The MP’s expenses furore continues, and as in the good trend of any news story, I’d like to drop my opinion into the mix, although it does nothing to cease the self-fuelling nature of sensationalist media coverage. (see the fifth point along this graph)
Thusday’s edition of Question Time was an interesting one, when representatives from each of the three major parties – Ming Campbell, Theresa May and Margaret Beckett, plus an associate editor from the Daily Telegraph, and an Exec from McDonald’s. The most eerily curious thing was that for the first time I can remember in politics-panel TV, the MPs veered away from temptation of opportunistic point-scoring, and for the most part closed ranks. There was a brief moment of ‘my-party-leader-beat-your-party-leader-to-publicly-apologising’ but the three MPs more or less had the same thing to say.
All of them chose to blame the deeply flawed system for ‘allowing’ this to happen. Whilst I have no doubt that loopholes in the allowances had a part to play, they seem to suggest that it is akin to hanging your clothes outside unpegged and being surprised when the pesky elements blow them into the neighbour’s garden. Now THAT’S a flawed system (albeit of doing laundry) if I ever saw one.
However, this debacle is more like leaving a freshly-baked pie on the windowsill and then being irritated when someone strolls up nicks it:
The MPs chose to neglect the agency of the individuals involved, almost trying to naturalise it as some abstract uncontrollable and inevitable force, like the wind. Instead the buck is being passed onto ‘the system’, which needs ‘change’. (Incidentally Theresa May used the word no less than 5 times in under 20 seconds upon being interrogated.)
It does seem a little ludicrous that the overwhelming majority of ordinary businesses can manage their employees’ expenses on a day-to-day basis, yet the government cannot. Comparisons that are made between MPs exploiting the system, and ordinary people take similar actions, either in terms similar expenses infringements, or benefits cheats. Whilst these are slightly different situations the basic judicial question remains – if anyone else were to face disciplinary proceedings or even prosecution, why shouldn’t MPs? This is only more prominant a question as they are effectively stealing from the state (and us). The problem would probably lie in finding an institution willing to challenge the apparent sovereignty of the House of Commons with an investigation – and thus far the police seem averse.
Interestingly Theresa May suggested that the current culture of expenses within the House of Commons originated in a time where the salary was insufficient to cover all parliamentary duties, so claiming expenses made up the shortfall. Consequently the attitude towards allowances went from ‘reimbursement’ to ‘entitlement’. As worrying as this is, this nugget of honesty is refreshing in what has otherwise become a game of mass finger-pointing.
On the one hand, whilst ‘everyone does it’ is not an acceptable justification, it also is a truism. Most people would be lying if they said they hadn’t ever inadvertently nicked a bit of office stationery or stuck an unnecessary team lunch on the company credit card. So what makes this case massively different? It’s difficult to ascertain, but I think politicians are expected to maintain higher standards than the rest of us – that is why we select them to represent us. Also, the extremes of some of these published cases demonstrate undeniable unscrupulous and intentional manipulation of public funds for personal benefit. Who hasn’t heard about Mr Hogg’s moat? Also, who can forget Alan Duncan’s unapologetic smarminess on Have I got News For You?
I have no doubt that there are some expenditures that MPs incur in the course of their duties. The nature of high-level public work is that travel, appearance and entertaining are often part and parcel of the job, as frivolous as they sound; any company director can attest to that. Some MPs have suggested that their salaries do not match up to the financial demands of the job, but requesting a raise would rarely, if ever, be met with public support – a fair observation!
However the most infuriating aspect about this whole affair is that it seems relatively simple and commonsensical to establish basic rules and conditions for what is and isn’t appropriate, rather than leaving ‘guidelines’ that are open to interpretation by a proportion of MPs who apparently just can’t help themselves.
Off the top of my head, it seems sensible to provide decent midrange housing for MPs within 30 minutes travelling time of Westminster. Nothing too extravagant, just accommodation fitted out with everything that could be required in the course of their job, and there goes the whole ‘second home’ problem. Admittedly there are potential security issues with placing so many important members of government within the vicinity of each other, but even with the cost of security, surely this would be cheaper. Also, since the taxpayer would own the home, once the MP ceased to represent their constituency, they would vacate the building for the incoming MP, avoiding the mess of MPs making a profit evading capital gains tax when selling on second homes.
Similarly, rather than funding multiple high-range vehicles that consume gallons of petrol (that will not only be also claimed back, but is environmentally unsustainable), why not provide MPs with free or subsidised public transport so that they may set the example for their constituents. It would avoid embarrassing scenarios like ‘Two Jags Prescott’. Moreover, just sensible limits on spending would be wise to ensure that whatever is being claimed back was ‘wholly, exclusively, and necessarily incurred’.
To digress for a moment, it’s interesting how few are examining the media’s – or more specifically the Daily Telegraph’s – role in all of this. The data they have was dubiously obtained – stolen or leaked from the government. The information contains the private bank details of all the MPs in question, as well as their staff. Ben Brogan of the Telegraph defended the paper by saying that as long any information they received met two criteria – it was genuine, and in the public interest – they’d continue to investigate. The irony is though, that the owners of the Telegraph themselves cheat the government, basing their company in the Channel Islands to avoid paying tax. Pot/kettle? But then selling newspapers is what they’re about, not serving the British electorate. Nevermind that they weren’t exactly the first to suggest that there are problems with how expenses work – the Guardian, for example raised the issue back in 2004.
Aside from the self-perpetuating media circus, the most discussed consequences of this scandal are the effects on the upcoming European elections. Will the apparently irreparable breach of trust the public feels be demonstrated on the ballot? Either voting apathy or protest votes will ensure that fringe parties will advance proportionally. That can be a good or a bad thing whether you’re looking at one of the many legitimate ones, like the Green Party, or the scary villain of the piece, the BNP.
I think though that Stephen Fry has an interesting take on it – and who’s to argue with The Fry? This shouldn’t affect the voting patterns come June 4th, not least because dodgy expenses are clearly not limited to particular parties, but based on individual behaviour. So unless it emerges the candidate you were originally voting for attempted to claim reimbursement for a gold plated bathroom and premium horsefeed, you still agree with their policies and their individual integrity is intact. It seems that this affair, whilst no doubt indicative of wrongdoing in parliament, needs to get sorted quickly, to allow everyone to re-focus on the real issues, and for them people need to read up on policy manifestos for their local MEPs, not continually over-express their kneejerk outrage at an affair that should just be learnt from and laid to rest.