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Mail on Sunday

This article in the Mail on Sunday in May 2009 made proposals about the need to clean up the conduct of politics:


Charles Clarke: Ministers close to noxious apparatchiks like Damian McBride must be removed

Gordon Brown's YouTube appearance included one good point: 'We need future generations of committed young people to come into politics.' The way to do that is to stand up for politics. So it's urgent to get the rules right and to uphold the behaviour of those in public life.

Let's start with the rules. First and foremost they need to be agreed in an independent and non-party way.

Though the abuses have been confined to a small number of MPs of all parties, patio heaters, bath plugs and the so-called John Lewis list have come to symbolise national disappointment with politicians.

On the other hand, few people want to return to the days when MPs slept in their offices.

Office drawers were stuffed with duvets and pillows and Members prowled the corridors looking for somewhere to wash and shave. It was undignified and demeaning.

Unless we want unpaid MPs, or to break the constituency relationship, we need a comprehensive package that is fair to taxpayers and fair to MPs.

Such an approach needs to be flexible (there are 646 MPs with 646 different personal circumstances) and it needs to be done quickly.

I remain convinced that agreement around such a package is not difficult to achieve. I am certain from my own informal discussions with the main Opposition parties that there is a strong desire to sort all this out and soon.

Everyone wants to stop the corrosion that is destroying the political integrity of the country.

But the package has to be discussed openly and across Parliament, front-bench and backbench. It has to be done without party-political manoeuvrings. And it has to include pay, as well as expenses and allowances.

The pay of MPs, for example, could be fixed to a particular Civil Service grade. As my Labour colleague Denis MacShane has argued elsewhere, pay should not then be changed for political reasons as successive Prime Ministers and Chancellors have done.

Our constituency system is a strength of our democracy. MPs live in two places and this needs to be recognised.

Allowances should be taxable and subject to full HM Revenue and Customs rules like everyone else's are, which would mean savings. Travel expenses between the constituency and London should continue to be paid. MPs do need an allowance to enable them to run offices that help them serve their constituents.

There's not much room for cutting costs without damaging the service, though I see little problem with removing the recently established Communications Allowance.

Spot checks and effective audits would quickly weed out anyone inclined to bend the rules.

For some time now we've had a window of opportunity to sort things out. The overwhelming majority of MPs know that there has to be a new system and would support one.

The matter required leadership but instead we got inertia, confusion and a steady drip of damaging stories.

It is the job of the Speaker to protect the reputation of Parliament. When this failed to happen the party leaders should have stepped in.

No one made the very good case for the political process and why and how we should pay for it.

The initial reference to Sir Christopher Kelly's committee was a delaying tactic on the part of the Prime Minister. It was a mistake that led to confusion.

But now that Parliament has confirmed his role, there is no alternative but to ask Sir Christopher to report back more rapidly. His terms of reference should be widened to include MPs' pay.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life is small and under-resourced. It ought to be able to produce conclusions before the end of July but in practice - with limited resources, very few staff and no background knowledge of the day-to-day workings of an MP's life - the result is likely to drag on through the autumn until Christmas or beyond.

So, as a matter of urgency, the Government and the House of Commons authorities should find out from Sir Christopher what support and expert advice he needs to ensure that he reports by July.

On a separate matter, the rules of party-political funding need urgent attention. Over the past couple of years there has been a steady flow of allegations of impropriety and there are still police investigations outstanding.

This could, and should, be resolved before the General Election by legislation, again on an agreed all-party basis, to implement the recommendations of Sir Hayden Phillips's excellent report.

But good and well-policed rules are not enough to secure respect for politics. Honour, integrity and good behaviour are also essential.

The dark arts, as practised by Damian McBride, are not typical of politics in any way but their existence destroys all confidence in politics and politicians.

That means it is incumbent upon the party leaders to dismiss such noxious apparatchiks from any association with their leadership. Damian McBride was not a lone gun in the politics of 10 Downing Street. He was part of a poisonous team.

The matter won't be laid to rest until all links with Derek Draper and Charlie Whelan are severed and those Ministers who worked very closely with them are removed from their positions.

In the same way it remains a matter of surprise that David Cameron continues to retain Andy Coulson, the former editor of the News of the World, whose journalists were found guilty of illegally bugging the Royal Family.

Smears, leaks and character assassinations have no part to play in political life.

Most people become involved in politics because of passion for a particular issue such as the environment or education, or to change the direction in which the country is travelling.

Political change means more than creating 'dividing lines' with opponents or throwing down the gauntlet and crying: 'With me or against me!'

Strong leadership means bringing people - even your opponents - with you. And that's desperately needed to restore the honourable place of politics in this country.


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