Gilded palace for MPs

THERE is sound logic behind giving MPs a hefty pay rise; after all, not many people of any merit are going to be attracted to public office if the remuneration is poor.

So MPs recently did just that and gave themselves a good rise, in some cases about 21/2 times as much as that going to other elements in the public sector.

But one may be forgiven for being less than enamoured about more apparently lavish spending at Westminster, this time on the Palace of Westminster itself.

In the middle of some of the most severe rounds of cuts in public spending in recent memory, encompassed by moves to get the defence budget reduced by GBP1 billion (about HK$11.43 billion), with hospital wards across the country closing because there is not enough cash and schools going without textbooks, GBP20 million is to be spent on refurbishment.

About GBP8 million will go on new suites of offices for MPs, secretaries and researchers.

Other items include commissioning a GBP90,000 study for the development of the palace kitchens and a reorganisation of the MPs' dining rooms and bars on the ground floor of the Commons.


Up to GBP19 million is recommended to be spend on improvements to make the Palace of Westminster comply with recent health and safety legislation although, as a Crown building, it is actually immune from prosecution.

But there are other little nice ones to make the taxpayer angry: GBP50,000 to go on works of art even though the Government's art stores are already bulging; the same figure again on changing rooms for refreshment department staff; GBP34,000 cleaning up the toilets for women MPs and GBP25,000 on a dispensing bar in an MPs' dining room.

And if that still leaves them thirsty, GBP20,000 is marked for a coffee station in the main committee corridor.

THERE are many who would like a creche to make being a Member of Parliament more attractive to women.So far, more has been spent on smoking rooms than on facilities for children.


But the irony of the new refurbishment is that MPs are not at all happy about such spending, which seems to be based on the fact that the money is there, so let's use it.

Some are even calling on the Government's spending watchdog, the Comptroller and Auditor-General, Sir John Bourn, to step in.


But this piece of imaginative bad timing comes not from MPs themselves but Commons officials, who are little more than civil servants.

A study this week called for the civil service to be cut by 25 per cent and, horror of horrors, for the top positions within the civil service to be advertised publicly, with the big names under contract, regularly reshuffled and made accountable to Parliament.

Surprisingly, the report came from Sir Peter Kemp, a former permanent secretary in charge of the civil service. He wants an end to what is known as ''fast-stream recruiting'' in which ''new boys'' are guaranteed an outside lane to the top.


He accused officials of fighting off reform and of trying to preserve their positions of power and influence.

Sir Peter said recent policy failures had highlighted the need for civil servants to show greater commitment to the policies they stood for and not seek escape in Whitehall's culture of lofty detachment when they go wrong.

All well and good, except that the report would have to be perused by civil servants before any action could be taken - and they are hardly going to put themselves out of a job.