If there is one overarching lesson for MPs in today's expenses revelations (other than "Stop claiming money that you don't deserve") it is that there is no point blindly trying to keep these claims secret. It would have been better for all involved to have released the full expenses details when they were first requested four years ago, or even last year when the High Court ordered them to. Instead, their attempt to hide the details from taxpayers has made the issue much more toxic.
What is reamarkable is the reluctance of our politicians, when caught red handed, to say "Sorry". Even those who have broken the rules and had to pay the money back are self-righteously acting as though they are somehow victims of circumstance rather than would-be freeloaders.
The claims revealed so far by the Telegraph fall into three broad categories, which can be defined thusly:
Wrongful claims - AKA the "I paid it back"
It is frankly disturbing not just that MPs are making dodgy claims for money they don't deserve, but that on many occasions the Parliamentary officials in the Fees Office are approving them and making the payment, only for the MP to later have to repay the money. One example of this is Jack Straw's council tax - he got a 50% discount from the council on his second home because it was a second home, but claimed 100% of the tax on expenses. It is ridiculous that this claim was ever paid out - as anyone who has claimed a council tax discount can tell you, the amount you pay is printed clearly on the bill. This suggests that Jack Straw submitted a bill that read
Council tax: £100
Second Home Discount: -£50
Total tax payable: £50
submitted it as a receipt for a £100 payment and the Fees Office simply paid up without question. Jacqui Smith's porn film claim was the same, in that it obviously was not scrutinised properly before being rubber stamped. It is not good enough to say "Oh, well, I paid it back as soon as I noticed the error" - why are MPs making such claims that are at best careless and at worst fraudulent, and why are the Fees Office okaying them?
This issue really gets to the heart of the two crucial problems with the current system:
- The lack of transparency makes greedy MPs more likely to try to get away with excessive claims and lazy MPs more likely to submit erroneous claims without checking, double-checking and triple-checking them. If they were going to be published, Jack Straw would never have dared make this dodgy claim.
- The Fees Office are as much to blame for the current state of affairs as the politicians are. The fact that they agreed to pay out on Straw's obviously wrongful council tax claim shows they are either incompetent or view their job as serving MPs rather than protecting taxpayers' money.
Ridiculous claims - AKA the "But it was within the rules"
All too often the only defence provided by Parliamentarians caught claiming absurd and ridiculous things at taxpayers' expense is that "it was within the rules". The public have rightly seen through this and would much prefer their MPs to claim what is needed rather than just anything they can get away with.
Bath plugs, gazebos, barbecues, antique fireplaces, ginger biscuits, Farley's Rusks (presumably not for the Member's consumption), nappies, pizza wheels, make-up, servicing swimming pools, underfloor heating - the list so far revealed is already outrageous.
Honourable MPs would not put in claims like this, and even if they did, a decent expenses system would not allow them to be paid out.
Playing the system - AKA the "Erm, no comment"
The Telegraph has a good piece detailing the ways in which MPs can play the system, particularly by playing around with the definition of their second home. Some have bought large household items at taxpayers' expense and had them delivered to their main home, assuring officials that they would ship them on to their second home at a later date - but there are no checks to make sure that is the case. Flipping addresses is also apparently common, by which an MP refurbishes one home with taxpayers' money, then designates that as their main home instead and designates their other house as a second home, allowing that to be refurbished at our expense, too. Crucially, these are the kind of scams that can only be revealed if the addresses of MPs' second homes are made public - something they have opposed on the grounds of "security and privacy".
One of the best things about the fact that the Telegraph have got the expenses details is that their version includes expenses - if we had all had to wait until July for the Parliamentary publication, MPs who had indulged in address flipping would have got away with it scot free.
Rejected claims AKA the "let's hope no-one finds out I asked"
One thing that is clear from today's news is that both the Fees Office and MPs themselves are to blame for the current fiasco. It is very revealing that despite the laxity of the Fees Office officials the detailed expenses claims apparently include a number of claims that even they rejected as excessive or unjustified.
David Miliband, for example, tried to claim for a pram and other baby paraphernalia, which is specifically foridden. One Labour MP is reported as having tried to claim £1741.50 for a granite work surface, that was rightly identified as over the top and unnecessary.
Given the crazy and unnecessary things that were approved by the Fees Office, it is a damning verdict on some MPs that they still managed to make claims that were so outrageous even the Parliamentary expenses system couldn't cover them.