Anger, scorn, and calls for prosecution.
The 'mother of parliaments' has become the focus of
national and international attention for all
the wrong reasons. Day by day we hear more about the
routine and sometimes calculated abuse of the
expenses system that is intended to help Members of
Parliament overcome the problem of working away from
home for much of the week.
It's the way of the world, no doubt, that the
media focus tends to be on the worst or silliest symptoms of a
dysfunctional system, such as MPs claiming for
non-existent mortgages or claiming for moat-cleaning
and pay-per-view porn.
And it's the way of the world, no doubt, that the
political leaders launch a rearguard action by
blaming the system - by which they mean the system
of expenses. So it is the system of expenses
that they think needs urgent reform.
They are wrong.
The expenses charade is only the dysfunctional
exposed tip of a very archaic and inefficient way of
working. Dealing with this system requires
unpacking the way MPs work, and reforming in a much
more strategic way.
Problem 1 - Being required to work in two places
Members of Parliament do have a genuine problem.
They have a requirement to be in Parliament, in
London. And they also have a requirement to be
present in their constituencies, meeting and
interacting with the people they represent.
There are, of course, some unique aspects to
being an elected member of Parliament, playing a
governing the nation. But in many respects,
the issues involved in having work responsibilities
in more than one place are far from unique - there
are tens of thousands of other people in the UK who
have responsibilities at multiple locations, and who
need to spend time away from home to work
This usually means staying in hotels, or perhaps
in company apartments. Increasingly, though,
it means carrying out most of the routine work
remotely, using the new technologies.
The role of MP demands such an approach.
The theatre of politics we see on TV at Prime
Minister's Questions and in high profile debates
accounts for just a small amount of a
Parliamentarian's time. As far as I'm aware -
they don't keep timesheets - the bulk of their time
is spent on meetings (both inside and outside
Parliament), committee work, reading and research,
political work within their own parties and
There is of course great value in meeting people
face to face - but this needs to be rationed to the
meetings of greatest value, where the face-to-face
adds significant value.
Much of their normal activity can be accomplished using audio,
video and web conferencing and other online
collaborative solutions. And to be fair, many
MPs are quite 'connected' these days, and make good
use of the technology for working on the move.
However, the business of government still sees the
the old ways of working as the norm. And
politicians see the
technologies as the way to shift information around
between meetings and to deliver political messages,
rather than as being integral to the way government
Problem 2 - Parliament doesn't operate like a
MPs and government ministers are paid a salary,
and the public expect them to at least be doing a
full-time job. But many of the working
practices that exist hail from a different era, when
it was expected that MPs would be people of
independent means, and have other things to do
during the day.
As a result, the workings of Parliament are
caught in a time warp, and have never caught up with
modern business practices.
MPs and civil servants turn up at committees with
piles of paper, and conduct business as if we were
still living in Victorian times. Much
committee work could be carried out with some or all
of the members and advisors attending remotely via telepresence. These systems are not cheap, but
could easily be paid for out of savings from the
The House of Commons Chamber is particularly
unfit for purpose. The spectacle of our
governors sitting for hours on uncomfortable
benches, with no desks and no technology, always
strikes me as a ludicrous way to run a country.
It's steeped in history, but is most suited for
ceremonial occasions rather than real work.
In fact, for large sections of most government
business, the chamber all but empties, as members go
elsewhere to do something more useful, or retire to
somewhere more conducive, like the bar.
We've also heard MPs saying they need a home in
London because Parliament sits late into the
evening. How necessary is this bizarre
time-keeping? It should be reserved for a crisis,
not be part of routine working. Changing the
regular hours of collective work would allow many
MPs and ministers time to get home, and reduce the
need to pay subsistence for staying over.
Lately we've been seeing the almost medieval
spectacle of the entire Cabinet and supporting cast
moving around the country to counter the image of
government being London-centred. Apparently,
holding a meeting in Liverpool helps the Cabinet to
'listen' and be more responsive to people in the
North West. A more systematic process of interaction
would probably be more effective - though again less
New ways of working for Parliament
MPs should be amongst the mobile of workers, but
have the most static and inflexible procedures and
accommodation for working in London. It has to
There needs to be at the outset an audit of:
- where MPs work
- what they do there
- why they do it where they do it
- time spent travelling
- time spent on different tasks
- how they communicate with others
- current use of technology.
At the same time, government officials should
review how the accommodation in the House of Commons
and MPs offices is used, and what would need to be
done to enable MPs to work more effectively as
'virtual teams', establishing better links between
their constituencies and Westminster.
Clearly there are different requirements for
government ministers and others with specific
responsibilities - but the locational requirements
of these should not be exaggerated in the analysis.
So our Flexibility vision for the
future of Parliament includes the following
- Parliament working sensible hours, allowing
MPs and government officials to have a better
- A new Chamber for Parliament, with proper
desks (like most other parliaments around the
world) and the ability to connect with
information systems from their desks
- The Chamber and all committee rooms equipped
with telepresence technology to allow for
members to attend meetings remotely - and to
- Conferencing technologies to be available
for interaction with colleagues, advisors and
officials in all offices
- MPs homes - or a designated office in their
constituency - to be equipped for remote access,
- Accommodation for MPs to 'touch down' in
regional government offices as an alternative
location to home or Westminster, and access all
- The abolition of all allowances for second
homes, to be replaced with subsistence allowance
when working in London - the same kind of system
as applies for most mobile professionals working
away from home
The end result will be MPs spending much
more time connecting with the people they represent
in their constituencies, much more efficient working
in Westminster (whether physically or virtually
present), better quality of government, and
hopefully an end to the shenanigans and abuses