Confession: within 30 seconds of hearing about David Willett’s expenses claim for changing light-bulbs I’d cracked the inevitable “how many Conservative MPs does it take to change a light-bulb…” joke to my long-suffering partner.
Hysteria: But on sober reflection ask yourselves: you are entitled to maintenance expenses on your property because you have to have a 2nd home to do your job; you have problem with the electrics which is fusing bulbs and is potentially dangerous; you call in an electrician and get it fixed. Is this unreasonable extravagance and sponging off the public purse? Hardly.
The whole Expenses Gate saga has now taken on the air of hysteria, humbug and a very, very, strong whiff of hypocrisy.
Don’t misunderstand – I think a lot of the detailed claims clearly have little or nothing to do with carrying out Parliamentary duties in two places. ‘Flipping’ properties to maximise claims and claiming different statuses to tax and Parliamentary authorities is, on most people’s definition, fraud. We ought to be talking prosecutions – not repayments. Careers ought to be finished, not bailed out by cheque-book mea culpas.
Humgug: take David Cameron’s widely praised initiatives yesterday. To be fair, yes it was decisive and strong. But was it right? Cameron forced various members of his top team to repay amounts for what were clearly – in most cases – extravagant claims that didn’t have too much to do with doing their parliamentary jobs.
But Cameron is claiming the full 2nd home allowance for a very expensive property in London on which he could make a tidy packet in due course. Is that fair? Only Nick Clegg has actually focussed on this rather important issue and although I’m not sure he has the right solution, it is an issue which needs sorting which is much more important than the odd trouser-press or swimming pool clear-out.
A sign of the hysteria is the fact I’ve heard references to ‘moat clearing’ several times today although no-one actually claimed for it. Let’s not allow facts to get in the way of a good one-liner.
And the really big issue that is being entirely missed in the current debate are MPs outside earnings. In the USA, Representatives and Congressmen have a fixed limit on how much they can earn externally (around 15% on top of the salaries). In Westminster there are MPs earning a couple of times or more of their salary from external sources. Is that right?
Lots of “solutions” are being touted. For one of the most ludicrous see – let’s have less MPs (Tories) – but how does that square with more local accountability (Tories)?
Hypocrisy: Parliament in the UK is one of the least powerful legislatures in the advanced democratic world. It doesn’t even effectively scrutinise – and vote on the detail of – budgets before the government goes off to spend the dosh. Reorganise Ministries without Parliamentary approval? Only in the UK. Set performance targets without Parliamentary approval – you got it.
In clinging to ‘Parliamentary privilege’ to organise their own affairs – when it comes to salaries, expenses, disciplining their own and other trivia – Parliament has invariably gotten on its moral high horse. When it comes to tackling unbridled, unaccountable, executive power it’s always been rather more supine. There seems to be an almost inverse relationship between real powerlessness and purely symbolic power.
If Parliament wants to redeem itself in the public mind it has to do a lot more than sort out the expenses fiasco. It has to reassert the reality of at least some small smidgen of Parliamentary democracy and real checks over the executive. And it needs to let go of the frippery of control over salaries, expenses and discipline and hand them over to someone else. A ‘sovereign’ Parliament is not about control over pay and expenses, or unfreedom of your own information, but about acting as a check on government. Do that and Parliament just might redeem itself. Otherwise…..