George Kerevan: Time to take the responsibility for setting pay and expenses away from Westminster MPs

JUST in case you don't know, I'm an SNP candidate for Westminster. I mention this only because of the cynical reaction I've had from friends and acquaintances on hearing the news. I am regularly reminded (usually with a wink) about how much money I will be able to earn by fiddling my expenses. Others just shake their heads and ask why I could possibly want to be associated with the den of thieves and incompetents at the (so-called) Mother of Parliaments.

As a candidate, I've been knocking on doors throughout East Edinburgh. I've done this sort of thing over the years, but never have I found such public hostility to politicians as a class than now. A revolt against all politicians is brewing out there and the guillotine is being sharpened in the Palace of Westminster Yard, but perversely, our MPs seem blind to what is going on.

This week, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith went on breakfast radio to tell the country that her claim for 104.56 for a patio heater on her parliamentary allowance was "fair and reasonable". It was "within the rules". Of course, if you are an MP and actually make the rules, that is not difficult to achieve. But fair? Or reasonable?

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Ms Smith's choice of words said everything about the yawning gap that has opened up between Westminster and the people. MPs live in a London bubble and are usually the last to know what is going on. They blame the 'meejah' for picking on them. This paranoia only gets stronger the longer a particular party has held power. So let me present a little concrete evidence of how the public feel.

A poll by Populus, conducted over last weekend, shows that more than two thirds of UK voters think that all or a majority of MPs abuse their expenses and allowances. Another 20 per cent say that "a majority of MPs do not abuse the system, but many do". A mere 8 per cent think that very few MPs do (Are the latter MP's relatives, I wonder?).

However, the poll had even worse news for the political class. Traditionally, voters have a higher regard for their own constituency MP (who may have helped them) than the rest of Westminster. But in this latest poll, 34 per cent of electors think that their local MP abuses the system while another 28 per cent say they're not sure.

And no wonder: even respected politicians such as Alistair Darling, the man who sets our taxes, is under fire for having both his homes subsidised by the taxpayer. I've been to the Chancellor's official grace-and-favour (ie free) home at No 11 Downing Street. It could do with a spot of redecoration, but the location is perfect. So you might think that he pays for his Edinburgh home out of his salary, which includes 78,000 as a minister on top of his 63,000 MP's pay. That would be "fair and reasonable", wouldn't it?

Not in the Westminster bubble. When he became Chancellor in 2007, and moved into No 11, Mr Darling designated his Edinburgh property as his "second" home. This means he can claim on the second-home allowance – currently a tax-free 24,000 a year, 10 per cent of which can be spent on furnishings such as patio heaters.

It is little wonder that the voters want blood. In the recent poll, only 22 per cent think that second-home allowance should be retained albeit with the rules tightened up. Another 19 per cent want the allowance scrapped but MPs' salaries raised to compensate. But a clear majority (56 per cent) are so angry, they want the second-home allowances ended but with no compensating rise in MPs' pay.

Remuneration for MPs only arrived in 1911. Before that, they did the job for nothing. It is tempting to demand that public service be rendered as a duty rather than paid for. However, the plain fact is that being an MP has become a full-time job over the years, and paying nothing would mean only the rich could make the laws. The issue is how to design a remuneration system that is … er, fair and reasonable.

When MP's salaries were introduced, the going rate was 400 per annum. Measured on the Retail Price Index, that works out at around 30,000 in today's money. However, if you compare 400 against the average earnings of the day, the equivalent in 2009 would be nearer 150,000. Taking into account all their allowances, this is where MPs actually find themselves. Which suggests that the proclivity of Westminster to feather its own nest is far from new.

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I don't think Westminster MPs are uniquely venal. Many work hard for their constituents. But I believe Westminster is too remote from the people. I think that the deliberate lack of a written constitution and the doctrine of the sovereignty of the Parliament create an insidious political culture at Westminster that leads some MPs to think they are superior to common mortals. I also think the gentleman's club rules by which the Commons still operates, and which many male Labour backbenchers succumb to, engender an arrogance among MPs you don't find at Holyrood. All this adds up to a world view in which MPs think they are not only justified in their financial dealings but deserve their patio heaters.

When faced with criticism about their remuneration, governments and MPs immediately set up an "independent review". Gordon Brown has just written to Sir Christopher Kelly, chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, asking to conduct another such. We have been here before – many times.

Only in January 2008 the government asked Sir John Baker to carry out a similar review to "make recommendations for a mechanism for independently determining the pay and pensions of MPs which does not involve MPs voting on their own pay". He reported back last June. The government promptly rejected some of his key recommendations while MPs (including Jacqui Smith) revolted against proposals from Gordon Brown to amend the second homes allowance. This latest review is unlikely to fair better.

Until MPs are no longer responsible for setting their own pay, taxpayers will always be forking out for patio heaters.