It’s not often that I find myself disagreeing with Stephen Fry quite so vehemently, but on this occasion I really can’t understand why he claims that the current row over MPs’ expenses is ‘not important’. It is important. Very important. Why? Well, here are some reasons:
- For years, Parliament have tried to presuade the public that most of our longest established professions, like medicine, teaching, academe and the law are not capable of regulating their own behaviour. One by one, each of them has been given an external and ‘independent’ body to which they must be accountable. The one seeming exception to this is, oddly enough, Parliament.
- As a result, seeing honourable members on our TV screens constantly using the excuse that these claims were within the rules are a bit rich considering they themselves wrote them. Where’s the outside scrutiny? Quis custodiet custodies? And even then, some MP’s are stretching these rules well beyond the point where Hooke’s Law might break down.
- Seeing footage like George Foulkes attempting to throw a smokescreen over the whole sorry business was an attempted (and wholly unsuccessful) act of sophistry. OK, so BBC newsreader/journalist Carrie Gracie arens £92000 a year. And yes, this is about 50% more than a basic backbencher’s salary. But any expenses she might claim are certainly not as generous as those doled out to MP’s, nor are they so laxly waved through on a misplaced assumption that they are reasonable. The audit trail is more rigorous and accountable. Apparently, the Fees Office warned the Speaker about this issue some time ago. What did he do? Diddly-friggin’-squat, that’s what.
- On Saturday, Margaret Moran, the MP for Luton was questioned about her arrangements regarding second home allowances and spending on a house in Southampton. One of the justifications she gave was this:
“Any MP has to have a proper family life, they have to have the support of their partner.
“It is all within the claims policy and that’s why I’m angry about this because not only has it been very stressful for me and my family, it gives the incredibly misleading impression that somehow we’ve been dodgy, that we’ve been fraudulent or we’ve been corrupt. Nothing is further from the truth.”
What precisely makes her any different from the many people who spend long periods working away from home? They don’t get the chance to claim for multiple homes, or flip between them for convenience. In fact, if she was so bothered about her family in Southampton, why the fuck did she want to be an MP in Luton in the first place? Just a thought.
- And now of course we have the wholly unedifying spectacle, as the BBC’s Nick Robinson calls it, of My Shirt’s Hairier Than Yours. Part of Cameron’s insane rush to appear utterly moral is caused by his politican’s finely tuned and innate sense of crass opportunism, part of it caused by the knowledge that his own party are really no better because it is a cross-party problem with the entire culture of Westminster itself.
- But now we get to the meat; all through this, it has been claimed that Parliament ‘understands the public anger on the issue’ Well, clearly they don’t, judging by both actions and words. And the reason is the major problem: our political class has become so distanced from the people they represent that they are no longer even aware that what they are doing is somehow, at best, hugely insensitive during a recession where some people are struggling to even keep one roof over their heads, at worst large scale fraud of the sort which they have spent a deal of time piously berating the banking sector (though not undeservedly as it happens). MP’s may complain that £64000 a year is not enough. Indeed, compared to many in higher-powered London jobs it isn’t. But you know what? It’s still at least twice what most of their constituents earn each year, and more in many cases. And those constituents don’t have the lovely expenses cushion to break their fall either. Most people understand that MP’s do have some reasonble expenses, but there is a difference between making reasonable claims and what too many are doing now: taking the piss. It has to stop.