After the disgraceful vote in the Commons a couple of weeks ago to keep the John Lewis list and reject external auditing of MPs' expenses, parliamentarians have today voted through a pretty half-hearted substitute for the accountability and transparency that is so urgently needed to restore faith in Parliament.
First, the John Lewis list is now officially dead. MPs will still, however, be allowed to claim furniture, TVs and so on for their second homes, just up to a limit of £2,400 a year. That's an improvement on the £24,000 they could previously claim, but it's still £2,400 too much in our view. People fundamentally disagree with the idea that you can buy and keep furnishings, hi-fi's, fish tanks and god knows what else at the taxpayers' expense. Restraint is welcome, but it won't dispel people's discomfort with the practice.
Second, there will be what the Government are quite deceitfully calling "an external audit". Instead of the previous proposed audit, though, in which actual external, non-governmental auditors would go through each MPs' accounts at least once in the course of a Parliament, this will in fact be a one-off report by the National Audit Office on what MPs should and shouldn't be allowed to claim. In fact, it's not really an audit in the proper sense of the word, but is more like an official inquiry. Yes, like the numerous inquiries we've already had...
Unfortunately, these changes are a messy compromise. MPs can still furnish their homes at our expense. They still won't be audited independently. Crucially, those receipts still won't be published for us all to scrutinise. In trying to save face by bending to the demands of their intransigent backbenchers, the Government have simply fudged the issue. It's a slight improvement, but we're still not there yet.
In other news, it's encouraging to note that there has been at least one step towards transparency by the Tories today, who have published the categorised expenses claims of their frontbenchers and many of their backbenchers for the last three months. We've had a look through, and will of course be scrutinising them even more closely in coming days, but do have a look yourself - they can be found here.