I support MPs’ 1st class train travel as long as it’s at a 1st class price

Sir Nicholas Wintertons comments on Radio 5

Sir Nicholas Winterton's comments on Radio 5

The furore over Sir Nicholas Winterton MP’s uncouth comments about train travel seems to miss the point. Of course his remarks were ill-judged and out of order, saying on Radio 5 of people in standard class, who of course pay his salary…

“They are a totally different type of people. There are lots of children, there is noise, there is activity and all I can say is I like to have peace and quiet when I travel because more often than not I am working and I want to concentrate.”

Yet had he just said “I can work better in first class as it tends to be quieter and I get a power socket for my laptop” then I doubt it would’ve raised an eyebrow. I know when I’m filming TV programs across the country I put a similar point of view across when they’re booking my travel, and do tend to get more work done.

The real question is about value not class

Where I think the point’s been missed, is that as we taxpayers are paying for his train journey, surely we should care more that he’s getting value for money than which class he’s sat in.

If he’s on a first class £50 London to Macclesfield return as opposed to a £200 open flexible standard class return, then bravo – enjoy first class.

And that pricing dilemma is common (see the cheap train tickets guide), it’s not as simple as first class is expensive and standard class cheap.

And it’s this that the system should delineate on – just give MPs a constituency travel budget and let them spend it as they will. Then like everyone else they can choose between prioritising whether they want a flexible open ticket or to travel up front in 1st class and if they want both, they can reach in their pocket to do so.

We could cut a whole lot of nonsense out of the expenses system by just allocating a flat rate of expenses. Each MP would get something like this…

  • Salary.
  • Staff and office allowance. While the MP would be responsible for recruitment and allocating tasks – technically the staff would be employed by a central commons human resources facility – which would take the burden of human resources issues from the MPs. That central office would also supply all the furniture and equipment – and utilise central purchasing to hopefully keep costs down.
  • Second home allowance. We require our MPs to work both in London and in their constituencies, so I’ve no problem with them having two residences. A flat living allowance given to all MPs outside of London constituencies would be a simple way to do this.
  • Travel allowance. Again as we expect them to travel between parliament and constituency we should pay for this – an allowance based on mileage and travel convenience of the constituency (a relatively easy piece of work to do).

If we did that, and an MP chose to live in a bedsit paying £50 a week rent, fair enough – keep the difference – the same for the travel budget. The only one this shouldn’t work on is staff and office allowance, but central purchasing would stop that.

MPs can travel 1st class

MPs can travel 1st class

Time to treat MPs as grown ups

While of course there’s been rightful outrage over duck ponds and moats, we need to put this in perspective. We entrust our politicians with spending £650,000,000,000 a year of our money.

One small minor mistake can cost hundreds of millions of pounds – the entire expenses bill of all MPs added together is a tiny fraction of that. To get this right, it’s time to stop punishing those who’ve made mistakes (the worst of whom are either being prosecuted or have sensibly decided not to stand again) and instead build a sustainable political system.

We actually have one of the least corrupt political systems, MPs pushing expenses isn’t good, but it’s much better than taking legitation impacting illegal bungs as has happened in some legislatures or the financial political patronage system of the USA.

If we want MPs to improve and act like grown ups, we need to treat them as such.

Link their pay to equivalent professionals

While it isn’t necessary to make the system above work, I think it’s time we linked MPs salaries to another relevant profession. They’re paid less than GPs or judges and I think we want a similar caliber of people. One easy route would be to link their salary to district judges which is about £120,000 – nearly double what MPs currently earn.

And before anyone suggests it – I promise I have no intention of ever standing. It was something I once wanted, but I swore off it years ago. I couldn’t cope with the stress levels and my skin isn’t thick enough.

I know many think, “they should know what some of the poorest feel like and how hard it is to live on benefits.” Well that’s right, they should know what it’s like, and they should be in the community talking to people, reading places like the MSE forum and taking part in social experiments like the brilliant tower of commons program on Channel 4.

However its time to make a decision do we want MPs to be ‘representative of society’ or ‘society’s representatives’. If we choose the first option then we pay them the UK’s average salary about £25,000.

On the other hand think about a court of law, and who you would want ‘representing’ you there – personally I’d hope for an extremely well educated, experienced competent barrister who is best qualified to argue my point of view and support my stance, in which case if we want to attact those people we need pay them a salary commensurate with those skill levels.

If we didn’t have such entrenched parliamentary seats (there are some constituencies where a donkey with the right coloured rosette would win) I’d suggest we give MPS a pay rise each time they’re re-elected as it would indicate their constituents are happy with them.

Most of the MPs I’ve met work hideous hours, are dedicated to their task and run a gamut of balancing parliamentary commitments and trying to deal with the individual problems of their constituents.

The viscious circle of vilification

The shame is MPs have been vilified and aren’t trusted; which they must take their fair share of the blame for (especially bigoted comments like Sir Winterton’s). Though the media and the public share some of that – for focusing on bad boys in the headline and tarring all with the same brush.

The sad consequence of this is we will end up with poorer representation because of it. There’s still a queue of people wanting to stand for parliament, but I can’t help thinking the calibre must be poorer because of the dire reputation and that’s not good for any of us. We want politicians we can respect.

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