The expenses saga is depressing and - in contributing to public antipathy to elected politicians – dangerous. Many if not most MPs clearly saw the expenses system as a backdoor way of compensating them for the demands of their job and the relative modesty of their salaries in comparison to other senior professionals or executives.
Morally, there is a distinction between those who used the system to get as much money as possible back on everyday expenditure (which is lazy or opportunistic but understandable), and those who appeared to have deliberately manipulated it to make a profit. But the latter is hard to prove and the distinction may anyway be lost in the tide of public disgust.
One of my closest friends is an MP. Here are some facts about her life as I have observed it over the last twelve years:
She works an average 14 hour day Monday to Thursday, maybe a bit less on Friday but also at least one extra day at weekends. Overall, I’d say 70 hours a week, and not just the odd week but every week Parliament is sitting. She has the advantage of representing a seat near Westminster and is sympathetic to those of her colleagues (including ministers, who in my experience work 15 hour, six and a half day weeks) - who spend several hours every week going to and from their constituency.
In addition, she is always on call, even when she is on a family holiday abroad. Any member of the public feels they can stop my friend in the street to complain or ask for advice. On at least one occasion she has suffered unwarranted press intrusion into her family.
Although Parliament is in recess for about 16 weeks of the year, constituency duties mean the time she actually has on holiday is more or less the same as other white collar workers. She lives in a modest flat in her constituency.
Among the skills she must combine to do her job well are those of:
• A social worker and counsellor
• A community development officer
• A case worker with specialist knowledge of immigration, welfare benefits, housing allocation etc
• A lobbyist (at both national and local government level)
• A public speaker and campaigner
• A skilled policy analyst and scrutiniser of Government
• A press officer and amateur journalist
• An employer and manager of her small team of paid and unpaid helpers.
She does all these things well. She does them without expecting to be recognised or promoted and, despite her tireless work for her constituents, she knows she may well lose her seat at the next election because of the national performance of her party.
I am not claiming she is special, nor that she deserves any sympathy for her lifestyle; she chose to be an MP and desperately wants to stay one. But she is the MP I know best and her experience is pretty similar to the other MPs I have known well socially.
Even if I could be bothered to go through the tortuous and often generally unsuccessful struggle to become an MP, I wouldn’t do her job; I’m simply not willing to work that hard.
A few good apples don’t save the barrel. But alongside the terrible headlines about expenses we need to hear too about the day to day life of hard working constituency MPs.