25 JULY 1992, Page 23


Making the Commons a house of ill repute


No: I am not writing about Mr David Mellor, but the fact that Members of Par- liament have gone off on the long holidays having just voted themselves, against feebly delivered government advice, a 38 per cent increase in their expenses. The country is still in the thick of the longest and most painful recession since the war, unemploy- ment is rising and virtually every family in the land is doing without something; none of this deterred them. What guided their self-indulgence was timing: we are at the beginning of a parliament and, by the time it is over, as one of them put it to me, 'the hoi polloi will have forgotten all about it'.

Will they? I wouldn't take it for granted. Representatives are becoming less popular all over the world, and recent elections on the Continent, notably in Italy and France, suggest that voters are beginning to exact their revenge. The outstanding case is the United States Congress, especially the House of Representatives, and we shall see in November whether the much conned American public is in the mood for a mas- sacre of congressmen. They have travelled much further down the expense-account road than their British colleagues and it is a long time since the cost of running Congress passed the billion-a-year mark. Congressional staffs are enormous and spe- cialise in the assistant-witch-hunter genre, of whom Messrs Cohn and Schine were the prototypes; and it was Democratic staffers who recently tried to crucify Supreme Court Justice Thomas. They are bad news for everybody. American 'research assis- tants' have been working over here to spread nasty habits among British MPs, and it is precisely to enlarge their staffs that the Commons voted itself an extra chunk of our money.

The increase in the cost of Congress and the spread of its rackets have advanced pari Passu. The skulduggery has been described, for instance, by former Congressman Joseph DioGuardi in his book Unaccount- able Congress, in which he refers to the institution as 'a House of Ill-Repute'; and more recently by John Jackley, himself a Democratic staffer, in Hillrat: Blowing the Lid Off Congress, which has been giving many thousands of readers frissons of anger. One particular racket Jackley did not detail was the large-scale customs eva- sion which accompanies official congres- sional overseas junkets. That has now been exposed by the New York Guardian, an

admirable monthly dedicated to publicising the vices of the American political estab- lishment (its address, for those interested, is 316 Great Neck Road, Great Neck, New York 11021).

The racket centres on Andrews Airforce Base near Washington DC, where the US Air Force's 89th Military Aircraft Wing, manned by 1,600 people, operates to supply Congress and government with transport. It cost the taxpayer over $150 million for fis- cal 1991 alone. Single junkets for groups of congressmen can and do run up bills for over $350,000 each, but what particularly enrages ordinary Americans is that the ser- vice is exploited by the elect for purposes of risk-free smuggling. At Andrews, the rou- tine for incoming flights is that customs officers merely get on the plane to collect the customs declarations travellers fill in. There is no actual inspection. As an official put it, 'We go on the honours system here.' It is one thing for a congressman to evade duty by bringing in an oriental rug. That is demeaning but scarcely criminal. However, in some cases, the Guardian reports, smug- gling is conducted on a commercial basis. One congressman brought back 1,000 pairs of trainers from a trip to Korea. Another had three vans lined up on the Andrews tarmac to take away his loot, having first ascertained there would be no customs inspection. This consignment included high-value china and art work from south- east Asia, which a congressional sub-com- mittee had been 'investigating' at the tax- payer's expense. Its chairman was the van-man.

You would have to go back to the early 18th century to find similar goings-on in Britain, when Sir Robert Walpole had the nerve to engage in substantial smuggling as Chancellor of the Exchequer, which I sup- pose made things easy. Today British MPs, in my experience, are exceptionally honest and are in any event closely supervised by the Treasury. I am not suggesting they are going the congressional way morally. No: the danger I fear is hyper-legislation. Par- liament probably functioned most efficient- ly between the 14th century and the Civil War. It met then only when it had business to do, usually in the early summer, worked hard every day from dawn to dusk, present- ing petitions and enacting laws, and then dispersed as soon as its programme was complete, fear of plague acting as an added spur to expedition. The knights of the shires and the burgesses had their expenses reimbursed not by the Exchequer but by their local communities, an important point. Today's MPs, who say they need the extra cash to serve the public, would be less keen to vote it, I imagine, if it had to be paid directly by their constituents.

As politics has become a paid profession, so its practitioners have begun to measure their performance by legislative output — a disastrous change. Parkinson's Law oper- ates. The more cash made available to MPs and their staffs, the more laws will be enacted. France, where the political system is more lavishly financed than here, broke the world record in 1991 with over 100,000 laws and regulations. With hyper-legisla- tion comes a certain unseemly cockiness on the part of the elect, those most closely connected to the EEC, itself an over- financed and hyper-legislative- institution par excellence, being naturally in the van. Last week, for instance, I was rebuked, for advocating a referendum in the Daily Tele- graph by no less a personage than Sir 'Fred' Catherwood MEP. He dismissed me as a mere 'unelected journalist', seeking to appeal to the vulgar masses above the heads of properly qualified persons like himself, who were alone capable of under- standing the Maastricht Treaty. But politics is too serious a matter to be left to the Sir Freds of Strasbourg, or even the first eleven at Westminster. The trouble today is that politicians and people are moving apart, here and in Europe as a whole, and pouring cash into the system merely widens the gap. I said to Margaret Thatcher last week, 'Your role now is to lead the cam- paign to make Europe democratic,' and I am glad to say she replied, 'That is just what I intend to do — and to make them respect the rule of law too.' But we must all put our shoulders to the wheel.