The latest revelations in the ongoing MPs’ expenses scandal revealing the indiscretions of the Tory front bench prove once and for all that the problem is a cross-party one, clearly so embedded in the culture of the House of Commons that politicians on all sides have been taking advantage of taxpayers’ money. There was an interesting interview in the Sunday Times with an MP yesterday about how that claim culture creeps up on MPs:
“When you are elected you are invited to a series of briefings by the Commons fees office,” he explained, speaking anonymously last week for fear of being ostra-cised by his fellow MPs.
“They are all about the different expenses: travel, office costs and, of course, the second home allowance. It is all very matter-of-fact, but what it does is plant in you the idea that there is all this money out there.
“For example, I had no idea you could claim back the cost of food. It seemed odd at first claiming for your weekly Tesco’s bill, but then you get used to it. Then the danger starts when you come to rely on it.”
Quite – and the news today about various members of the Tory front bench who have been shaking the money tree demonstrates how shameless some MPs have become, and how inventive people can be in finding loopholes and pushing at the boundaries of the rules.
No-one in the real world could ever have thought it would be acceptable to claim hundreds of pounds for overhauling their ride-on lawnmower (Alan Duncan), to pay to have 25 lightbulbs replaced (David Willetts) or to buy a second home just yards from their first (Francis Maude). Three factors have contributed to make MPs feel that this kind of behaviour is acceptable:
· Secrecy – if MPs knew that their constituents would find out about all of these claims, do we really think they would have gone ahead with them? Allowing these transactions to go on in secret encouraged and allowed the abuse of expenses to become acceptable in Westminster.
· The Westminster Bubble – it has been notable throughout this whole sorry affair that MPs who were elected more recently have been far more keen on transparency and far more committed to reform than a lot of their longer serving colleagues. It seems that if you have a recent recollection of what the real world is like you realise that this kind of behaviour is unacceptable to the public, whereas if you have spent a long period of time mostly in the company of other MPs you forget how ordinary taxpayers live.
· Greed – we have rightly been discussing the flaws in the rules, and the weakness of Parliamentary officials who should have been defending our money, but at the final reckoning we must remember that none of these claims would have been paid out if MPs had not put them in in the first place. We could have no rules at all and a Fees Office that solely consisted of a drunk man with a pen and a cheque book but if we had honest MPs then these scandalous claims would never have been submitted – the core of the problem lies in the minds of those MPs who think it’s acceptable to milk taxpayers for all we are worth. Just look at MPs like Philip Hollobone, who have resisted the temptation to abuse the system and minimise their claims.
Credit must go to David Cameron for apologising straight away, and to Gordon Brown for eventually catching up, but taxpayers and voters need to see the full details of every claim, including second home addresses, and then they can ask each individual MP why they claimed what they did. There is clearly a range of different circumstances at play, particularly when it comes to people flipping their second home designation, ranging from the perhaps explicable, such as Michael Gove’s explanation that he simply moved house, to the pathetic and outrageous, such as Margaret Moran’s attempts to defend what appears to be a transparent attempt to bill taxpayers for structural work she didn’t want to pay for herself. We need to see the full details of every claim so that every case can be properly explored.
Just as the attempt to keep everything secret failed, so will any attempts to mutter a generalised apology or blame “the rules”. In a democracy, this matter must be settled between the people and their Parliamentarians.