Time for MPs to learn facts of life

AS the debate on MPs' allowances and expenses takes a bizarre twist - you just couldn't make up the tale of the Home Secretary's husband billing the taxpayers for the subscription for viewing two “adult” movies from a premium television channel - it is now plain for all to see that Members of Parliament are their own worst enemies.

Graham Dines

AS the debate on MPs' allowances and expenses takes a bizarre twist - you just couldn't make up the tale of the Home Secretary's husband billing the taxpayers for the subscription for viewing two “adult” movies from a premium television channel - it is now plain for all to see that Members of Parliament are their own worst enemies.

In their naivety, the public believes it sends representatives to Westminster to debate the serious issues of the day. Criticise an MP, and he or she will hit back with a catalogue of meetings and duties with one of our local members - Bob Russell (Liberal Democrat, Colchester) - claiming he works an 80-hour seven day-week.

I have no reason to doubt this, although I hope Mr Russell has time to go to church on Sundays and then sit down for a roast luncheon with his family. Yet anyone who switches to the Parliament Channel on Freeview or Sky and sees the rows and rows of empty green benches will wonder just what their MPs do.

It's all very well MPs packing the Chamber for 30 minutes a week at Prime Minister's Questions, but as soon as the session is over, most of them clear off for lunch even if important statements are being made by Cabinet ministers.

Take Monday evening as an example. I had half an hour to kill before the ill-fated media reception given by Conservative Party chairman Eric Pickles so I sat in the Press gallery of the Commons.

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MPs were debating a motion simply entitled Africa - I use the terms “MPs” loosely because in the time I spent listening, 620 of them couldn't be bothered to attend. There were nine Labour members - including junior minister Gareth Thomas and the duty whip Chris Mole (Ipswich), six Tories and two Liberal Democrats.

Clair Curtis-Thomas (Labour, Crosby) was giving an impassioned speech on help for Sierra Leone, followed by Sir Nicholas Winterton (Conservative, Macclesfield) who delivered a ringing condemnation of the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe, including the telling phrase “a tapestry of unbelievable suffering”

A further three Labours MPs wandered in during the time I was there and in the Speaker's chair was Sir Michael Lord (Suffolk Central & Ipswich North).

No doubt during the six hours of debate, other members were in and out of the Chamber. But the empty benches are what the public sees and that's why there is so much hostility and anger every time MPs get a pay rise, a boost to their pensions, claim for second homes, buy plasmas screen televisions, rent “adult” movies, or clear off on overseas jolly boys' outings.

Where were their MPs during this debate? Filling in their latest expenses claims and checking out if they had claimed more or less that their neighbouring MPs?

Aid to Africa is a subject close to the heart of tens of thousands of younger voters, who could make a difference at the next election to the survival of MPs. These MPs are quick to jump on the developing world bandwagon when Sir Bob Geldof cracks the whip and there's publicity to be gained, but attend a mundane debate in the Commons chamber? No way.

Much of the work of parliament, of course, takes place in the committee rooms of the parliamentary estate. Select committees, whose scrutiny work is so vital for keeping the executive in check, are in regular session but these clash with sittings of the House - when the Commons started work at 2.30pm rather than in the morning as now, there were no such problems.

The Blair Babes have much to answer for - in their desperation to get home to their London flats in time to see Coronation Street, the huge in-take of women MPs in 1997 managed to persuade Government business managers that the Commons should sit between 11am and 7pm.

Yet it is these same MPs who insist they need special allowances for second homes in London. When Parliament sat until late in the evening, or in all-night session, it was essential that MPs had accommodation in or near to Westminster.

It's still necessary for those from far-flung constituencies to have a bed for the night in the capital, but it would be cheaper to provide hotel or hostel accommodation. But for south-east MPs, sharing the daily misery of their commuting constituents would be no bad thing. After all, what does the term Home Counties mean?

The House only rarely meets on a Friday and never on Monday mornings and therefore I would suggest that the second home allowance is abolished for those representing constituencies south of Diss and Milton Keynes and east of Southampton.

Two former MPs for Braintree set examples that it wouldn't hurt Home Counties MPs to follow. Tony Newton - who was Leader of the Commons in John Major's government - caught the last train to Kelvedon every night. Labour's Alan Hurst went home most evening to Westcliff-on-Sea and when the Commons did meet on rare occasions late into the night, he stayed at the Reform Club.

No second homes for these Essex MPs.

Reform of the parliamentary allowances is now being reviewed on orders of Gordon Brown. I suggest temptation should be removed from honourable members, by providing those who need it with taxpayer funded accommodation and with secretarial and IT support again paid for by all of us.

BRING BACK CAPTAIN EURO

AS everyone gets excited at the prospect of elections to the European Parliament in June (!), perhaps it's time for the return of that EU superhero Captain Euro and his sidekick Europa to engender some voter interest.

According to his creators in the European Commission, Captain Euro “is a diplomatic hero - the symbol of European unity and values. He's fun, he's friendly and appeals to all Europeans because he's totally multicultural and non-political.”

I'm not sure if the good captain was gender neutral, or whether he/she was heterosexual, gay or lesbian. I don't recall him as being disabled, so perhaps he wasn't all things to all men - and all women - as he should have been.

As the duo battle Dr D. Vider - whose evil intent is “to divide Europe and create his own empire” - Captain Euro and Europa have became ambassadors of global peace, solving problems and averting the threat of danger.

Our fearless heroes are part of that multi-million euro information campaign - propaganda to Eurosceptics - which is promoting the EU as an eventual federation of states. You could write a masters' degree on whether federation means integration, but let's just say that most Britons will be distinctly unimpressed at the 2.4billion euro budget being spent on promoting One Europe.

I freely admit to having benefited from some European largesse, having been on taxpayer funded visits, organised by the Maastricht-based European Journalism Centre, to Brussels, Frankfurt and Jerusalem, to Portugal and Brussels with regional development directorate, and to Brussels and Strasbourg many times funded by the European Parliament.

I hope I have enough of an independent mind to look objectively as this promotion of the philosophy of “one size fits all” for the future of Europe. While the UK remains a part of the EU, then it behoves me to learn all I can about policies and spending priorities or an organisation which soaks up so much of my taxes.

This training for journalists - “local and regional media should be trained and given the opportunity to present the impact of the European integration process to their audiences” - allows the media to meet colleagues from across the 27 member states of the EU.

To those who are angered that we take part in these visits, I simply say: organise you own sessions giving the contrary view, rather than leaving it as you do now to volunteers to rail against the EU in letters to local papers.

EUROPA DAY IN BRITAIN

THE year's Europa Day Concert in the UK takes place on Friday May 8 at St John's, Smith Square, Westminster, starting at 7pm. Soloists from the European Opera Centre and the European Union Youth Orchestra conducted by Laurent Pillot will perform works by Balfe, Beethoven, Bizet, Donizetti, Dvorak and Smetana.

According to the web site of the European Commission's London office, Europe Day, along with the flag, the anthem Ode to Joy, and the single currency, identifies the political entity of the European Union, and is the occasion for activities and festivities that bring Europe closer to its citizens and peoples of the Union closer to one another.