Friday, 30 March 2007

Can a democracy function on the cheap?

I've just done a live interview with BBC Northampton on the subject of the new £10,000 communications allowance that MPs voted for this week.

I was preceded by a journo from the Daily Express who thought MPs were given too much money. He failed to make it clear that expenses are not paid directly into an MP's bank account - and there were detailed rules covering for what purpose and to whom monies can be paid.

The argument I advanced was that we as voters are rightly expecting more of our representatives. The days when an MP need only visit his constituency at Elections are, thankfully long gone. We now expect them to be in their constituency, as much as at Westminster - to be available at 'surgeries' and in a constituency office at a time convenient for us - and to respond promptly to our communications (whether it be by traditional letter, or email, or telephone, or by our signing of a postcard or online form provided by a pressure group we support).

We expect annual reports from our children's schools - and from providers of all kinds of services - public or private - that we use. Why shouldn't we expect to get a regular report from our representatives on what they have been doing on our behalf? We as voters should be demanding it!

At the heart of the issue is how we expect our representives to serve us. Britain has a long tradition of idolising the 'gifted amateur' - (the plucky individual who does his best, with very limited resources) - rather than expecting professional standards from well resourced representatives who have systems and the capacity to meet the legitimate demands of those they should be serving.

I spend a lot of my time comparing the UK Parliament with the US Congress. Each have their own strengths and weaknesses. I think on this issue Parliament has a weakness - but is addressing it!