MPs expenses mess has big implications for future conduct…

I’m brewing a piece for Brassneck on the MPs expenses row. Basically I’m sympathetic to the MPs’ defence that the system allows them to do what they have done, but that it asks particularly awkward questions of so-called progressive parties that they are prepared the ‘game’ tax payers money for their own personal gain, whilst lecturing the rest of us on what we must and must not do… Anyone who thinks this is not damaging to the Tories as we enter their new government’s austerity era should think again… (and those who sagely predicted this would not affect Sinn Fein should have listen to yesterday’s Nolan Show)… David Gordon has the most pertainent cross party message for all elected politicians, which boils down to ‘it’s not a secret any more unless you have a compelling reason why it should remain so’:

Even from a narrow, self-interest perspective, this was a disaster waiting to happen.

The Freedom of Information Act was passed in 2000, with January 2005 as the date when it would actually take effect. Did MPs fail to understand that the legislation applied to the House of Commons along with a host of other public bodies? Did they not realise that they might one day have to publicly explain the way they were personally using public money?

Instead of making sure the stables were well cleaned out, Commons chiefs embarked on a doomed bid to block disclosure. They fought against rulings to release the expenses details all the way to the High Court — and lost.

That was a year ago, yet MPs still look totally unprepared for what is now happening.

Their latest cunning plan was to release edited versions of the claims in mid-July — in effect burying the bad news at the start of the summer holiday season. Unfortunately for them, it’s all started to leak out drip by drip.

That’s a good thing. All the trouble that’s now landing on their heads is entirely of their own making. It now falls to the Committee on Standards in Public Life to come up with a reform package that is capable of restoring voter confidence. This will take much more than platitudes from MPs on how it’s all the fault of the system.

Well, it may or it may not be a good thing. For those of us who live in Northern Ireland without an official opposition it probably is. But it is an awkward fact of life, that when you write anything or talk to anyone when in government, you will in future need to do so in the knowledge that someone somewhere will potentially break it as news… That, subject to the deliberations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, meeting in Belfast on July 1st…

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  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit

    …the one enduring architectural feature of this debate after the mess is fully cleaned up will be the moat – which symbolises beautifully the gap in integrity between the politican and the man – who doesnt need a drawbridge to get into his home – who elects him.

  • Mr J.

    The main flaw of the system up until now is that it relies on MP’s to decide on what is prudent spending of public money in relation to expenses claims.

    Sadly (and predictably), their definition of prudent appears to differ greatly from that of Joe Public.

    So entrenched do they appear in the righteousness of their error, it seems more comfortable to harangue BBC reporters over their own wages, than accept a degree of culpability in this mess.

  • Driftwood
  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit

    Strong leadership from the next PM my arse. The Tories will be clapping themsleves on the back soon – Tory party said “… and within minutes David had both identified and rounded up the culprits, which was quite easy really as he had hand-picked them.”

  • Mr J.

    The salient point is that they are being ‘forced’ to pay it back.

    The implication being that there is a general consensus that the MP’s have done nothing wrong.

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit

    Mr. J

    Anyone who has had to pay money back should be out. Simple as.

  • Mr J.

    I can’t say I disagree with you except for the fact that it seems to be so endemic that such a move would probably cripple Westminster.

  • blinding

    Thieve caught pay back some of their booty.

    They are given a clap on the back and told not to be so careless in the future.

    This could solve the prison crisis in double quick time.

  • Dave

    “Basically I’m sympathetic to the MPs’ defence that the system allows them to do what they have done…”

    That isn’t a defence, is it? It’s simply a diversionary tactic. Rather than admitting that they did wrong by fleecing the taxpayers, they’re trying to divert attention for their lack of integrity onto the system that allowed those who lack integrity to fleece it. In effect, the cliché of blaming the system for the actions of individuals. It’s a bit like a pickpocket blaming the pensioner for not closing her handbag, thereby making it easy for him to steal from her and arguing (by way of diversion) that the system of how pensioners carry cash needs to be reformed.

