Thursday, 10 September 2009

The expenses scandal – who do MPs think they are?

The scandal surrounding expenses unleashed a whirlwind of public fury and outrage as it illustrated for the first time the true extent to which MPs are willing to abuse both their positions and the trust afforded to them by the general public. It is quite probable that the reputation of MPs has been permanently besmirched and that the public will never truly be able to trust the people they vote to represent their views. No matter how many times MPs state that they ‘acted appropriately’ the expenses issue will never be forgotten about. Not only were many of the claims outrageous but they revealed the sad truth that MPs are completely out-of-touch with the people they are elected by, and the lengths to which they will go in order to squeeze every last drop out of the system.

When the Daily Telegraph began publishing details of MPs expenses in May, they would surely have foreseen the reaction amongst the general public. Feeling understandably angry and betrayed it was a metaphorical ‘slap in the face’ of the highest order that from the point of view of the economy could not have come at a worse time. Whilst ordinary Britons struggled to pay of mortgages, repossessions soared, and the purchase of everyday essentials became more and more difficult greedy, self-obsessed, blissfully unaware MPs were gladly shoving their snouts firmly into the trough without any regard for the people whose money they were wasting. Thankfully the level of public anger has meant that more than thirty MPs have stepped down since details of expenses were first revealed on May 8th. Indeed the case of Ian Gibson, Labour MP for Norwich North, who was barred from standing for re-election by a Labour disciplinary panel, is a victory for the just and fair use of parliamentary allowances. Mr Gibson had claimed nearly £80,000 for mortgage interest and bills on his second home in West London, which he subsequently sold to his daughter and her partner for well below market value. It seems therefore that it is not just integrity and morals Mr Gibson lacks, he is clearly an extremely ineffectual businessman! Yet whilst he very kindly offered to stand down if his constituents so wished, it is insulting that, according to his constituency chairman Martin Booth, “he did not think he had done anything to stand down for”. It’s a similar story for the other three MPs banned from standing for re-election. For example, Margaret Moran had the misfortunate to learn that her ‘designated second home’ over a hundred miles away in Southampton was suffering from dry-rot. At least her sorrow was alleviated by the very generous, yet unwitting donation of £22,500 from her Luton South constituents which ultimately resolved the issue. The highest-profile casualty of the expenses row was former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, who saw fit to leave her position in June. The damaging report showed her expenses claim to have included two adult movies watched by her husband, creating a media whirlwind and a crisis of confidence in Ms. Smith that ultimately proved too much for her. At least now she will have more time to spend with her husband, exploring his obvious passion for films and cinema. Perhaps they can create a blockbuster of their own.

One of the focal points of the expenses scandal, at least in my view, is the way it showed MPs at their worst; greedy, completely out-of-touch and incredibly selfish. It also seems that MPs nowadays are different from ordinary people. Many seem to believe that having two letters after their names affords them the right to live by a different moral code and escape criticism by ‘denying any wrongdoing’. I’m sure that the public would gladly afford many of these MPs many more letters after their names now. Whilst the majority of people are perfectly satisfied with ownership of one property, it seems Alan and Ann Keen are slightly different; it was alleged that they had claimed £137,679 between them towards a flat in London just ten miles from their main home in Brentford, Mr Keen’s constituency. The claim of Ruth Kelly MP for £31,000 of taxpayers’ money due to flood damage in her constituency home seems to be a fair use of the system, until it emerges that the property in question was in fact covered under a buildings insurance policy at the time. Hazel Blears’ greed is particularly shocking taking into account that she managed to claim for three different properties in a single year, whilst spending £5,000 of taxpayers’ money on furniture. Yet all of these examples pale into insignificance in the face of the unspeakable greed by Conservative MPs who merely exacerbate the stereotype of the ‘old Tory’. Claiming for as much as £2,000 to clear a moat and for the maintenance of a helipad certainly suggest that Conservative MPs fundamentally believe they are outside the law, and invulnerable to criticism. Quite simply MPs do not live on the same planet as the rest of us; they are completely aloof and seem to be willing to take from their hard-working constituents until they have nothing left to give. My question therefore is; how can these people ever represent us?

