THE BLOG
16/09/2011 09:08 BST | Updated 15/11/2011 05:12 GMT

MPs Expenses: How to Rebuild Trust

Whatever they do, MPs should not ignore this report. Otherwise, a poor result could become a given. And alongside journalists they will simply become a group of people you simply shouldn't trust.

Trust in MPs remains stubbornly low according to the Committee for Standards in Public Life. It needs to be restored, quickly, and for two key reasons.

First, the UK is one of the foremost proponents of parliamentary democracy - we can scarcely advise the world when our own system is failing to command respect. We need to look as if we believe in our own product.

Second, we are at the edge of some of the most difficult challenges in public life - the implementation of massive cuts. If people continue to believe that self-interest rather than public interest dominates MPs' thinking and actions, then the ride could be rougher than anyone could imagine.

Early results from the Committee would suggest that the current approach to managing this crisis in confidence is not working. We've had an apology. We've had all manner of mitigating statements. And the obligatory "bad apples" have been chastised or imprisoned or both.

But it will need more.

We all know that trust is hard-earned but quickly lost. Part of the issue is that we're likely to use ourselves as reference points in making judgements about others' likely guilt or innocence. We'll put the hypothetical to ourselves: what would we have done?

I suspect most people would have done what MPs did if they found themselves in similar circumstances.

First, denial. MPs spent a long time in denial. Even after days turned into weeks of Telegraph coverage, MPs failed to grasp the nettle and deal with the issue. This was odd since they will have known that the newspaper had all the information - the disc - so it was only a matter of time before every moat house and bath plug was milked. Denial helped give the story legs.

Next, mitigation - I may have made mistakes but theirs were bigger. Often when accused of wrongdoing we'll point to others whose transgressions were far worse. The trouble is trust was lost on the principle: inappropriate use of expenses. It matters not a jot that you only fiddled a bit. You can't be a little bit pregnant.

Another form of mitigation is to say that everybody was doing it. It was the norm. Not a strong argument and one all too frequently deployed by those caught up in playground bullying. This so-called Nuremberg defence

A third plea in mitigation centred on salaries - the expenses made up for salaries that failed to keep pace with inflation. That looks like cowardice and could set a bad example. Is that how MPs would expect others to address poor pay?

Next came the Bad Apple Strategy. It's a common enough tactic - one or two that ruined it for the rest of us. It only really works if we believe that everyone else was whiter than white. But the information was too murky and the release too protracted for this to work. The Bad Apple Strategy is at its most effective when there's a clean break.

Finally, the ostrich - we put our heads in the sand and hope it will all go away. It might have but it hasn't as today's report shows. Trust is low.

So if most people would have gone through similar stages, the key may lie in being counter-intuitive - doing what most would not expect.

1. MPs could acknowledge and be saddened by the fact that once again it has been shown that people do not trust them. They could quite reasonably ask what they could do to restore people's faith. They have to show that this really matters. It risks giving the story legs but it's a reality.

2. Each MP (from the period) could write to their constituents setting out what inappropriate actions they took, apologising for undermining trust and assuring the reader that it will not happen again. Those that did nothing at all wrong would not write. Yes it will cost public money during a time of cuts but the real cost is lost credibility. It's also counter-intuitive because it means opening up not quite healed wounds - but sometimes that's the only way to heal them.

3. Don't seek to mitigate in any way. Yes, MPs work long hours. They do hard jobs. They sacrifice their personal lives. And much, much more. But that's the job. And most people would conclude the following: MPs weren't forced to be elected; although other people inappropriately claimed, that's no justification; even though MPs earn less than other leading figures, they take home twice as much as the national average pay; and if they're unhappy about their pay, they should deal with it not work around it.

4. Finally, MPs need to remember that we are judged by our actions not our words. So maybe put into action Tony Blair's words: "We are not the master now. The people are the masters. We are the servants of the people. We will never forget that."

Whatever they do, MPs should not ignore this report. Otherwise, a poor result could become a given. And alongside journalists they will simply become a group of people you simply shouldn't trust.