Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

What does this farcical affair say about MPs’ own judgment?

Following the public anger over |politicians’ expenses, David Gordon argues that the sorry situation was a disaster waiting to happen

Thanks to New Labour and Conservative MPs, there is now a new excuse available to children caught with their hands in the cookie jar.



The message from the Westminster political class this week is that “the system” is to blame for all the Commons expenses controversies.

No rules have broken, MPs insist, while humbly acknowledging that the allowances set-up is simply dreadful and must be urgently reformed.

So back to that child in the kitchen, elbow deep in the cookie jar.

“Thank goodness you have arrived, Mother. It's clear that this situation is in need of urgent attention.

“It's the system you see — the jar was too easy to reach, and the lid was not attached tightly enough.

“There were also no signs up saying ‘Don't Eat the Cookies'.

“So while I have not broken any rules, I am determined to make sure that this sad event does not recur.”

That kind of reasoning would not wash with any sane parent.

And the attempted spin from Westminster should leave taxpayers equally unimpressed.

The first point to make is that none of the expenses claims made public over the past week were compulsory.

The allowance for London accommodation and living costs may have been loosely defined and inadequately regulated.

But nobody forced senior Labour and Conservative MPs to make claims for dog food, gardening costs, tennis court repairs, lavatory seats, mock Tudor décor, a Kit Kat from a hotel mini-bar – not to mention improvement and mortgage interest bills for multiple properties.

When the entirely justifiable public anger dies down, some fundamental issues will still be hanging over this whole affair.

MPs are tasked with overseeing the way Government departments use taxpayers' money.

Some of them like nothing better than lecturing and hectoring civil services over lax practices.

But what moral authority will the House now have when it comes to protecting the public purse?

It's certainly not within the rules for civil servants to make the kinds of expenses claims MPs have been submitting for years.

In fact, such practices would be sackable offences in the public and private sectors.

Then there's the small matter of judgment.

If the supposed great minds of Westminster can get something this basic so wrong, what does it say about their overall wit and wisdom?

At what point did anyone think these sorts of claims were a good idea?

Even from a narrow, self-interest perspective, this was a disaster waiting to happen.

The Freedom of Information Act was passed in 2000, with January 2005 as the date when it would actually take effect. Did MPs fail to understand that the legislation applied to the House of Commons along with a host of other public bodies? Did they not realise that they might one day have to publicly explain the way they were personally using public money?

Instead of making sure the stables were well cleaned out, Commons chiefs embarked on a doomed bid to block disclosure. They fought against rulings to release the expenses details all the way to the High Court — and lost.

That was a year ago, yet MPs still look totally unprepared for what is now happening.

Their latest cunning plan was to release edited versions of the claims in mid-July — in effect burying the bad news at the start of the summer holiday season. Unfortunately for them, it's all started to leak out drip by drip.

That's a good thing. All the trouble that's now landing on their heads is entirely of their own making. It now falls to the Committee on Standards in Public Life to come up with a reform package that is capable of restoring voter confidence. This will take much more than platitudes from MPs on how it's all the fault of the system.

Full details on the Committee on Standards in Public Life inquiry into MP expenses — which will include a hearing in Belfast on July 1 — can be found on its website: www.public-standards.gov.uk

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