Over a 20 year period, Parliament has spent £250,000 on paintings of some of the MPs and Lords as part of efforts to document the work of the institution. This was discovered through a Freedom of Information request by the Evening Standard as reported here. The level of reaction has shocked some Parliamentarians and at least one journalist. This article in the Guardian by Jonathan Jones, their Art Correspondent probably takes the right line. In a nation that prizes its cultural heritage, to fail to document the work of our Parliament in an appropriate way would surely be short sighted? Jonathan goes on to question if the Tax Payers Alliance who have rallied opposition to this expenditure are really serious, why are they not suggesting moving Parliament into an underground car park to reduce the cost of the Parliament. I am certain that an underground carpark is not the most appropriate solution, but why not reflect on the most effective way of doing business including how we document the work and humanity in our Parliament? If the TPA want to be taken seriously, they need to get beyond knee jerk reactions to the minutiae of the work of our national institutions, and focus on the big picture. Of course part of the problem is that one could imagine Eric Pickles raising just these concerns if the expenditure had been made by a Local Council, which is perhaps part of the real problem. A lack of understanding of where this particular issue fits into the bigger picture.
Jacob Rees-Mogg MP was interviewed on yesterdays BBC Radio 4 Today explaining that a bit of art costing around £10,000 each year was a mere trifle when compared to the annual cost of running Parliament. I failed to find a source to back up the figure he quoted for the running of Westminster, but I recall him mentioning a figure of around £200M each year, which compares to £72M for the cost of the Scottish Parliament. The risk is that having upset a bunch of people over the cost of a few paintings that most of us will never see, in a building that none of us can visit without making an arrangement to do so, that we, the taxpayers who fund the £272M including the £10k for paintings will return to our cornflakes and wait for the next revelation that upsets us. What was dispiriting about the interview with Jacob Rees-Mogg was that he did not suggest that it is time for a proper review of the way in which our Parliament as a whole operates. However that is surely the point. The cost of the paintings are huge when we compare this sum to the income of an indivual on the minimum wage. The sum is modest in the context of the income of Jacob Rees-Mogg who earns £65,000 a year for being an MP and receives £10,000 a month for his other declared income. We could then compare it to the income of a high earning footballer and the total sum becomes paltry. The reality is that as the Guardian piece points out, we don’t like our Government and this is just a small expression of that dislike, yet few of our Parliamentarians understand this (or show that they do). It is possible to turn this into an opportunity for a meaningful debate about democracy and civic leadership. However we will need people with a bit more awareness than Mr Rees-Mogg demonstrated on the Radio to help open this up.