“Bob’s your uncle” always struck me as a curious catch phrase. Why should Bob being my uncle be of any benefit to me? Well, phrase is said to date from the 1880s when, the Prime Minister, Robert Cecil, appointed his nephew, Arthur Balfour, to the prestigious and lucrative post as Chief Secretary for Ireland. Bob was indeed his uncle, and found him a nice little earner. It is all about nepotism: abusing a position of public trust to promote the interests of family members.
The British civil service managed to stamp out nepotism 150 years ago. Now, finally, the House of Commons may be about to follow suit. On Wednesday, the report into MPs expenses by Sir Christopher Kelly called time, finally, on the cosy practice of MPs employing their wives, children, lovers as secretaries and researchers.This has provoked a pre-emptive wave of righteous indignation from MPs’s who say this is as an unfair assault on the hard working women who tirelessly service our legislators.
I’m sure that many wives do a very good job, but that doesn’t alter the fact that there is a massive conflict of interest here. It’s not just the obvious abuses such as the Tory MP Derek Conway paying his sons as parliamentary researchers when they were actually away at university. How can an MP be expected to assess whether public money is being spent wisely when it’s being paid to his or her spouse and other members of his close family? Nearly a third of MPs employ their wives or children. The Rev Ian Paisley employs two daughters and a son according to the Register of Member Financial Interests. The Tory MP for Tewkesbury, Laurence Robertson records that he employs both his wife Susan Robertson “from whom I am separated”, as his secretary, and also employs his “new partner”, Anne Marie Adams. That must make office life interesting. The practice has been abused and it simply has to stop. MPs cannot be allowed to continue enriching themselves and their families in this way.
There were predicable howls of anguish too when it emerged that MPs will no longer be able to claim mortgage interest for second homes. In future they will have to rent modestly priced accommodation when they’re in London - and only if their constituencies are more than sixty minutes from parliament. It might seem astonishing that MPs were ever allowed to claim for second homes in London when they already lived in London, but they did. And they didn’t even have to live in them. Tony McNulty, the Labour Minister, gave a grudging apology to the house last week for claiming expenses on a “second home” that was occupied full time by his parents and was only a few miles from his real family home. This was a calculated abuse of the system and should surely have led to his being thrown out of parliament.
McNulty insisted that he was ‘only following the rules’ and that it wasn’t his fault. But this is a feeble defence. The rules are laid out in the parliamentary “Green Book” which sets out MPs terms of employment. It says MPs can only claim expenses that are “wholly, exclusively and necessarily” for “the purpose of performing their parliamentary duties”. It says nothing about buying houses for your parents. Nor does it say you can use the second homes allowance to play the property market as so many MPs have done, evading capital gains tax.
The former Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, was challenged on the BBC’s Question Time last week to pay back the £100,000 she wrongly claimed by designating a room in her sister’s house in London as her “main residence” and her real family home in West Midlands as her “second home”. Forget the porn films her husband claimed on her expenses, what about the public money she misappropriated? Ms Smith accepted that she had been “disgraced” for what she did, but curiosly her contrition stopped short of actually paying back the money she accepts she should never have received. Tony McNulty says that he “doesn’t have the money” to pay back the expenses, despite him and his wife erarning £300,000 and living in a £900,000 home.
The Tory MP Roger Gale said that Sir Christopher Kelly “doesn’t live in the real world”. I’m sorry, but it is MPs who are clearly on another planet. In the ‘real world’ of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, tax evasion is a criminal offence. If anyone other than MPs had been caught claiming expenses that they were not entitled to, they would be have been prosecuted, even if their employers had agreed to pay. Perhaps it could come to that. The Plaid MP Elfyn Llwyd, who sits on the parliamentary standards committee, said last week that “three of four MPs..will end up in jail”. If they go down, might others follow?
After his not-my-fault-but-sorry-anyway speech, McNulty said it was “time to move on” as if this were all a tiresome and insignificant affair blown out of proportion by the press. People say that hacks like me should be concentrating on the real issues - like housing, unemployment, the postal strike and not the pecadillos of MPs. But there is a connection. We are now seeing the mechanism whereby our elected representatives - who rarely go into politics for personal gain - were compromised and corrupted by a system of petty corruption. They lost touch with the “real world” they talk of to such an extent that they thought fiddling expenses, evading capital gains tax and employing their relatives is perfectly normal. No wonder they can’t understand why a postie earning £14,000 might go on strike.
MPs have allowed house prices to inflate to such a ludicrous degree that a first time buyer in London now requires a salary of £93,000 to get an average home. The average wage in London is £26,000. If MPs had had to buy their own London homes out of their £65,000 salary, instead of having them bought for them, would they have allowed this to happen? Well, we’ll see, because after the next election, after the duck house generation of MPs have stood down, there will be a new wave of MPs coming into politics who have not been speculating on the London property market. I suspect the housing crisis may suddenly rocket to the top of the political priority list.