19 May 2009

Unacceptable waste

They ordered 401 of them in November 2003 at a cost of £166 million. Only now, nearly six years later, are they finally going into service, but not before the Ministry of Defeat has spent another £20 billion on them to make them suitable for Afghanistan. This is the fabulous Panther.

MP's should be furious – that sort of unacceptable waste could have financed 16 months-worth of Additional Cost Allowances.

Regulating MPs' remuneration

The current payment system should be replaced with a single scheme, the suggested name for which is the "constituency management fee". It should be paid from central funds and drawn down by MPs annually (or in periodic increments). From this, MPs pay all expenses and remuneration, in accordance with what is most appropriate to the effective management of the constituency and which is acceptable to their local voters.

Thus, an MP will draw from the fund, the salary, pension payments, working and all other expenses (including normal travel), staff employment and all other expenses.

Accountability is maintained on the one hand by publishing a "business plan" setting out the "budget" and the expenditure heads, and then publishing quarterly audited accounts, with an annual report at the end of the year (or period). As to monitoring of expenses – and allowable amounts – this should be a matter between constituents and the MP, with the tax authorities as the arbiter, scrutinising expenditure as they do with other enterprises.

On the basis of current salaries, allowances, etc, the fund could be in the order of £300,000 a year, possibly "banded" by constituency zone, reflecting distances and other issues which affect individual MPs. The sum set would be a maximum, with each MP able to come in under the sum allocated.

To guard against abuse – as with Conway – there should then be a "recall" provision. Electors in a constituency should be able to raise a petition (say with 10,000 names) on which completion there should follow within a stated period a by-election, where the sitting MP is required to stand for re-election.

In terms of overall advantages, this has the benefit of insulating MPs from abusers. With each MP devising their individual schemes, with the agreement of their local electors, no other MPs are tainted if one or more MPs go off the rails. On the other hand, voters are empowered, and may well be inclined to take a greater interest in the workings of their constituencies and their MPs.

Within the broad scope of the scheme, there is and should be great scope for innovation and flexibility. Some MPs, for instance, may chose to appoint a local "advisory board" made up from the local "great and the good" to advise them on disbursement of funds. There is scope for each political party to issue "guidelines" on expenditure, which an MP may (or may not) vary according to local circumstances. Others may prefer to devise their own schemes.

Ultimately, this puts voters "in charge" as ultimate accountability rests with the electorate, where it should reside (and not with an unelected bureaucracy). This also should lead to some savings, as the administrative teams currently processing and authorising payments can be disbanded.

13 May 2009

Politics as usual?

As one would expect Libertas has been making much of the embarrassment that is afflicting our legislators, real and pretend ones. Should Libertas.eu be elected to the Toy European Parliament, they tell us solemnly, they will publish all their expenses on their website, thus ensuring complete transparency. This is part of their “Stamp out Sleaze” campaign that they launched yesterday to little public interest, the latter being entirely focused on details of MPs' spending.

Well, that is very nice, though I can imagine various ingenious ways of making sure that transparent expenses do not mean quite what they say. But there is another problem: Libertas.eu also boasts of the many existing euro- and national politicians they have acquired en route to putting up 550 candidates across Europe. Or as the Former British Soldier, Robin Matthews is supposed to have stated in today's press release:
Six months ago, Libertas didn’t exist. Today it is fielding many times more candidates than any other party in Europe.
Since no other party in Europe is quite as much in favour of European integration as Libertas.eu is, that means very little. But what of those politicians who have allegedly joined them?

For instance, every press release tells us proudly in the Notes for Editors that "in Latvia we have a former Prime Minister as the lead candidate". Quite true, the lead candidate for the single region of Latvia, Guntars Krasts, was briefly the Prime Minister from August 1997 to November 1998 (well, maybe not that briefly by Latvian standards) but since 2004 he has been a member of the Toy Parliament. Try as I might, I can find no evidence that he has declared his expenses in detail in the last five years. Perhaps I am looking at the wrong sites.

Similarly, several sitting French MEPs have announced that they will be standing for Libertas this time round. Presumably, this means that they feel strongly about the sleaze in their institution and, in order to show their feelings have always made all their expenses known to anyone who cares to enquire.

Has Philippe de Villiers done so? There appears to be no evidence of this on his party's official website or on his parliamentary site. Mind you, the idea of the ultra-traditionalist, ultra-nationalist M de Villiers from La Vendée teaming up with Mr Ganley who dismisses all forms of national politics as being out of date and helpless in the face of the EU, is quite entertaining by itself.

The point is that if sitting MEPs have not bothered to be transparent about their expenses up till now, what guarantee is there that they will change after this election? I think Mr Ganley should address that question.

There are, as it happens, a few other problems with the way Libertas.eu and its leader present themselves. Several press releases have also informed me in those Notes for Editors that "in the Czech Republic, the President, Vaclav Klaus, has endorsed our party".

This surprised me somewhat. In the first place, everything President Klaus does is news and yet I have heard nothing about this. In the second place, President Klaus opposes the Lisbon Treaty because he does not like European integration and has severe doubts about the whole project. Libertas, we are told ad nauseam, is on a very different platform: it loves the European Union but thinks that the way has been lost and needs to be found again. Has Vaclav Klaus really endorsed that?

