All power to the Daily Telegraph
This column was published originally in the EADT on March 15TO The Daily Telegraph, we should pay homage. The newspaper has done the nation a huge service for forking out some dosh - allegedly �70,000 - for an advance sight of the expense claims of MPs from all parties which show the appalling contempt for the taxpaying public that men and women with “honourable” in front of their names have been milking a system which was ripe for milking.
This column was published originally in the EADT on March 15
TO The Daily Telegraph, we should pay homage. The newspaper has done the nation a huge service for forking out some dosh - allegedly �70,000 - for an advance sight of the expense claims of MPs from all parties which show the appalling contempt for the taxpaying public that men and women with “honourable” in front of their names have been milking a system which was ripe for milking.
The details were to be released by the Commons in July - with MPs being allowed to blank out the embarrassing details of their claims. That scam has been finessed by The Daily Telegraph, which for a week has been exposing the scandal now engulfing Westminster.
My job is to work with politicians of all political parties and at every level - from district and county councillors, to Euro MPs, and to MPs, peers and government ministers. I know and trust several very well.
What has been revealed by The Daily Telegraph this past week has caused me to see the entire political class in a different light.
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We cannot allow our elected representatives to make fools of us. Yes, the current expenses and second homes allowances are flawed and open to abuse. But that's no excuse - and this is a tongue-in-cheek example which I hope no-one has actually undertaken - for giving in to a nagging wife and paying your brother-in-law to carpet the hall, stairs and landing with a pattern from the top end of the market, all at the taxpayers' expense.
Just because a system is so patently wrong should not mean it should be exploited.
Let's make one major distinction. Claims for overnight hotel accommodation or renting a property in inner London are right and proper for MPs who cannot get to their main homes at night - and that means more than 500 of the 646 MPs.
Security systems for houses left empty during the week in their constituencies are another expense which should be paid for from the public purse. Malcontents can quite easily find out the addresses of MPs from the Internet or electoral registration departments at the town hall and carry out mischief.
What is not right is MPs buying a home in central London and enjoying huge capital gains when they either retire or are defeated which somehow are exempt from the taxes the rest of us would have to pay. They shouldn't buy a property with the help of taxpayers and then rent it out for profit.
It is obviously wrong to buy and sell a number of times various properties using lax allowances and it is patently immoral to “flip” between homes, constantly designating different properties at a principal residence, in order to make more money out of a system.
It is not right that MPs who have country estates should have renovation and restoration costs paid for by the taxpayer. How anyone can justify charging for bags of manure to feed the roses is beyond belief.
It is not right that MPs can buy trouser presses, scatter cushions and flat screen televisions for their London homes, or food and drink from Fortnum and Mason's and expect you and me to pick up the bill. MPs are allowed to keep the items when they leave the Commons. Everyone has to eat - why should MPs be any different from the rest of us and ask taxpayers to buy their teabags, cornflakes, coffee and cabernet sauvignon?
The whole system is broken and needs urgent reform. David Cameron, who won plaudits from commentators of the left when he took decisive action this week to rein back profiteering Tories - “Suddenly David Cameron looked grown up” wrote Michael White of The Guardian - was absolutely right to remark in PMQs on Wednesday: “Isn't it time to see ourselves as the rest of the country sees us?”
Cameron's tough stance has claimed its first victim, his aide Andrew Mackay. A spokesman for Cameron said: “Examination of MacKay's past allowances revealed an unacceptable situation that would not stand up to reasonable public scrutiny.”
I'm reliably informed that The Daily Telegraph has details of some expense claims and payments which are clearly “resignation material.” Labour's Elliott Morley, who claimed �15,000 of mortgage interest after paying off the loan, is a clear example. I'm also told that a sizeable minority of MPs think they should dig in, ride out the storm, and then carry on regardless.
Both Cameron and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg have left Gordon Brown standing on the issue. It affects MPs of all parties, but the Prime Minister either doesn't understand the public anger or is hesitant to suggest change, allowing the leaders of the two main opposition parties to run with the public mood.
What is the difference between a 75-year-old pensioner inadvertently claiming two weeks more incapacity benefit to which she is not entitled and a Cabinet minister (Justice Secretary Jack Straw) claiming 100% council tax on a property which was subject to only a 50% charge?
The answer is: the former will be prosecuted as an example of a strong government clamping down on benefit fraud, while the latter can say a mistake was made, the money's paid back, and no action is taken.
If prima facie cases of wrongdoing emerge from this sorry saga of false claims - as opposed to the ridiculous claims such as moat cleaning and manure purchases - then they should be tested by a judge and jury.
There is one law across the land and that should be applied, irrespective of who the person is.
Let's look at my own expenses. Unless I produce receipts, I don't get reimbursed. I hardly think that if, by mistake, I billed the EADT for porn movies or manure it would not get past the two signatures required to sign them off or the auditors.
If I buy a politician a meal or drink in the House of Commons or at a party conference, I can and do reclaim it on expenses. It is classified as proper expenditure in performance of my duties.
I always keep a note of any meals or drinks bought for me. And it is a requirement of the lobby system at Westminster that accredited journalists declare any earnings over and above those from their employer - and this information is published by the Commons.
The House of Commons fees office has a lot to answer for. By allowing MPs to be mired in the quick sands of greed, they have brought democracy, if not to its knees, then to a point where the ordinary voter is horrified and disgusted, and now holds all politicians in contempt.
We do not want our MPs to be only those who are wealthy or who are sponsored by a trade union. A system of devising a system of acceptable allowances should not be beyond the independent commission set up to examine the issue - and whatever it recommends, it should be mandatory for the government and opposition parties to support the necessary parliamentary orders to implement them.