Lawful perhaps, but is it appropriate?

THE most aggravating feature of the abuse by MPs of their allowance system remains not so much the sums of money involved as the brazen attitude of so many “honourable members” when caught out and the collective hypocrisy of a group of people who expect the rest of us to abide by different rules.

THE most aggravating feature of the abuse by MPs of their allowance system remains not so much the sums of money involved as the brazen attitude of so many “honourable members” when caught out and the collective hypocrisy of a group of people who expect the rest of us to abide by different rules.

While there has been genuine contrition in some cases (which is welcome but hardly atones for the offence) many MPs still seem inclined to deny any ethical responsibility for their actions and to insist they have done nothing wrong, simply on the grounds that their claims were “within the rules” or were “cleared by the fees office”.

Take, for example, the response of Tory backbencher Bill Cash (whose forename has suddenly become as much of a gift to headline writers as his surname) when confronted by the Daily Telegraph last week with details of his “second home” arrangements.

One may or many not share Mr Cash's view that it was entirely reasonable for the taxpayer to pick up the tab for rent he paid to his daughter for the use of her London flat while he allowed a flat of his own, rather closer to Westminster, to be used by his son rent-free.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of this, there is one aspect of Mr Cash's defence which is untenable, and that is his assertion, as quoted by the Telegraph, that: “What is lawful is appropriate”.

The reason this is untenable is easily seen if one applies the “principle” to areas of personal probity other than the financial. It is, for example, entirely lawful for an MP to be a drunken womaniser - provided, at least, that the more overt manifestations of his behaviour do not breach the laws of public order and decency.

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One is not suggesting for one moment that Mr Cash is either of these things, nor that any error in respect of his Parliamentary allowances - if error there has been - is morally comparable with such conduct.

What is inescapable, however, is that if knowledge of an MP's drunkenness and/or womanising passes into the public domain it is, self evidently, not for him but for others to decide whether his conduct is appropriate.

This no less true when the issue at stake involves an individual's conduct of his financial affairs; voters are entitled to make their own ethical judgements about the allowances claimed by MPs, even if those claims were lawful.

The anger with which such judgements are being expressed is due in no small part to the additional layer of hypocrisy. The very fact that MPs are able to claim for rent or mortgage interest on a second home represents a case of “do as I say, not as I do”, since anyone else being reimbursed in this way would be taxed on the sum as a benefit in kind.

As for ministers, including Chancellor Alistair Darling, claiming the cost of tax advice, which anyone else would have to pay for themselves, and then insisting they have done nothing wrong because they have paid tax on the sum, one is left wondering why they think they are worth such special treatment.