Saturday, 16 May 2009

Doing the Right Thing

Well really. I go away for a week's holiday with no access to the internet, email or much in the way of news, and on my return, I find that the wheels have come off British politics and the impression is that the whole system of politician's allowances and expenses is corrupt.

I've spent this morning catching up, reading through all the sources I can find to see what the real story is. So far as I can see the main explanation/excuse being offered is "I was following the rules".  This seems to me to be missing the point. The point is not what you can claim for - but what you should claim for. Let me give you an example.

As a line manager, I decide that the team are a little down and that a night out would be the very thing. I take them to the local pub for a couple of hours followed by a meal out. What should be claimed for? Well, let's look at this one thing at a time. The drinks - is there a budget? Has the expenditure been cleared by my line manager? Most importantly, however, is - who is taking who for a drink? Is this me taking the team out or the firm taking the team out? In my opinion, in most circumstances, it is and should be me taking the team out. No question. The gift of an evening out has more value if it comes as a personal gift rather than a corporate gift. 

So then - the meal. A number of those out for drinks are able to come along for a meal too - but no everyone. Again, then. What should be claimed? Again - it is a personal gift and a personal expense. 

Many politicians do not seem to have the same opinion. A good number of them seem to be of the opinion that they should claim for every penny that they can. Look at some of the items on the list: a home cinema, cleaning a moat, furniture, interest for a mortgage that has been paid off. Those that have made these sort of claims - no matter that the "rules" appear to allow them - have become confused about what they need for the purpose of their work and what they might want for personal satisfaction or gratification. In my opinion, this is a dreadful lapse in ethical behaviour. 

I don't believe that any person who is of the opinion that the allowance and expenses system is there to provide as much money as possible will make a good MP. I am certain that I would prefer to  be represented by someone with a better understanding of ethics.

This debacle can have a lesson for business. The simplest way to regulate MP's expenses, in my opinion, would be to have some simple principles (expenses must be for the least possible amount, for the sole purpose of MP's business and supported by receipts) and then publish everything. Not just expense - all earnings. The same should apply in business. I can't think of any reason that expenses should be private. Salary, yes, but not expenses. If it is really a business expense then the firm should know about it.

The simplest systems are usually the best. The most open and transparent are usually the most fair.

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