"Scotland's most distinguished political commentator" - Roy Greenslade.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
MPs expenses- how did we get here?
“UK opposition leader dumps lawmaker over duck pond”, said the Taiwan News. It was the story that caught the imagination of the world. The duck island, charged to expenses by theTory MP Sir Peter Viggers, turned the great British parliament into an international laughing stock. Quackers...out for a duck...you silly ducker". The pond ornament was even spotted on Google Earth, until it mysteriously disappeared from aerial view. What had the mallard community done to deserve this indignity?
Today presenters were reduced to helpless laughter, but in the House of Commons they weren’t laughing as parliament’s dignity and authority finally collapsed under the relentless bombardment of sleaze stories from the Daily Telegraph through May 2009. MPs cowered in disgrace, afraid to face to their constituents and some - we are told - were contemplating suicide. The Speaker, Michael Martin, was forced to resign - the first to do so for three centuries. Not to be outdone, the House of Lords suspended two Labour peers, Lord Taylor of Blackburn and Lord Truscott for offering parliamentary services for money - the first in three hundred and fifty years.
Both institutions have been declared dysfunctional, unfit for purpose, ready for the knackers yard. A very British revolution, said the newspaper that had for fourteen days exposed the venality of MPs. It seems that the Fourth Estate - the press - is the only part of the British constitution that is still functioning. Just think what Westminster would be like if there had been no newspapers? What would politicians be doing now - buying duck mansions?
As the revelations rolled on and on, a window was opened into the private lives of Honourable Members. From tree surgery to trouser presses; from alarm clocks costing £250 to 28 tonnes of manure. MPs who claim to be servants of the people had been dipping deep into the public purse for their own enrichment. Buying London flats for their daughters at public expense; building property empires through “flipping” = dishonestly doubling and tripling their second home allowances. Lavishly equipping their own homes and gardens with luxury items paid for by the taxpayer.
. “The public are just jealous because I have a very, very large house”, complained the Tory MP for Totness Anthony Steen questioned about £80,000 worth of work to his country estate. “What right does the public have to interfere with my private life?”. What right? What right do voters have to ask how one of their MPs could justify claiming that £80,000 garden improvements was necessary for the conduct of his parliamentary duties? This arrogant sense of entitlement is what has most outraged voters - ordinary mortals who have to pay for their own houses, their own food and their own taxes. Who do not regard £63,000 as poverty pay and cannot understand how MPs could have become so morally deficient, so divorced from reality and so poisoned by greed that they would casually defraud the taxpayer of tens and even hundreds of thousands of pounds, and then claim that the public has no right to question it. By their own mouths they have condemned themselves.
Enough, cried political leaders, leaping onto the bandwagon of public anger. The tumbrils, we were assured, were trundling down Whitehall to claim the miscreants. Except of course that they weren’t. If this is a revolution, then it has been a largely bloodless one. Very few MPs stand to lose their jobs over this epic scandal, the worst since the Great Reform Acts of 1932 ended the rotten boroughs. There has been a lot of talk about criminal charges, about resignations and deselections, but no sign of handcuffs. A number of superannuated knights of the shire have stood down to spend more time with their moats and arboretums. A couple of Labour MPs have thrown themselves on the mercy of their constituency parties - though in the cases of Hazel Blears and Shahid Malik, the local parties backed the disgraced MPs. The report into the expenses scandal by Sir Thomas Legg, confirmed that the former home secretary, Jacqui Smith, had wrongly claimed over £24,000 a year on her second home allowance - but all she had to do was deliver an apology. Any benefits cheat would have been jailed.
Gordon Brown ruled that the Communities Minister Hazel Blears’ flipping her second home and avoiding capital gains tax was “unacceptable behaviour”. But it appears to be acceptable in Her Majesty’s Cabinet. For, after pressure from Blears, the prime minister cravenly back-tracked and said that she was "doing a great job". We soon learned why Brown had to give in : other cabinet ministers were in the same disreputable boat and were making clear that if the PM didn’t back them the government might fall. Geoff Hoon, the Transport Secretary had made a gain of £300,000 on his second home, paid for on expenses, without paying any capital gains tax, and despite having had the use of a grace and favour residence at Admiralty House in London. James Purnell, the work and pensions secretary, had also flipped homes in order to avoid tax on profits made on a London property financed by his expenses. He even billed the taxpayer for an accountant to help him avoid tax. Brown is not secure enough in his post to stand up even to a cabinet of crooks.
Of course, they were victims of “the system” as they keep saying; MPs didn’t break any rules. But in the court of public opinion - as Harriet Harman memorably put it - they are guilty as hell. Pocketing hundreds of thousands of pounds on properties bought with public money is legal theft. MPs expenses are there to allow parliamentarians to do their jobs, to give them accommodation when they are in London. The second homes allowance is not there to provide not seed corn for property empires. Any financial gain made on property transactions financed by the public purse should to back to the public purse.
