This whole debacle on MPs’ expenses has been fascinating.
The other night the actor & comedian Stephen Fry branded the whole episode as a
Tedious bourgeois obsession with whether or not they’ve charged for their wisteria. It’s not that important, it really isn’t, it isn’t what we’re fighting for, it isn’t what voting is about and this idea “oh we’ve lost our faith in politics” it’s nonsense. It’s a journalistic, made-up frenzy.
He says that we’ve all “cheated our expenses”. So the fact that someone could “round-up” their mileage from 139.6 to 140 miles for the first expenses claim in 5 years means they’re a fiddler and they’ve managed to squeeze an additional 13.2p out of their employer may technically be a cheat despite the extra unpaid hours they may work but what we’re talking here is a group of democratically-elected people who should be setting a moral & ethical example.
We may well have been pettily obsessing over the 88p for a bath plug and the £1.10 for a male MP to buy a packet of sanitary towels earlier in the week but the point here is this: that an MP, paid over £64,000 a year, cannot put their hand in their own pocket and pull out a pound coin and some change to pay for simple things that are not essential to their line of duty is being tight to say the least. If that’s not the case then the fact that they’ve bothered to file a receipt for 88p is their petty obsession.
When you look at the MPs’ expenses and see that they’ve submitted expenses for repairs to pipes under tennis courts, cleaning of their swimming pool, for the manure for their paddock or the cleaning of the moat you realise that there are some very privileged people working as MPs and they are using the money of under-privileged people to pay for the lavish lifestyles which most of Joe public can not afford.
And as we know that’s not all of it. What about the brand new TVs that some MPs have been claiming? Does having the latest wide-screen LCD HD TV make an MP better serve their electorate? Then there’s the “flipping” where MPs are lucky enough to be able to purchase a property nearer to Westminster and they then designate this as their second home, getting the taxpayer to foot the bill and then selling at a profit, avoiding capital gains tax and then ploughing their new wealth into a newly designated second home only for that to be renovated at the taxpayers’ expense.
Hazel Blears, Secretary of State, had a first home in her Salford constituency and two flats in London within the space of a year, selling one taxpayer-funded pad for a profit of £45,000. In a TV news interview Hazel Blears tried to wriggle off the hook on this matter by an attempt to trivialise the matter, stating that her second home was “only” a 1 bedroom flat. It may “only” have been a 1-bedroom flat but taxpayers’ money was splashed out on her mortgage and the feathering of her second nest; £4,874 on furniture, £899 on a new bed and £913 on a new TV according to The Telegraph. She may well “pay back” the £13,000 that she might otherwise have paid in Capital Gains Tax on her sale but she still manages to trouser in excess of £30,000 for something that you and I contributed to. Where are our dividends?
Then you’ve got Labour MP Elliot Morley claiming £800 a month for 18 months for a mortgage that had been paid off or Conservative Andrew MacKay, married to another MP, the Tory Julie Kirkbride, who claimed with her for TWO homes, making off with over a quarter of a million pounds from out of the public kitty over a period of nearly a decade. MacKay resigned today but I don’t think that’s the least we’ll hear of him and his spouse.
And, dear Stephen, is this a “journalistic, made-up frenzy”? Whilst I appreciate that there are bigger fish to fry and it is more important that MPs are qualified to make decisions on life or death and whether or not to invade a tin pot dictator, you have to question whether MPs are able to make big decisions when they are obsessing over new furniture and TV sets, building up their property investment portfolios and wondering what they can get away with charging the taxpayer next.
The frenzy is of the MPs’ own making. They were the ones who were wary of allowing the public to see their expenses claims for fear that their “privacy” would be breached. And they’re damn right too, only it’s not the fact that we can see their phone numbers and whom they’re calling and where they live, no. It’s the supermarket sweep that they’ve been enjoying, stuffing all they can into their right-honourable trolleys and letting every taxpayer pay off the prize fund. If someone’s moral compass is broken in a small territory it will still be broken in a big territory.
So whilst there are attempts to trivialise this matter and, on the other hand, there’s the threatened diabolical demise of democracy in this country due to mistrust in the system, somewhere in the middle we have to thank a number of people for bringing this all to our attention. There are the campaigners like Heather Brooke who have fought to make MPs’ expenses transparent and the mole who leaked these poisonous details before the official release date of July, when parliament would be in recess for the summer, thus avoiding the very public spotlight. Then it’s hats off to The Daily Telegraph for doing a public duty and bringing these crimes to light.
It would be criminal in itself to have the police ignore burglars & thieves in order to catch murderers but these MPs have been deceptive and their lame excuses that every misdemeanour has been an oversight, a genuine mistake or sloppy accounting are pathetic. As a friend said today, there seem to be a LOT of mistakes being made and if MPs can make so many “mistakes” over handing in receipts then you just have to question what kind of mistakes could be made were they to make decisions on, for instance, selling off national assets in order to prop-up public coffers or award contracts for the future of Britain’s energy security.
This whole “media frenzy” is the best thing that could have happened and full marks to the Telegraph for drip-dripping the ever-increasingly juicy stories. Will this episode undermine the political system in the future? That’s probably as big a red herring as the fear of deflation that was flaunted some months ago. The biggest problem is the sound of people saying they will probably vote for the British National Party. Oh dear.
So let’s get this into perspective. Not all MPs have been deceptive, most have been “clean” or at least not taken liberties to the extent that the 10% have been. So that leaves a small group as the prime focus of public anger and they should be dealt with in a manner with which ordinary members of the public might expect to be handled; repay the money, repay a fine or interest on top of that, suspension from party and also face criminal proceedings if there has been a miscarriage of justice.
I’ve always been a big fan of bringing back “the stocks” but I don’t think I’ll get my wish. Maybe just to see that “heads will roll” will be enough.