nobody needs a second home. They can have one home and stay in a hotel on expenses for those days they really need to be away. I suggest the government block books the hotel in County Hall across the river from the houses of parliament and uses that. Meanwhile MPs can set an example to the rest of the nation by using technology instead of travelling so much, thus saving the economy a fortune and saving the planet at the same time.