Tuesday 8 September 2009

Savings on a rainy day

I read with interest this article on the BBC website about David Cameron's plans to make savings by cutting back on MPs privileges. He has various proposals, including decentralisation, cutting quangos, increased transparency, reducing the number of MPs and cutting back on what it costs to run Westminster. This is all laudable stuff, and it should be done. I hope that the special interests who would oppose many of these can be defeated.

I would like to make clear at the beginning that I wouldn't mind at all (and apparently, neither would some of his own candidates) if David Cameron wanted to reduce the number of MPs by 59 and remove the unnecessary Westminster tier from Scotland altogether.

Anyway, what caught my eye in Cameron's speech is this:

There are currently 169 government ministerial posts and 3 opposition party posts that receive additional taxpayer funded salaries, on top of the standard MP salary.

These ministerial salaries range from £26,624 to £132,923.

It's only right, at a time when the country has to share in financial pain, that they make their sacrifice.

So we will cut all Ministerial salaries - that's the money they get on top of their MPs' salary - by an immediate five percent.

This means a pay cut of £6,500 for the Prime Minister and a £4 ,000 pay cut for Cabinet Ministers.

169 government ministerial posts is an eye watering number. What do they all do? Do we need them? Who are these people, because this clearly isn't all of them. Why not as well as cutting their top up, reduce the number of ministerial posts? If scrutiny is to be applied to the worth of all quangos, why not to ministers?

Forgive my if my calculations are off (percentages were never my thing), but I think that 169 out of 646 is an incredible 26% of the UK Parliament who have posts. Compare this to the Scottish Parliament, which has 16 Governmental posts, (18, if you include the Lord Advocate and Solicitor General). This is only 12% of the Scottish Parliamentarians.

Cameron also wants to cut the number of MPs - given the scale of the constituencies, I'm not convinced this is a great idea; he also wants to cut back on staff, which would make covering these huge areas properly far more challenging.

On another matter entirely, there's also a slightly odd comparison in his speech with the Electoral Commission and India's Election Commission which I'm not entirely convinced is fair. Cameron points out that India has "twice as many people to oversee sixteen times as many voters". For a start, the difference in salaries and the cost of doing business is somewhat lower in India. While I don't doubt the numbers quoted in the speech, I'm sure national officials will be working with many thousands of local officials in India to make sure the biggest democracy on earth can pull off fair and free elections.

Cameron also seems to conflate decreasing turnout with the work done by the Electoral Commission, rather than disillusionment with politicians... The Electoral Commission isn't perfect, but the work they do in trying to encourage voter turnout against rising apathy can be innovative and is definitely important.

While I find all this interesting from a theoretical viewpoint, I don't believe that the Westminster system has much to offer Scotland. Our devolved Parliament already has a better set up, and is surely evolving yet further. A real Parliament in Scotland with real powers to improve the lives of our people is a far better prospect for the future.

Update: I have found a better list of Ministers! http://www.number10.gov.uk/Page19564


JoeJag said...

Perhaps he's including deputies?

That would double the number. It would also make the MSP count around the same percentage if you included deputies (assuming they have them).

BellgroveBelle said...

In the Scottish Government, there are six Cabinet Secretaries and ten Ministers. That's it!

I can't figure out where the Westminster figure comes from - there will be Junior ministers as well there.

William said...

I'm sure Cameron means well but I don't see that cutting wages by £5,000 or whatever is really going to make a difference to anything. It's a gesture, that's all.

I've always assumed that the 'under secretary of state' structure acted as a means for politicians to gain experience of a particular department or office before moving up or on.

How does it work for MSP's, then? Are you just as an MSP and then you get called to become a Minister overnight? And what happens when you stop being a Minister? Do you just get dumped back to being a plain MSP again?

The cost of governance is what it is. If we want to be a civilized First World country then we have to accept it costs a bit of money to run a country of that size. We're starting to develop an unhealthy fascination with every penny spent by politicians whilst ignoring the bigger picture, imo.

BellgroveBelle said...

William, I can't comment precisely on MSPs, but I believe that being Convener or Vice-Convener of a Committee would be a step up in responsibility and experience. Opposition MSPs get the opportunity to take on this role as well.

I agree that some of the expenses concentrated on by the media (such as staff costs) are part of the cost of democracy, but others are less crucial. I'm just not convinced that paying for 169 ministers is an effective use of public funds.

If MPs want to progress their careers in Government, it shouldn't come at the taxpayers expense.