    The public are absolutely outraged about how this political class is disregarding national interests from pandering to the EU to squandering vast amounts of taxpayers’ money on rescuing failed financial businesses and other private businesses, etc, to the blatant ‘snouts in trough’ mentality of the muppets they have elected. They have lost the moral authority to govern. And were there to be a coup or some mechanism toward that end, there would widespread public support for it. These clowns need to get their act together and fast.

  • Lidl Richard

    92 000 is twicw 64 000 just shows the standard of our Parliamentarians.

    (value)

  • ??

    Strong leadership from the next PM.
    Posted by Driftwood on May 12, 2009 @ 02:37 PM,………….

    hardly , cameron new exactly what was going on FOR YEARS and only did something when he was caught.

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit

    ??

    I think the only honourable course of action is the resignation of both main party leaders.

    The comic possiblities of the moat story are endless as are the cartoon options of PoshBoyDC sitting marooned in his castle surrounded by his sleazy unclean moat – spiffing stuff – a new Blackadder goes West-minster with Baldrick as Osborne covered in 5000 bags of manure and PoshBoyDC as the man himself – and perhaps a bit of time travel to work the helipad in.

  • Am I unique in noticing how the argument has been shifted? All those allowed claims were within the rules, and approved by scrutineers. They may not have been above board, defensible and public, and the rules may have been over-elastic, but I did not reach for words like “thieving” or “booty (both used above) until I was brain-washed to do so.

    Equally, I am less than impressed by Cameron suddenly deciding the proper course is to “pay back”. To “pay back” rent, apparently, but not mortgage allowance. Strange. And, if the Kelly enquiry, and then the subsequent publication of the full accounting show up more dodgy-doo-da and horse-manure (as they quite well may), will that, too, mean forced repayment?

    Cameron’s sudden discovery that he is “appalled”, seems to me to recall Casablanca and Captain Renault’s “shock” that Rick allowed gambling on the premises.

    I appreciate, too, that I have been taken to task by Brian Walker in his other thread @ 09:29 AM for not appreciating the Telegraph‘s altruism in providing us with this coverage. However, a corner of my mind keeps niggling at what might be the hidden agenda. How unfair of me.

  • fin

    “I’m sympathetic to the MPs’ defence that the system allows them to do what they have done”

    and the system was devised by who and approved by who?

    Its a silly excuse that doesn’t wash. When Fred “The Shred” Goodwin was in the spotlight I don’t remember MPs going on telly saying his large pension was justifiable and totally within the rules

  • fin on May 12, 2009 @ 06:48 PM:

    Valid point, and one that eviscerates David Cameron’s cri-de-coeur of this afternoon. And, also, since all the journos since way-back knew the dodges and studiously ignored them (on the mote-and-beam principle, perhaps), it ought to cast doubt on the sincerity of the Telegraph in paying for such info.

    Now, what about another small issue: that concerning the residential status of Lord Ashcroft of Belize? After all, Ashcroft contributions, perhaps illegal, to Tory funds far, far exceed any legitimate (if unsavoury: especially that horse-manure) expenses claimed and so “appalling” to David Cameron.

  • Harry Flashman

    Ah yes, the sinister hidden agenda of the Daily Telegraph wanting to sell more copies of their newspaper.

    It’s a vast right wing conspiracy I tells ya, if it ain’t the illuminati it’s probably the jooooz.

  • Harry Flashman on May 13, 2009 @ 04:21 AM:Nice one, Sir Harry!

    If it really is the “vast right-wing conspiracy”, then we should be looking more carefully for where it exists.

