This morning’s revelations about expenses claims made by Cabinet Ministers are just yet another in a depressing line of stories which have succeeded only in damaging the credibility of Parliament drip by drip, and building up the notion of a politics composed of crooks and fraudsters.
Let’s be clear – some MPs across all parties have behaved appallingly and we have all heard the rumours about some of the worst excesses that will become clearer when the full expenses claims are published in July. The guilty men and women should be hung out to dry and offered the same level of sympathy we offered to Derek Conway last year. Their greed has undermined Parliament and our democracy, a crime for which there should be a stiff penalty indeed. I suspect their constituents will admonish a democratic version of summary justice through the ballot box next spring.
But to say, as the Telegraph do this morning that there is a “conspiracy to defraud the taxpayer” is ridculous and reeks of the gravest hypocrisy. The majority of MPs on all sides are good and honest people. They do incur significant costs in their duties and in the need to maintain two homes, and it is right and proper that they should be able to recover these costs, as they would working any other company in the United Kingdom, such as the Daily Telegraph itself, a company whose previous proprietor incidentally is currently serving a prison sentence for a fraud probably greater than every dodgy expenses claim ever put forward by every Member of Parliament ever. In some senses this is completely irrelevant, but it does remind one that the outrage of the media is in some senses faux-outrage. It would be fascinating to see the expenses claims of lobby journalists, for instance.
The important question is how we have a system of remuneration for Members of Parliament in which the public have confidence and which is sufficient to make sure talented people of modest means are able to enter Parliament and not suffer, in effect, a massive financial penalty compared to what they could earn elsewhere. This has to be a system based on 100% transparency (how extraordinary is it that this is the first time we will see the expenses claims for the people we pay for and elect?) but also based on sufficient reward so that it is not only those with a private income or inherited wealth who are able to make the sacrifices necessary to enter the House of Commons.
For if we do go down the puritanical route of expecting them to do their thankless job for a low salary and no expenses, the country will suffer and I think we all know which party has more people able to do the vital job of an MP with little or no salary at all.
Photo: DavidDMuir, Flickr.