Yesterday evening I searched news sites, Vaclav Klaus’s own site and Libertas; I found no reference to any endorsement. In desperation I e-mailed the Libertas press office asking for a link. This is a news story, I pointed out but that clearly stirred no interest.

I received no reply but today there is an item on the Libertas site about Declan Ganley meeting EU President Vaclav Klaus (who may not like to be described thus and, in any case, it is not entirely accurate) at the Libertas press conference. No mention of endorsement though if President Klaus attended the press conference that could count as such.

It would appear that things were not quite like that. Looking at Klaus's site and the English language pages one finds nothing until one glances at the diary. There, among many other items one does find information about a meeting.

My knowledge of Czech is shaky and I am prepared to be corrected on this but what it looks like to me is an extra diary item eased into an already busy day with President Klaus receiving Declan Ganley in Prague Castle, his official residence. Did Libertas hold a press conference in President Klaus’s office?

The Czech news item [in English] does not help us much, repeating as it does Ganley’s usual comments and the position with regards to the treaty in the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany. Oh and it mentions that Declan Ganley met President Klaus. Endorsement? What endorsement?

Then there was the unfortunate saga of former Polish President Lech Wałęsa, a hero of the fight against Communism and an unsuccessful politician after the system's collapse. (I wonder what he thinks of Robin Matthews's assertion that the EU had "removed the shackles of communism".)

On May 1 I received a press release that told me of a pan-European meeting of Libertas in Rome where "Nobel Peace Prize winner and champion of Polish freedom, Lech Walesa, will address over 1000 delegates from across Europe". I guess they did not discuss with him about who removed the shackles of communism.

Well, that sounded quite impressive even if Mr Wałęsa is a bit of a back number, having failed spectacularly in his presidential role, but a well-known and much admired back number. What the press release did not say was that he was being paid and, one assumes, paid quite handsomely to stand up before the 1,000 delegates, who, presumably, did not know this either. For himself, Mr Wałęsa supports the Civic Platform and is known not to be too keen on the League of Polish Families, an ally of Libertas.eu.

Really, one does begin to wonder what Mr Ganley tells all these very disparate parties about what Libertas stands for.

When the Polish media approached Lech Wałęsa he cheerfully admitted that he was paid, explaining that he had to accept all these engagements because he could not live on his state pension. I should have thought the state pension of a past president cannot be all that bad and he gets a good deal of free service in Poland and elsewhere in recognition of his heroism at a time it really mattered. My own suspicion is that he finds it hard to live without media attention.

Indeed, the only thing the former president found insulting was the suggestion that he received €50,000 for his speech.
Asked by the Polish newspaper about claims he had received a €50,000 fee for the speech, Mr Walesa replied jokingly: "Are you selling me short? You must be joking. You'd have to work one year for the same amount of money that I can get for one lecture." In a separate interview, Mr Walesa said he accepted the Libertas invitation because he is unable to live off his state pension.
According to his son, Jaroslaw, who is a Civic Platform candidate for the Toy Parliament, the old man had spoken to the EPP meeting the previous day without getting paid for it, because he agrees with them. Go figure.

Then again, Mr Wałęsa also said that he supported the idea of a single European state or, at least, up to a point. And all those who criticize him just want to attack him for everything. I do trust he is not going to turn himself into a political victim.

The news is that there will be more appearances by the Polish Grand Old Man at Libertas meetings, one assumes on the same terms, currently estimated at €100,000.

Mr Ganley, on the other hand, became all coy about the whole business.
DECLAN GANLEY has acknowledged a payment was made to former Polish president Lech Walesa to address Libertas delegates at their conference on Friday in Rome.

The Libertas founder said it was usual to pay a fee in such circumstances, and described Polish media queries about the exact amount as "offensive" …

"Gentlemen do not talk about money to other gentlemen," Mr Ganley told the daily newspaper Dziennik yesterday. "The word 'honorarium' includes the word 'honour'. Let's drop the subject."
With the greatest respect in the world, as Sir Humphrey would say, Mr Ganley is talking tosh. Politicians are not gentlemen and the question of money in politics is very important. After all, Mr Ganley spends a good deal of time talking about money received and spent by MEPs.

There is all the difference in the world between a grand old man of European politics appearing at a political rally because he supports the cause and the self-same GOM appearing like an after-dinner speaker for money. Mr Ganley had better get used to questions of this kind being asked about his party.

It could be said that I am nit-picking because I do not like Libertas. What do these stories matter, after all? Up to a point, Lord Copper.

It is true that I do not like Libertas. I do not like their basic platform, which is more European integration; I do not like their smug assertion that they are the wave of the future, coupled as it is with an invincible ignorance about the past and the present; I do not like their refusal to discuss any details of their programme – just like any other political party; I do not like the way Mr Ganley travels round Europe, having himself photographed with the great and the good; and I most certainly do not like the patronizing way both Mr Ganley and Mr Matthews talk to me. Only the boss is allowed to patronize me.

But there is something beyond that. Libertas.eu is presenting itself as being a special new party, one that will clean up the EU and its politics. One expects a little more from them than this kind of economic attitude to the actualité and grand dismissals of any question and criticism.

It is, let's face it, politics as usual though on a very amateurish level. I mean if you are going to diverge from the strict truth, do it in a way no-one notices or not till after the election.