    My (and that of many, more media-savvy, others) assumptions were:

    that the Telegraph had played a partisan blinder and blunted allegations of Tory misfeasance by previously amplifying trivia about Labour;
    that l’il Annie Fanny (a.k.a. “Chipmunk” Blears) with her tax fiddle outgunned the moat-clearing, horse-dunging and chimney-repointing;
    that by day five (or however long this thing has been running) the Great British Public [hereinafter, GBP] would scarcely notice that the targets had changed hue …

    Except it hasn’t quite worked that way. The GBP has taken Mercutio’s view, plaguing houses alike. In different ways, the GBP is changing focus, as the other news sources wrestle the story from the exclusive control of the Telegraph. So interest in George Foulkes and Blears fighting back.

    Yesterday, too, we had two contrasting spectacles: not just Blears in apparent candid honesty (which went some way to soften the heart of Iain Dale, no less, if not his harder-boiled correspondents) but also Cameron in a synthetic rage.

    Cameron did not greatly help his case with the GBP by coming down hard on rental claims, while soft-pedalling on mortgage.

    Thus, there was an intriguing difference of “take” between the sympathetic Telegraph:

    For most of the past five years, Mr Cameron has claimed only for mortgage interest and utility bills on his Oxfordshire constituency cottage. Some years, his Parliamentary expense records are only 20 pages long – compared with expense claims of more than 90 pages for some of his colleagues.

    The Conservative leader’s only deviation from his straightforward claims came in November, 2006, when he billed the public finances £680 for repairs to the property.

    And the jaundiced Mail:

    MPs’ expenses list reveals David Cameron ‘used the system’ to claim £21,000 in a year to pay his mortgage

    David Cameron’s mortgage costs taxpayers £21,000 a year, it was revealed yesterday…

    George Osborne, the Tory Shadow Chancellor and heir to the Osborne and Little wallpaper empire, claimed £18,000 for his mortgage.

    His expenses and those of Mr Cameron stood out because they claim close to the maximum allowed and devote it almost entirely to the cost of servicing the loans to buy their constituency homes.

    Mr Cameron, who has led calls for sweeping changes to MPs’ expenses, has made no secret of the fact that he uses the housing allowance to pay the mortgage on his £750,000 house in his Oxfordshire constituency.

    The Tory leader has no mortgage on his house in London, which is said to be worth £2million.

    He comes from a well-off family and his wife Samantha is the daughter of a land-owning baronet.

    This is illustrated by an aerial view of “Splendid isolation: David Cameron’s £750,000 constituency home”. No cottaging for the Mail.

    So, what is the “vast right wing conspiracy”?

    Perhaps, were we to take such nonsense seriously, what we see is a harbinger of what could be coming after a hypothetical Tory government is enstooled.

    How much room for movement would such an administration have? Would it be the “root-and-branch” reforms the free-marketeers, tax-cutters and libertarians (e.g. Tim Montgomerie and merry men) demand? Or would the realities and the Treasury constrain such excess? And how will it retail to the GBP? Therein could lie the winter-of-press-discontent for 2010-11, if not the stumbling-block for the Tory election campaign.

    I have been assuming the Telegraph, with crypto-UKIP Heffer and the other fogeys writing the editorials, as the more likely to throw brick-bats, while the Mail remained loyalist. The ratting and re-ratting of Benedict Brogan, and others, may be a straw in the changing wind.

    Nor should one ignore the “ferrets in a sack” scenario. The Tory Press has two discrete but symbiotic audiences: the City boys (with the display and classified advertising budgets — tasty, tasty, very tasty) and the GBP. And, as the Telegraph goes a notch down market, it is becoming clearer that the Mailograph readership is open for grabs.

  • DavidD

    Malcolm

    I think that you are rather missing the point. This is not about the advantage to be gained by this party or that party or about the circulation figures of the Mail and the Telegraph. It goes beyond the relative advantage to Tweedledum or to Tweedledee or to the various Tweedledumdees of the Westminster village. It is about the attempt by members of all parties to deliberately but surreptitiously defraud the taxpayer.