Resignations and deselectons are needed, not just for spectacle or to appease the mob, but to vindicate the honest MPs who didn’t stick their snouts in the trough. And yes there are some. The Labour MP, Laura Moffat, could have cashed in like Hoon, but chose instead to sleep on a camp bed in her office when the house is sitting late. Not all MPs were waiting nervously for the four o’clock phone call from the Daily Mail. The Stroud MP David Drew travels standard class to London and stays in a Premier Inn. Chris Mullin, the former Labour minister shot to fame last week for claiming a black and white television licence. There are hundreds of MPs who have not been flipping, bending, fiddling and dipping - but if the guilty ones are exonerated, what incentive do they have to stay clean? Where is natural justice?
At least David Cameron has been prepared to condemn the worst practices of Tory MPs without equivocation, and has made clear that any member not willing to pay the Legg levy will not be allowed to stand as a Conservative MP . Mind you, since half of them are standing down, this is something of an empty threat. Cameroan made clear to Anthony Steen that the public did have a right to know, and that it was time for him to go. He condemned the duck house MP, Sir Peter Viggers unreservedly and while he has not actually withdrawn the whip from the miscreants, he has been prepared to draw a moral line in the sand. He forced his closest aide, Andrew Mackay, to resign after it emerged that he and his wife had been “double flipping” and charging both their London and their constituency homes to expenses. Cameron has not condemned the practice of profiting from second homes. This may not be unconnected to the fact that he is one of the beneficiaries of this arrangement. He also claimed money to have his wisteria removed which is not quite in the duck house league, but an eyebrow-raiser nevertheless.
There’s no doubt that Gordon Brown has come out worst from this affair, and not just because Sir Thomas Legg told him to pay back £12,000. He has been weak, blustering, confused. He told MPs at prime ministers question time last May that holding an election would cause “chaos”, a remark which betrayed a contempt for democracy in a leader who gained his office without any election at all. Brown’s premiership is now beyond hope, his government heading for the rocks, his reputation destroyed. .
However, there is something more to be considered here than just the constitution, desperately though that is in need of reform. The collapse of parliament’s moral authority has not taken place in a vacuum; it is part of a general decline in standards of public life over the last three decades. We have seen the leaders of great institutions, like Sir Fred Goodwin of Royal Bank of Scotland, shamelessly enrich themselves why they helped to destroy their own companies and undermine British economy. Anti social behaviour by plutocrats has wrecked the security of a million of families who face unemployment in an economic recession caused by excessive leverage and risk-taking by the banks. And now politicians are up there with the bankers as candidates for the lamp post decoration.
I have spent nearly thirty years watching politicians in Westminster and Holyrood, but even I have been astonished to discover what has been going on. Of course, the Fees Office is partly to blame for running a lax system, but that doesn’t explain why so many Labour MPs, none of whom came into politics for the money, turned to self enrichment. I think it may go back to the “prawn cocktail” offensive in 1992, when the late Labour leader, John Smith, with colleague Mo Mowlem, launched a campaign to persuade the City of London that they were safe with Labour. Thereafter Labour MPs became much closer to the financial world, and many rising Labour politicians, like Patricia Hewitt, spent time working for city institutions. Mo Mowlem married a banker. Financiers from Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch spent time in the cabinet office, and took prominent roles in government, like Baroness Shriti Vadera, Brown’s key city adviser.
Some time after the turn of the century, as the property boom began in the South East of England, and bankers started paying themselves colossal bonuses, MPs stopped measuring themselves against the standards of their constituents and took to comparing themselves to the financial types they had taken to rubbing shoulders with in the City. From Tony Blair down, they resented seeing people with no better qualifications then they had earning mega-salaries. Unable to afford decent London houses, they used their flexible friend, the expense account, to even the score, surfing the housing boom to make themselves feel just that little bit richer. What never seems to have occurred to them was that the property bubble they were benefiting from was crucifying young families with debt.
Now the property bubble has burst and so has their credibility. Labour was captured by the financial interests in the city in much the same was as were the regulators in the Financial Services Authority. They felt both financially and intellectually inferior to the money managers, which is why they allowed the credit and property bubble to inflate to disastrous proportions. Tony Blair, true to form, got out when the going was good, and now has a comfortable sinecure in JP Morgan bank. But the rest of them, now dreading the prospect of having to face the voters in an election, have been left high and dry. They are loathed by their constituents, abused by the media, and laughed at by politicians in countries with much lesser claims to parliamentary probity. The members of the duck house parliament will go down as among the most disreputable in the long history of British democracy. The only positive is that they have ensured, by their behaviour, that parliament and the British constitution, must now be subject to radical and irreversible reform.
Iain Macwhirter is the award-winning political columnist for the Herald and Sunday Herald. He has been a political broadcaster for over 20 years, in Westminster and Holyrood, and is former Rector of Edinburgh University.