The extensive level of chaos displayed by the House of Commons over the last year or three is a matter that in most other contexts would lead responsible MPs to call for a public enquiry to correct the failings of a very well-funded, inadequate public body. Yet because the chaos comes from Parliament itself no such calls are being made and indeed in the last few days the MPs have been informed that they have been awarded a 2.7% pay rise which many of them will assume is a reward for their hard work. In many other settings a year or more of failure followed by such a pay increase would be heavily criticised by MPs. As we reflect on this pay rise, it is worth looking back at some of the actions over the last week which one could describe as the good, the bad and the downright ugly.
The good that emerged last week came during a debate on Universal Credit when some MPs challenged the weaknesses of the proposed improvements to the benefits system. The comment by Stephen Lloyd, MP for Eastbourne focused on the transition for people who are disabled: “When people who are moved on to universal credit already have a medical condition or disability, they are immediately placed in an assessment period similar to the one that in which they were placed when receiving employment and support allowance. The problem is that the period can be as long as 14 weeks, during which time their incomes can be cut by as much as £200, £300 or even £400 a month…I ask Members to imagine immediately losing up to £300 or £400 a month” Now of course many MPs may not feel a great loss of such a sum given that they all earn close to £80,000 but perhaps if he pointed out that the loss can be twice or even three times the value of the MPs pay increase, that may have resonated a bit clearer.
The same debate also involved Huw Merriman, MP for Bexhill and Battle who argued that “Another aspect of Universal Credit is universal support. It used to be the case that when someone was on benefits they were languishing on benefits, no one cared about them and they did not get the tailored support that UC gives. Now if anyone chooses to go to their jobcentre, as I do regularly, they will find a completely different approach—one where there is compassion and tailor-made support” I am sure that Huw is right to support the positive elements of universal support, but of course when he goes into Bexhill Job Centre Plus, he goes in as an MP not as someone seeking work and being aware that he is at risk of losing his benefits if he does not follow through the instructions he would receive. In any case the workers in the Job Centre are in effect his employees rather than his boss so his treatment may be a bit different to that handed out to some of the people on Universal Credit. What was missing was his description of the people in his constituency that he had met through agencies such as foodbanks where many people on Universal Credit have also been provided support.
Outside of the House of Commons another Sussex MP has been speaking about matters that impact society and in a way that is deeply concerning and clearly very bad. Henry Smith who is MP for Crawley spoke on Politics Live on Thursday last week on a subject of the extent to which Muslim members of his party have suffered from Islamaphobia. Henry made it clear that he had no experience of Islamaphobia taking place; just as many members of the Labour Party have made it clear they have never experienced Antisemitism. However he chose to deny the claim by Sayeeda Warsi who is a Muslim that widespread Islamaphobia does exist in their party and then he stated “I think complacency is a very dangerous thing and I wouldn’t want to strike any note of complacency but I think that a party which has a Muslim as a Home Secretary is not a party that could be accused of being Islamophobic” which rather shows both ignorance and disrespect in equal measure.
It seems clear that we need some sort of stock check of both Parliament and the Political Parties that dominate the institution. Few people are currently claiming that Labour does not need to improve its internal organisation and similar numbers would claim that the Conservatives are in a good condition. Whatever the outcome of Brexit we need a competent democracy moving forward.