The coverage about the parliamentary expenses of members of the Cabinet in today’s papers generates, as usual, a good deal of heat but precious little light. Of course, as Harriet Harman admitted this morning, “It looks bad,” and it is probably no coincidence that the embarrassing revelations have emerged in a Tory supporting newspaper (Telegraph) only three weeks before the local and European elections. However Tory MPs will, in all likelihood, remain fairly quiet. Why? Because they know it is only a matter of time before many of their colleagues are also publicly named and shamed for apparently excessive and possibly outlandish claims of their own.
What really riles the courtroom of public opinion are the expense claims made by MPs that, though within the broadest interpretation of the guidelines, feel like an abuse the public’s trust.
The truth about MPs’ expenses is that there good reasons for some, some pretty bad reasons for others and occasionally some claims that are just downright ugly. For example:
· Good (fair) expenses: It is only right and proper that MPs who live outside of London should receive an allowance for a second home – however there is, in my view, no justification for such properties to be fitted out with top-range furniture and gadgets paid for with taxpayers’ money.
· Bad (unfair) expenses: I believe it perfectly reasonable for MPs to get ‘Freeview’ so they can watch the news channels and the Parliament channel but there is absolutely no justification for the public footing the bill for Sky Sports or Sky Movies.
· Ugly expenses: Employing your son as a researcher and paying him £45,000 over two-and-a-half year period while he was studying full-time at Newcastle University.
Sir Christopher Kelly, chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life is quite correct when he argues that the issue of expenses and pay should not be left to politicians to sort out for themselves. If public confidence is to ever be restored then what is required is a thorough, detailed and independent inquiry carried out by individuals with no political agenda of their own, an inquiry that would look at all the evidence and would be open to anyone who wanted to contribute. The next few weeks are going to be uncomfortable for many inhabitants of the Westminster village but sadly you cannot have the gain without the pain