The excellent and ardent reformer Daniel Hannan MEP declared earlier this week that "Criticism of MPs' expenses has gone too far" in the wake of the Jacqui Smith controversy. Needless to say, almost, but I disagree.
Daniel's particular criticism is of the idea that the fact that wheezes such as Jacqui Smith's are technically within the rules is in fact an argument for changing the rules. It is an argument I wholeheartedly support - the fact is, it is wrong for an MP to claim that her "main home" is the one owned by her sister where she lodges, in order to place the cost of another house, owned by her and inhabited by her family, onto the taxpayer.
The fact that such dubious and immoral behaviour is "allowed under the rules" and indeed that the rules have become a tool for Jacqui Smith and other Government figures such as Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper to defend against criticism of such behaviour is a sign that the rules themselves are flawed.
I suspect that Hannan's objection to this is not fuelled by a wish to protect money-grubbing specimens such as the Home Secretary from criticism, but a fear that this line of argument could simply lead to Parliamentarians becoming more accountable to quangos, judges or technocrats rather than to the electorate. I share his distaste for unaccountable bureaucrats, and his enthusiasm for direct democracy, but I think this debate is in fact a justification for even more direct political accountability to the people.
At the moment, the people are so disenfranchised that they are turning to extremely blunt tools such as the judiciary (which I blogged about last week) as a way to hold MPs accountable. That's understandable, and we can't blame people who have been made powerless from using any means possible to get a voice, but Hannan is right to say it is far from perfect. In democratic terms, it is also unsustainable and could lead to an overpowerful judiciary.
Surely the answer - for those who want to hold MPs to account and give power to the people, like me, and those like Daniel Hannan who share that ambition but fear creating an overly powerful judiciary or bureaucracy - is to introduce real direct democracy, such as the recall. If voters had the power to actually sack their MPs through an overwhelming referendum mid-term, that would be real accountability, and real power to the people. Nick Cowen of CIvitas recently published a book - Total Recall - on this very topic, and it's worth a read. Perhaps its time has come.