MPs' expenses: a bit of a rant, then a question

by Stephen Tall on May 11, 2009

MPs’ expenses – where to begin? I haven’t waded through the Telegraph’s coverage over the past few days: glanced at parts, picked up many of the references via blogs, but couldn’t bring myself to read it all.

Why not? Simple: I don’t trust the Telegraph to report the story with any degree of objectivity. All credit to the newspaper for obtaining the story: it was clearly a canny commercial investment (whether or not they paid £150,000 for the leaked document) and in the public interest, too – though as all these expenses were going to be released this summer in any case let’s not imagine the Telegraph was actually motivated by anything more than bottom-line sales.

With exclusivity in place, the paper has forced the news agenda, focusing first on Labour, then on the Tories, and doubtless we can look forward to some Lib Dem revelations in the coming days.

Trouble is, with exclusivity in place, we must take the Telegraph’s word for it, trusting in the paper to have interpreted the evidence correctly, to have got to the bottom of each miscreant’s individual circumstances, so that we can be confident we are judging our MPs fairly and objectively. Hmmm, do you reckon that’s happened? Me neither.

But before I get accused of soft-heartedly letting MPs (and perhaps even members of the House of Lords) off-the-hook, let me say this: it’s clear enough, even from the scraps of evidence that have passed my eyes, that the whole thing stinks. The Telegraph’s revelations are genuinely shocking, and those MPs who’ve taken advantage of the expenses system to gain personal profit deserve all that’s coming to them.

My only experience as an elected representative is as a councillor. I served for eight years, 2000-08, during which time I drew my councillor’s allowance (£4.7k per annum by the time I retired), with some additional top-up during the four years I had additional responsibilities (the most I earned was £8.3k in 2006-07). In addition, I claimed some limited tax relief – a few hundred pounds, all approved by the Inland Revenue – for the use of my home as my councillor’s ‘office’.

I could have claimed expenses for travelling to meetings, but never did so. I reckoned my allowance should cover incidental costs like that. At the risk of sounding insufferably pious, I was proud to have been elected to represent my residents: to have started totting up the cost of attending this or that meeting would have felt cheap in every sense.

And to take my piety down a notch, I also bore in mind what such claims would look like if the local paper decided to take a look. And I knew that however much I could have justified such expenses, if I had to justify them then it was already too late: my residents would have already decided I was just another politician ‘on the make’.

Besides, like most people, I am used to having to account pretty rigorously for my work expenses. I detail the dates of meetings, who I was meeting and why, and produce receipts to back up my travel, accommodation and subsistence costs. It’s a bit of a pain, but I’ve never resented doing it. After all, it’s not my money I’m spending.

And that’s the bit which seems to have got lost in the minds of far too many MPs: it wasn’t their own money they were spending. This was taxpayers’ money. Public money. However our public representatives dressed it up for their own peace of mind – “I could be earning more in the private sector”, “I put in far more hours than might reasonably be expected”, “This job already takes its toll on me, there have to be some perks” – they were taking advantage of a system over which they had control for personal gain. In any other walk of life – certainly in any PLC – one of two things would have happened: (i) they would have been told their expenses were out of order, and the claims would have been rejected, and (ii) if they persisted they could have expected disciplinary action.

To say sorry now is too late. There are no excuses. MPs have known for years that their expenses were – rightly – a matter of public interest, but all attempts at reform have been brushed aside. At the same time, and in the full knowledge that it was possible such information might one day come to light, many of them – too many of them – continued to game the system (all within their own self-enforced rules, of course).

The worst of it is that many of those MPs will, even now, be exhorting their members and activists to go out and campaign for their parties on 4th June. Pity the fool who has to be on the other end of a harangue about how politicians are “only in it for themselves”. For years I’ve been able to sweep such lazy accusation aside. But what do I say now? I’m not sure that “My guess is you can be pretty confident at least two-thirds of MPs are honest the vast majority of the time” is going to quite cut the mustard.

And what of the Lib Dems? As yet, the Telegraph has included us out of its coverage. We’ll see what’s to come, but I’d be amazed if we escape entirely. (I hope our transgressions will be proportionately fewer and of a lesser degree. We’ll see). Which begs the question, what should Nick Clegg say and do in response? As Messrs Brown and Cameron have both done on behalf of their parties, he will of course have to apologise. But what to do about those who are ‘named and shamed’?

Natural justice demands that they be allowed to contest the allegations that might be ranged against them. All will doubtless have acted ‘within the rules’. But what should Nick do about those who have broken the spirit of the rules, whose grasping claims will bring their names, and that of the party’s and Parliament’s, into disrepute?

There are two options, it seems to me. He can take the hard line, and withdraw the whip from any MP found to have personally profited from their expenses claims. This latter approach would be difficult: not only would it destabilise the parliamentary party, but it would also be very hard on the local parties concerned, gifting their Labour and Tory opponents a potentially decisive advantage. And though it might help put the other parties on the back foot, it’s hard to imagine that such a move would actually do anything meaningful to restore public confidence in our MPs.

On balance, therefore, I think Nick is constrained to saying he’s committed to reform of MPs’ expenses, but those individual MPs who operated within its rules – no matter how inadequate those rules are – should not be punished. Frankly, though, such a light touch is more than any of those proven to have pocketed public cash deserve. What a bloody mess.