MPs seem to forget it's our money

JUST when you think the penny must finally be about to drop and that MPs will cotton on to the fact that the behaviour of so many of them in respect of their expenses is entirely alien to those who have to earn a living in the real world, they find new ways in which to astound.

JUST when you think the penny must finally be about to drop and that MPs will cotton on to the fact that the behaviour of so many of them in respect of their expenses is entirely alien to those who have to earn a living in the real world, they find new ways in which to astound.

Take, for example, last week's contribution to The Oldie magazine by Austin Mitchell, the MP for Great Grimsby and a former television journalist.

In it, he referred to the revelations over MPs expenses has having produced “a shudder of sanctimony among journalists, previously the best fiddlers outside the Halle Orchestra”.

The “storm of anger”, he added, “has been built up by a media self-righteously determined that no other section should have as many fiddles as them.”


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His point, such as it is, is amusingly made but it fails to take account of reality in at least three respects.

For one thing, Mr Mitchell would probably find, were he to return to journalism full-time, that neither employers nor the taxman are quite as accommodating when it comes to expenses as they were before he became an MP more than 30 years ago.

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Secondly, while the use of “creative accountancy” in expenses claims might have been viewed then as the norm, there was a point beyond which only the greedy or foolhardy would push their luck. For those who went too far and were found out, dismissal was a real possibility.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the abuse of expenses within the media, then as now, did not (with the arguable exception of the licence-funded BBC) involve the misuse of taxpayers' money.

In none of these respects, therefore, are MPs allowances comparable with private sector “fiddles”. The scope for abuse, the level of accountability and the identity of the victim are all entirely different.

If MPs expect to be respected as public servants then they need to act accordingly - even if, as was the main thesis of Mr Mitchell's piece, they are currently underpaid and under-resourced to carry out the job expected of them.

Not that Mr Mitchell is in any way alone in failing to grasp the true nature of the public's anger. By way of another example, consider last week's resignation from the Cabinet by Hazel Blears who contrived to effect her long-overdue departure in a letter which failed even to mention the question of the Capital Gains Tax which she so generously volunteered to pay (although not without turning it into the most preposterous photo opportunity of this, or probably any, year).

She did, however, treat us to the wisdom of her personal political philosophy which, in her words, is “rooted in the belief that ordinary people are capable of extraordinary things”.

Well, she can return to the back benches safe in the knowledge that her belief has been proved to be well founded. This Parliament certainly includes some very ordinary people who have done some utterly extraordinary things - just not quite in the way she meant.

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