An Expensive Scandal

by Alex Massie

One of the things no-one has yet been able to quantify is the exact extent of the anti-politics mood that dominates the majority of private conversations about British politics. This is more than just the standard cynicism and weariness of the age, rather it's a direct response to the parliamentary expenses scandal in which it was revealed that hundreds of MPs were, by any reasonable measure, on the take.

Among the items our parliamentarians thought it appropriate to charge to the public purse: a duck house and, in one infamous instance, the cost of cleaning a moat. That's right, a moat. These were merely some of the more flagrant abuses of a system that seemed to have been designed to enrich MPs without anyone noticing.

Now, typically, MPs are trying to water down reforms to the system:

Members of the cross-party committee currently responsible for overseeing Commons’ allowances also warned that people with families, and women in particular, would be put off running for Parliament if expenses were made less generous.

[...] Other proposals include forcing MPs to rent a second home rather than buying property with mortgages subsidised by the taxpayer, and requiring Members to produce receipts before being paid expenses.

Second homes would be restricted to MPs representing seats outside London, meaning those with constituencies in the capital’s suburbs would be forced to commute.

The [parliamentary] committee said that abolishing the resettlement grant would "add considerable financial insecurity" to being an MP, claiming that being forced to pay for their own expenses before claiming money back: "would add major cash-flow problems".

The poor lambs. It is hard to think that this bleating will much impress the public; rather it will confirm the electorate's view that MPs are a bunch of grasping chancers uninterested in real reform and determined to maintain privileges unthinkable in most parts of the private sector. All this makes it more uncomfortable to be an incumbent than is customarily the case.

The irony is that the system of lavish expenses was designed as a kind of compensation for restricting MPs pay (currently £65,000 a year) so as not to upset or infuriate the public. Better, in retrospect, to have simply bitten that bullet and increased their pay to around £100,000 while simplifying and streamlining the expenses system.

Paying parliamentarians well is never going to be popular but, in the long-run, it makes matters easier and helps avoid the kind of scandal that, however entertaining, lowers the reputation of parliament still further.