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MPs - String them up, or wire them up?

Flexibility's solution to the second homes expenses crisis

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 part in 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 effectively.

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 networking.

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 works.

Problem 2 - Parliament doesn't operate like a real workplace

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 allowances system.

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 theatrical.

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 change.

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 ingredients:

  • Parliament working sensible hours, allowing MPs and government officials to have a better work-life balance
  • 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 vote remotely
  • 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, including telepresence.
  • Accommodation for MPs to 'touch down' in regional government offices as an alternative location to home or Westminster, and access all systems
  • 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 around expenses.

It's time to shift the focus from MPs with their snouts in the trough
to completely redesigning how MPs work
says Flexibility editor Andy Lake

May 2009




"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 change"


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