Sauce for the gander

May 26, 1995

So junket Jerry got off with a wigging and we will never know whether what he did was a one-off or business-as-normal at Westminster. The Wiggins affair blew up just as Tory backbenchers, led unedifyingly by former prime minister Edward Heath, were indulging in outrageous whingeing at Lord Nolan's recommendation that they declare what they earn. Their argument is extraordinary. No one of any calibre, they say, will go into politics if they have to make such declarations. They are not, please note, being asked to give up such earnings, only to say what they are.

Members of Parliament have excelled themselves in recent years in the strident sanctimoniousness with which they have pursued all manner of other groups for lack of accountability. Layers of inspectorial systems have been piled like Pelion on Ossa on other professions, not least higher education. University and college managers who have been seen to profit excessively from their position, have been the target of politicians' and others' disapproval and have lost their jobs. Universities and colleges are required by ministerial directive, under legislation passed by this Government, to publish the earnings and perks of their senior staff. Colleges are expected to conform to codes of conduct promulgated by a government appointed quango.

Of course, high standards should be expected of people running and working in public institutions. Of course, people should be held publicly to account for the service they provide with taxpayers' money. And that includes MPs. They are paid by the taxpayer to provide political services. True they are accountable to the electorate once every five years. But while they are able to cloak their activities in secrecy the electorate is not well-placed to assess their suitability.

And as for the argument that no one of any calibre will go into politics for a salary of Pounds 32,000 if undeclared earnings are ended, the only answer can be that we would be better off if such people stopped seeing politics as an attractive occupation. MPs are, by coincidence, paid about the professorial minimum. In addition they receive large allowances which academics do not. Many work less than full-time at their political careers. It is an extraordinary insult to those who are responsible for this country's excellent higher education system, to suggest that no one who is any good will work for Pounds 32,000 plus other publicly declared earnings.

It is time for MPs to take the medicine they have so liberally dished out to others. They have not been prepared to accept that other professions can be trusted to regulate. Why should they now expect to be treated differently themselves?

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