MPs’ expenses: a parliament unaccountable to the people

In themselves, some of the dodgy expenses claims by MPs revealed by the Telegraph this week have been relatively trivial. I don’t mean just the odd bar of soap or payment for changing a light bulb [How many MPs does it take to change a light bulb? None (well, at least under the present system)]. Even some of the more supposedly ‘luxurious’ claims don’t seem to me all that unreasonable. Take, for example, Ming Campbell’s thousands of pounds for fitting out his small rented flat near the Commons, reported in the Telegraph today. The former Lib Dem leader’s explanation that, in fact, he had under-used his Additional Costs Allowance over many years, thereby ‘saving’ the taxpayer money, doesn’t seem that dishonest assuming it’s true. And some of the items listed (e.g. “a new king-size bed, worth £1,024 and bed linen worth £373 as well as £1,515 decorating bill”) are simply the going rate for such goods and services, let alone luxury items (I paid over £300 for a bargain-basement new single bed and mattress over Easter; so a new king-size bed at £1,024 really doesn’t sound that exorbitant to me).

Clearly, though, there have been all-too many cases of MPs stretching the rules to an excessive degree in order to subsidise considerable expenses that should have been met by their own purses and to profiteer, especially through the practice of ‘flipping’: changing the designation of one’s ‘second home’ in order to make improvements to one’s property at the taxpayer’s expense before selling it on at a profit retained by the MP.

Having said that, all these expenses claims were approved by the House of Commons authorities, allowing many of the MPs involved to claim they were acting ‘within the rules’: within the letter of the rules, that is, not the loosely defined ‘spirit’, according to which MPs are expected to claim only for expenses directly connected with their work as MPs (e.g. for second homes in London for MPs representing constituencies outside of London), while the items claimed for should also be relatively modest and reasonable, not lavish and luxurious.

In the absence of sufficient ‘transparency’ and public scrutiny, it’s understandable how a culture of ‘you might as well claim for as much as you can get away with, because you can get away with a lot’ crept in: if people are offered something on a plate, they tend to take it. MPs are only human, after all. The same happens in businesses where there is a lax expenses regime. And the amounts involved are peanuts compared to the mammoth, multi-million-pound bonuses that bank directors regularly awarded themselves before the credit crunch and are still trying to get away with, according to reports this week.

So why is it that so many ordinary people appear to be so enraged by their MPs’ petty profiteering? There are lots of reasons, not the least of which is the acute financial worries that people are facing, with job losses or the fear of losing work, high levels of personal debt and the general economic slowdown. While all of that is happening, here are the MPs effectively ripping them off to extract the maximum financial benefit from their privileged positions.

Abuse of privilege is indeed the correct term. To serve as an MP is supposed to be a privilege, in the good sense: an honour, and a special mark of favour and trust conferred on the MP by their constituents. But the way many MPs have been carrying on conveys the impression that they are intent on enjoying all the privileges of an MP, in the bad sense: exemption from the normal rules and financial constraints that apply to their constituents in both work and domestic life, as if MPs were some privileged social class enjoying a superior status, and entitled to greater wealth, than lesser mortals: the political class, indeed.

It is as if the MPs thought and acted as if they were not accountable to the electorate for this particular (ab)use of the people’s money: both that the expenses did not need to be treated in the way that a business might audit such things as part of drawing up its accounts and settling its tax liabilities; and that MPs were not answerable to their constituents for this aspect of their work: that they did not have to make an account to their constituents about whether they were offering ‘value for money’.

In other words, if MPs cannot be ‘up front’ to their constituents about how much money they are extracting from their work for them as an MP, this breaks the relationship of trust between the MP and those (s)he supposedly represents in a fundamental way. Constituents send MPs to Parliament and pay them to do a particular job for their areas. But if MPs are not being open and honest about all the little, or not so little, extras they are earning, this completely compromises the ‘contract’ that exists between them and their constituents: it suggests that the money and the privilege have become more important than the duty to serve the constituents. It’s as simple and as personal as that, really: about MPs being honest with their constituents. ‘You think you’re paying me £X thousand in wages plus reasonable expenses on top to do the work you’ve sent me to do; but I’m also earning £x thousand in dodgy expenses that I’m not going to tell you about’. How can the constituents of such an MP possibly know whether their MP is delivering value for money, if they don’t know how much money they’re effectively shelling out on them? And how can an MP who is not being open to his or her constituents about their secret earnings at their constituents’ expense honestly claim that their constituents’ best interests are foremost in their minds and actions? They can’t.

So it’s a sorry story about dishonest claims: claims to serve the people without personal interest and in a manner that is accountable to them. And it’s a story about expenses: those of the people that MPs did not even tell them they were paying. Ultimately, this all points to a parliament that has grown accustomed to not being adequately accountable to the people: where the majority of MPs at any time appears almost to have the freehold over their constituencies, as the first-past-the-post electoral system makes their seat ‘safe’ – virtually unwinnable by any other party. Is it any wonder that such a parliament is prepared to rip off the nation – England, that is – as a whole by all manner of expenses that it hides or does not adequately explain, such as the higher per-capita public spending in Scotland and Wales than in England that it tries to cover up by denying that England even exists as a separate entity? This fat-cat parliament, presided over by a Scottish Prime Minister and Chancellor, has grown accustomed to thinking that it is not accountable to England for how it spends its taxes on its ‘second homes’: the governments of Scotland and Wales!

As an English MP, if you want preferment, promotion and security of ‘tenure’, you must tow the party line and support policies that you have to sell to your constituents as being in the best interests of Britain. But are they really in the best interests of their English constituents? And how can those constituents be sure their MP is acting in their best interests if he or she is dishonest about the deals and compromises done to ensure his or her ascent up the greasy pole of power, so he or she can continue to enjoy the privileges and dodgy expenses he or she does not tell the constituents about?

So, in fact, this issue does go to the heart of the validity or not of the claims that are made about British parliamentary democracy: are MPs really willing to be accountable and answerable to the people – and English MPs to the English people – about where their money is going and whether they are getting value for money? And are MPs more interested in ‘working the system’ for their own advancement and gain, rather than being representatives of the people to whom they are accountable? It would appear that many English MPs really aren’t primarily concerned about being good servants of the English nation.

Therefore, it’s time perhaps for the English people to send those MPs a reminder that they do not have a life-long lease on their Westminster seats: they are mere House tenants who can be expelled by the landlords – the people, to whom parliament belongs – if they do not pay their rent and abide by the rules that the people expect them to comply with. Westminster is not a ‘second home’ for MPs, to be sumptuously furnished for them at the taxpayer’s expense.

And maybe it’s time not just to expel those self-serving and party-serving MPs but the whole British parliament, and to reclaim the Palace of Westminster as an English parliament: one whose members are proud to serve their English constituents, not a corrupt and outmoded British system of power, patronage and privilege.

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