Although looking at this issue from a different angle, maybe it’s not the MPs that are to blame? Perhaps if we were put into their position and given an allowance to claim for expenses “wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred for the performance of a Member’s parliamentary duties” we would abuse it in a similar fashion? Thanks to the revelations regarding MPs expenses the issue of reforming the allowances system has been brought forward and is very much in the public consciousness at this current time. According to the ‘Green Book’ which lays out the principles governing Members’ allowances, MPs “are provided with financial support in the form of allowances to enable them to work effectively in Parliament and in their constituencies”. These allowances provide support for staffing expenditure, administrative and office expenditure, additional accommodation expenditure, communications expenditure, house stationary and postage and travel expenditure. The rules also state that “members who are contemplating incurring an expense which is large or unusual, or who are uncertain about any allowance, should contact the Department beforehand for advice”. Despite the clarity of this message it appears MPs have become complacent over the years and begun to push the rules to the limit. I very much doubt that cutting back hedges around a helipad counts as reasonable ‘house stationary and postage’ expenditure. Currently there is no outside body to regulate MPs expenses, and they are expected to judge themselves what constitutes a reasonable claim, according to the House of Commons’ Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament. The Code states clearly that “members shall at all times ensure that their use of expenses, allowances, facilities and services provided from the public purse is strictly in accordance with the rules laid down on these matters” and that they “shall at all times conduct themselves in a manner which will tend to maintain and strengthen the public's trust and confidence in the integrity of Parliament”. It is clear that these ‘rules’ are not being observed and the reason for this is that it is almost a fantasy to think that MPs could possibly regulate their own activities in a system that practically encourages greed. The use of words such as ‘selflessness’, ‘integrity’, ‘accountability’, ‘openness’ and ‘honesty’ in the Code of Conduct almost acts as a concise guide to what is missing from our MPs. It certainly seems that very few of the above expenses claims have been made in the public interest, a phrase consistently used throughout the Code of Conduct.

It is clear therefore that the system must be reformed; MPs cannot continue ‘regulating themselves’, i.e. making unjust and inappropriate claims on expenses knowing that they will not suffer the consequences. Although MPs have been quick to criticise their counterparts and absolve themselves from blame, as well as suggesting ‘urgent’ reforms to the system, Commons leader Harriet Harman’s claim that moving from self to external regulation was necessary for “reparation and reassurance” following the expenses row is spot on. The creation of a new Parliamentary Standards Authority with sufficient authority to punish those that err from the path of honest usage of allowances cannot come soon enough. This would be effective even if it were merely acting as a deterrent, finally placing some form of limit on MPs. Yet it seems that whilst the creation of the Parliamentary Standards Authority provides a victory of sorts for the outraged general public, it has been severely watered down on its passage though parliament. Changes to the original proposals include the rejection of powers to instruct errant MPs to repay allowances, deletion of a clause explicitly excluding the Lords from the Parliamentary Standards Act and the defeat of a proposed legally binding code of conduct for many aspects of MPs’ behaviour.

Whether any real change will come about through the creation of the Parliamentary Standards Authority remains to be seen; in the same vein it is impossible to predict whether or not MPs will renounce their previous ways and act in a manner appropriate of their positions. However the expenses revelations have been a necessary ‘shock to the system’ for the both Members of Parliament and the general public. Perhaps we should have been more vigilant, and kept watch on MPs as if they were our children. After all it has been our money they’ve happily squandered. Yet when all aspects of the expenses debate are taken into account, MPs cannot shoulder the blame alone. The system they were operating within was one that encouraged its Members to take and disregard the consequences of their actions. Although a number of MPs showed unspeakable greed and self-centredness, many chose to abide by the rules and operate in a perfectly fair and correct manner. Hopefully the changes brought about this summer will force the creation a new culture of ‘honesty’, ‘integrity’ and ‘accountability’ rather than simply hoping for it to emerge.

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