    When laws are drawn up for parliament to approve, by the best legal minds available, they express the intent of parliament and involve the closing of any foreseeable loopholes that may frustrate that intent. In the case of the ‘second home’ scam it must be assumed that the intent was to deliberately permit fraudulent claims by permitting the ‘flipping’ of allowances between properties.

    This is manifested by parliament’s initial reluctance to allow details of expenses to be published at all. When this attempt at suppression failed then it was decided that details of actual addresses should be withheld on the spurious argument that this would endanger members’ safety. Had addresses been withheld then the scam would have passed unnoticed.

    Now we have the demeaning and pathetic attempt to make amends by refunding the ill-gotten gains. It is, quite literally, as if burglars could avoid punishment when discovered by offering to return their swag. It is beyond contempt and has brought dishonour to all involved.

  • DavidD @ 04:50 PM:

    Forgive me (yours is a worthy defence of the Establishment) but I doubt I am wholly “missing the point”.

    Let’s go back a moment. The stolen CD of MP’s allowances was on offer round the UK press. The Murdoch outfit turned it down (see the last two issues of Private Eye), but the Telegraph coughed. Why?

    Next question: when, ever, short of a royal death, did the Telegraph go to (the metric equivalent of) 108 point type? They did today. And the Mail reproduced exactly the same headline.

    So, third question coming up for the tie-breaker: what’s going on?

    Well, I think it’s to do with the bragging-power inside the right-wing Press. It might, just might, be whether David Cameron [mystic music] is for **Master of the Galaxy!!!** — or merely just for Head Lar.

    Next, to be totally commercial, which paper sells out at Reigate for the stockbroker trains?
    ______________

    Funnily enough, I think all of this is trivia. We have known (and I have repeatedly blogged) that the system is open to exploitation. As is any claims-system. As long ago as 1972 (when I first entered public elective office) it was explained to me by a helpful officer in work-evaluation that all systems “work loose”. Young and innocent, I was given a Committee to scrutinise the Borough’s performance. I tried to apply that dictum. Please, don’t press me on that: my bruising encounter with the Borough Treasurer was very, very painful.

    Likewise, I presume, any questioning of the Parliamentary Fees Office.

    Next: what is the reach of Cameron’s clout?

    Well, as you point out, he cleaned up on yesterday’s headlines.

    Now, let’s consider how that went down with the boys in the tea-room, or the Gents (capital “G’) adjacent to the Members’ Dining Room.

    I guess: “OK for the moment; but he’d better not push his luck.”

    There are 645 MPs: despite Party allegiances, they are thrown together and quickly form a solidarity. Short of the legal fraternity and the BMA, they compose the tightest trade-union in the nation. They have been humiliated: watch this spot. Plus: those who occupy “safe” seats tend to call the biggest shots.

  • DavidD

    Malcolm

    Thank you for your detailed reply and I am sorry if you thought that I was defending the establishment. I was simply approaching the issue from the viewpoint of an outsider. As a matter of fact I have no quarrel with your assessment in the context of Labour v. Conservative or Left v. Right but that was not my context.

    My point was that there is not a ha’pence of difference between the MPs from different parties. Presently most laws originate in Brussels and the executive exercises any remaining power. MPs of all parties are simply lobby fodder. It is scarcely surprising then that politically impotent backbenchers and junior ministers/junior shadow ministers develop a crossbench camaraderie based on a sense of personal entitlement where the main concern for many is in feathering their own nest.

  • DavidD @ 04:35 PM:

    When you say, with only the slightest exaggeration:

    there is not a ha’pence of difference between the MPs from different parties

    are you not decrying the loss of ideology?

    If so, I am with you all the way.

    I suspect we diverge on our assessments of the importance of Europe: back in 1975 I stood and spouted from Anti platforms: during that referendum campaign (when, for the first and only time in my franchised life, I declined to use my ballot) I re-appraised, and concluded we could not and should not beat them, so we might as well sincerely join them. Then, again, I again question whether England and the English are yet ready for Home Rule.