The Operation of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009

Written evidence from Rt Hon Peter Riddell

1. The public’s satisfaction with MPs and Parliament has unquestionably been damaged by the revelations over members’ expenses and the subsequent controversy. But voters were pretty sceptical about politicians beforehand and there is no easy way to rebuild confidence. The key questions are about a lack of understanding of what MPs do and about doubts over the effectiveness of members individually and of Parliament collectively.

2. My submission is based on my recent book ‘In Defence of Politicians- in spite of themselves’. It also draws on the work of the Hansard Society which I have chaired since 2007, and which produces an annual Audit of Political Engagement on attitudes towards Parliament and Government. (Dr Ruth Fox, director of the Hansard Parliament and Government Programme is putting in a separate submission which highlights research on the experience of newly elected MPs and makes recommendations about IPSA.) For nearly 30 years until mid-2010, I was a political journalist based at Westminster, including commissioning and writing up opinion polls for nearly 18 years. I am currently a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Government, a non-partisan research charity.

3. There was never a golden age in which MPs were respected and trusted-just look at the cartoons of Gillray and Rowlandson two centuries ago or the Marconi scandal of a century ago. The polling evidence does, however, suggest that there was a period in the 1940s and 1950s when trust in government was higher than now. That may have been associated with victory in the Second World War, the creation of the welfare state and full employment in the post-war era. In retrospect, that may have been an aberration from a longer-term trend of scepticism, and occasionally worse, towards politicians.

4. Nonetheless, the expenses row has affected public views of MPs and Parliament. This is less about trust as such than about perceptions of the effectiveness of MPs and Parliament. According to the Hansard Society Audit, trust in politicians did not collapse in response to the expenses’ disclosures. But that was mainly because it was already at a low level, at just 26 per cent trusting politicians a ‘great deal’ or a ‘fair amount, down just one point on the first Audit report in 2004. The public have always seen politicians as self-interested.

5. The worrying feature for MPs, and for the health of representative democracy, is that the scandal has had a wider impact on voters’ views of Parliament. What happens at Westminster is seen as less relevant to peoples’ lives. Public satisfaction with how Parliament works has dropped sharply, from 36 per cent in 2004 to a low of just 27 per cent in the most recent Audit. For the first time, more people disagree (39 per cent) than agree (30 per cent) that Parliament is working for ‘you and me’. Voters do, however, draw a big distinction between their dissatisfaction with how MPs as a whole do their jobs-44 per cent – and dissatisfaction with how their own MP is doing his or her job, 16 per cent.

6. Similarly, the recently published two yearly survey of public attitudes conducted for the Committee on Standards in Public Life shows that MPs fall well short of public expectations of how they should behave on ‘telling the truth’, ‘making sure public money is used wisely’, ‘being in touch with what the public thinks is important’, ‘owning up to mistakes’-and in virtually every case there has been a deterioration since 2008. The proportion believing that most MPs are dedicated to doing a good job for the public fell by 20 points to 26 per cent, and there have also been sharp falls in the proportion thinking that MPs are competent at their jobs and are in touch with what the public thinks is important.

7. However, voters often do not distinguish between Parliament and Government, between backbench MPs and ministers. So the standing of politicians in general, and MPs in particular, suffered in the aftermath of the Iraq war-even though the vast majority of MPs had no direct responsibility for the decisions.

8. There is a deep ambiguity over the role of MPs. According to repeated surveys, many, if not most, voters think that most MPs spend their time furthering their personal and career interests. According to the 2010 Audit, nearly a half thought MPs should be spending their time representing the views of local people, while just 10 per cent believed they were doing so.

9. In my ‘In Defence of Politicians’ 9 page 20), I wrote: - ‘MPs complain, often accurately, that they cannot win. Their voters complain if they are not in their constituency, while they are attacked in the media for taking long holidays whenever Parliament goes into recess- though the Commons and Lords sit for longer than most other legislatures. MPs are much more assiduous in their constituency work than their predecessors half a century ago. Indeed, one worry is that they have become too constituency oriented, at the expense of their work at Westminster’.

10. There is no evidence that voters are sympathetic to MPs complaints about the new system of member’s expenses and the role of IPSA under the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009. Protests by MPs against IPSA are likely to be counter-productive in their impact on public attitudes, and portrayed by a generally hostile media as self-interested and whingeing. Any move to end the requirement for receipts for expenses would foster voters’ perceptions that MPs are in it for themselves etc. This is nothing to do with the legitimacy or otherwise of complaints that many members are being penalised by the post-2010 regime and have been deterred from submitting legitimate claims. The point I am making is about perception, not the reality.

11. There is no magic solution. Satisfaction with MPs and politics generally has declined over a period of far-reaching constitutional reform and devolution. Increased transparency has, by revealing abuses, increased dissatisfaction rather than reduced it. Much of what the Committee on Standards in Public Life has proposed-in pursuit of rebuilding trust- has been desirable in its own terms, but has done nothing to increase public trust in politicians. None of this is an argument against greater openness. But it is an illusion to believe that voters can be persuaded to trust politicians again. The key is to increase knowledge about what MPs do-both at Westminster and in their constituencies-and for MPs to highlight what they are doing on behalf of their voters. MPs need to demonstrate their effectiveness. Public arguments about MPs’ expenses are only likely to make voters more hostile.

October, 2011

Prepared 2nd November 2011