Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Why MPs’ expenses have given Gordon and David a lot to ponder

Only the most rabid cynic can profess to be other than shocked at the disclosures revealing how MPs and peers have been lining their pockets at the taxpayer's expense.

They are not confined to Labour: by no means.

But the scandal has reached its nadir upon their watch. They will suffer. The ministers who figure, current custodians of the public purse, are theirs. The electoral consequences are incalculable. I think of the aged pensioner, obliged to give up his rented house and move into a care home in Northern Ireland, who — years later — was billed harshly by the social services for several thousand pounds of benefit which he had, by their own carelessness, been wrongly paid after the move had taken place.

Of course, given the option of paying by instalments, he insisted on dipping into meagre savings to pay the entire bill at once. I think of the couple who bought a flat at the height of the housing boom. The bill for the stamp duty alone cleaned out the considerable savings she had, over 20 years, conscientiously amassed in the bank. This is the world ordinary people — the voters — inhabit.

Not for them to impose punitive rates of stamp duty on young people struggling to get on the housing ladder, then to send the bill for one's own share of it — on a second home — to the House of Commons Fees Office; ditto, interest on the mortgage; ditto, the bill at the supermarket, the TV licence, the new kitchen — not to mention the patent prettifying of the house, the bills for that submitted as further expenses; then the second home reclassified as ‘main residence' to dodge capital gains tax, followed by the flogging of it at a fat profit, the takings immediately being ploughed into a repeat performance.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of this is the cheeky protest from these sharp cookies that they have done nothing wrong. One can commit many injustices within the law. Ministers of the Crown unable to appreciate the distinction between morality and mere legality are no longer fit for office.

They blame the system. Lame excuse. But why should hard-pressed taxpayers pay a backbencher or a minister £5,000 a year — for his groceries, her coffee, his chocolate bars? It is a nonsense and a disgrace. This racket was devised by MPs and peers for their own purposes and they have been its only guardians. That will now change.

But no change being proposed will suffice which does not move the policing of allowances safely beyond the walls of the Palace of Westminster.

The fact is, of course, that expenses are always a problem. Ask any employer. They tend to figure most heavily in those callings demanding long hours from individuals working away from base under pressure and on their own initiative. When you add that jobs with unpredictable hours tend to attract lively recruits of resource and initiative — because those jobs tend to be both challenging and interesting — you have a recipe for problems.

No journalist, for example, can castigate MPs without a twinge of conscience, for the folklore of their own expenses culture is a rich one. One London newspaper accountant, during the international media siege of Belfast in the 1970s, was curious about the frequency with which his reporters found it necessary to take long taxi journeys at inordinate cost to an unknown destination called Ballyhackamore.

The place had a rural ring from deep in the sticks, but, as the reporters were well aware, he could not find it on the map or in any gazetteer. In fact, it was being invoked to fill a hole in pockets caused by a genuine enough zeal for a story, but which involved expenditure which the accountant would never have sanctioned.

Ballyhackamore filled the bill perfectly. The current disgrace of Parliament is both more serious and more insidious because it has been so systematic.

What the Daily Telegraph has done is to wreak a bitter revenge upon ministers and MPs who shamelessly did their damnedest to prevent the depths of their greed being made public.

The result has been to emblazon John Prescott's bill for the mock-Tudor ornamentation of his Hull home, Paul Murphy's for his £449 sound system and millionairess Barbara Follett's bill for her chimney sweep in even more lurid headlines.

Critics of the Telegraph's decision to acquire the secrets of the MPs and peers should reflect that in Zimbabwe their journalists would have disappeared and would not have been heard of again.

Humiliating as it is, the voluminous debagging of these parliamentarians is the badge of our democracy.

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