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LONDON — The Mother of Parliaments at Westminster is in deep trouble. Housed in its venerable Thames-side palace — an instantly recognized icon of democracy around the world — it is today filled with anxious legislators who feel a mixture of anger, apprehension and bewilderment.

Their anger stems from the feeling that their hard work as lawmakers and their assiduous care for the electors who sent them to Westminster is not appreciated. Instead they have to live with a daily flow of vituperation and criticism for being “out of touch,” failing to keep a proper check on government activities and remaining remote from the everyday concerns of the citizenry.

Their apprehension comes from the mounting criticism of the way they are remunerated and, above all, the way they draw allowances and expenses to meet the costs of the life that they, as members of Parliament, must lead. They are expected to be active in Parliament when it is sitting during the week as well as active back in their constituencies at the weekends and when Parliament is in recess.

Their bewilderment comes from the real hatred against MPs, and against Parliament in general, that has been successfully whipped up by some sectors of opinion — in particular, by media portraying MPs as idle expense-fiddlers drawing heavily on the taxes paid by hardworking families while doing little in return. This is especially hurtful for those MPs — most of them — who work hard on legislation and public issues and struggle to live their lives between duties in two places — Westminster and their home constituencies — often with a heavy toll on their families.

This is even more the case for those MPs who are also ministers and have a full time job running large government departments. There are well over a hundred of these among the 646 members of the House of Commons (considerably more than in the Japanese Diet). In fact it is something of a miracle that individuals can be found who can successfully combine the huge pressures of ministerial office with daily parliamentary duties in the House of Commons, a vast load of case work and party tasks, and regular appearances at local events among their constituents.

So-called shadow ministers in the opposition parties, who are expected to mark and match government ministers, have similar challenges. While they may not have departments to administer, they are nonetheless required to be somehow fully briefed and informed without, of course, the benefit of the additional salary that ministers receive.

But all this seems of little interest at the moment to the general public, whose attention has focused on the way MPs are paid and the way they claim expenses — which are tax-free — to cover the costs of their offices and staff, their travel and their second homes, either in London if their main home is back in the constituency or out in the countryside if they have made their main home in London. One way or another they must live in two places and this costs money.

Long ago it was decided that rather than pay MPs the quite high basic salaries needed to cover these costs, or require them to submit detailed expense claims like normal business people, it would be simpler and less costly in the end for the taxpayer to grant MPs lump sums for these additional costs.

Most MPs struggled along with this arrangement for some years, but the trouble began when a few MPs began to bend the rules about where they really lived, about whom they actually employed — often family members — and about what expenses they actually incurred against the sums they claimed and drew.

When the sums involved were small and covered by general payments, the public was not all that interested. On the contrary, MPs seemed quite poorly paid by international standards and that seemed right and proper, and consistent with the view that no one in the United Kingdom should expect to get rich in politics.

But that was before the sums that MPs voted themselves began to climb sharply and before the age of transparency and thirst for information that modern communications technology has brought about. In particular, it was before the so-called Freedom of Information Act — a recent law that has allowed almost any inquirer open access to a vast range of public information, including the detailed expenses of MPs.

This has revealed clear abuses together with a mass of unedifying detail about the way MPs spend their allowances on items for their second homes, such as furnishings and redecoration, which on paper may seem reasonable, but to a public already facing austerity and cutbacks in a period of recession, quite outrageous.

Behind all this lies a deeper conundrum. With millions of people now empowered and interactive via the Worldwide Web, the mystery and opaqueness of government and parliamentary institutions has been torn asunder, and with it much of the respect, even deference, that those in authority and government used to receive to carry on effectively.

Power has literally passed to the people. The people may want good government, held effectively to account, but they also want an end to privileges and appearances of easy living at their expense. This creates a tension that can lead in dangerous directions. In Britain’s distant past, it has led to the marginalizing of Parliaments and the rise of “strong men” with little concern for parliamentary restraints or for true democracy. Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of England, comes to mind, who had little time for parliaments at all.

Is that what the public now wants? Probably not, but if unrestrained and unbalanced attacks on all members of Parliament, good ones as well as bad ones, continues, and contempt for the whole Westminster process keeps increasing, that is where events might lead.

David Howell is a former British Cabinet minister and former chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. He is now a member of the House of Lords (www.lordhowell.com).

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