Today the reputation
of Parliament, of MPs, perhaps even of our democratic system itself,
is in tatters. Just when you think it can’t get any worse, along
comes another battering headline.
have never been a popular breed but never in my 20 years in politics
have I seen the public as angry as they are today, and, frankly,
who can blame them?
help that stories of MPs using their expenses to buy plasma TVs
at one end and bath plugs at the other, comes at a time of recession,
with people losing their jobs and the fear of worse to come.
I know, when I submitted a Freedom of Information request back in
2005, what a Pandora’s Box was opening up. That modest request,
simply asking for a breakdown of MPs’ travel costs by mode of transport,
was fought tooth and nail by the senior MPs who comprise the House
of Commons Commission. To my horror, they used thousands of pounds
of taxpayers’ money to try to stop disclosure, employing the best
legal brains your money could buy.
And when they
were eventually forced to concede defeat more than two years later,
there was then a disgraceful attempt to move the goalposts by exempting
MPs from the Freedom of Information Act entirely.
I watched in
disbelief as Minister after Minister was wheeled out on a Friday,
normally the graveyard day for Westminster, to push that odious
Bill through. But the Bill was so toxic that not one member of the
House of Lords would touch it, and so it fell.
Yet still MPs
would not see the writing on the wall, and when a sensible package
of reform proposals finally came before the Commons last summer,
what did the majority do? They voted to keep the bits that were
financially positive for them, while throwing out the measures that
would have gone some way to deal with the abuses.
So the flood
of damaging headlines we have seen in recent days has been, I am
afraid, all too predictable, if dispiriting nonetheless. The basic
problem is this: claims for expenses should reflect expenditure
legitimately and necessarily incurred by a Member of Parliament
as part of his or her duties – no more, no less. Instead, they have
been used by too many MPs as an alternative income stream, as a
way of bumping up their salary without having to vote through an
It is totally
wrong that MPs should be taking out mortgages with money provided
by the taxpayer, then pocketing the capital gain when the property
is sold. It is even worse when they chop and change the designation
of their second home on a regular basis in order to maximise the
income they can generate through the allowance system.