Parliament is being rocked by an expenses scandal as stomach churning as it is decadent.
MPs fiddling at the second homes allowance. Claiming for new beams for mock-Tudor houses. Silk cushions. Widescreen TVs. A male MP claiming for tampons. The huge sums creamed off the public mingle with pitiful trivia (one MP claimed for a 5p carrier bag).
Even the PM has a less than straightforward arrangement over the cleaning of his apartment. The Chancellor changes the designation of his second home nearly as much as Hazel Blears. One junior minister cost the taxpayer £20,000 to get some hideous Artex taken down ...
Westminster, quite frankly, looks and smells like a cesspit.
Here, the spotlight has fallen on the five Sinn Fein MPs and the half-million taxpayers have forked out for three London properties. Gerry and Martin share a nice little flat at £3,600 per month (!) rent. The others — Michelle, Pat and Conor — rent a house at £5,400 per month. It's said these figures are two to three times the rent you'd expect to pay.
SF retaliates that the amount includes parking, cleaning and upkeep. And, SF argues, the five were only renting flats — unlike the majority of MPs who seem to think that being an MP entitles them to a second home for nothing. And then there’s the old get out of jail free card: our voters deserve first class service. They're mopping up all this dosh on our behalf!
Quite how this squares with Michelle Gildernew costing £1,800 per month while her travel claims were only £300 per annum is hard to say. There's first class service, then there's diamond platinum service. As you'd expect for a party which boycotts Westminster their travel claims are substantially lower than other MPs.
In other words, they're not doing that much business in London. If they'd stayed at the nearest Travelodge they'd have saved a small fortune. The fact that SF is ‘entitled' to the money legally, doesn't make it right. Maybe they see it as wee continuation of their war against the Brits but they're supposed to be beyond all that pettiness now, aren't they?
Nor should unionists be acting all smug. Last month, our first minister slammed ‘Swish Family Robinson' reports, branding them Tory/UUP smears. But the fact is Peter and Iris Robinson pull down £572,000 per year in salaries and expenses.
Of course, Robinson is right when he emails a constitutent to point out it's sexist to lump his wages with that of his wife — and that it's unfair to mix up wages with expenses. A spokesman for the Robinsons said: “The DUP provides a first class service that is available to all constituents and all allowances are used to run offices, employ staff and fulfill the commitment to serving the many and varied needs of the public.”
Which would kind of be ok, except some of those expenses pay for the employment of their own children. Mr Robinson employs daughter Rebekah as office manager and private secretary, while son Gareth is his parliamentary assistant. Mrs Robinson employs son Jonathan as office manager, and daughter-in-law Ellen Robinson as part-time secretary. Though paid for by the taxpayer none of these jobs are open to tender or public competition. Yes, there used to be perfectly legitimate reasons why a public representative here would employ a family relative — because otherwise they could end up dead.
But, we've had ‘peace' now for over a decade and it's time for a change. It's hard to think of any other sphere of life where public money can be spent with little or no accountability.
The Robinsons are not unique in doubling up — 16 of our 18 MPs are also MLAs. Nor are they unique in employing family members — dozens of MLAs have fessed up to employing nearest and dearest.
Still, not one politician has managed to tell us how dividing their time (but not their salaries) between Belfast and London is the acme of professional standards. Or are they really saying that, on its own, being an MLA or MP isn't that onerous?
Our Scottish cousins have the answer: you can't be an MP and a MSP. Yet it seems beyond the wit of our masters up at Stormont to enact a similar bill.
The slow drip, drip, drip about expenses and pay is bringing the democratic system into disrepute. To many enduring hard times it shows a governing elite out of touch with reality.
It's time they woke up and smelt the coffee — after all, that's probably paid for by the taxpayer too.