Tuesday, October 13, 2009

MP expenses: the descent to farce continues...

Now call me old fashioned (and it appears that I have Stephen Tall for company here), but I'm beginning to get the impression that there is no level of self-abasement out of reach of our politicians. The expenses scandal was just that, with a regime for expenses which lacked any credibility, either in itself or in terms of its administration. Fine, change it. Make it transparent, punish those who transgress, whether as claimants or administrators.

However, we are now going beyond retribution even, to a point where the laws of natural justice and common sense are placed in suspended animation. The notion that it can be right to retrospectively impose limits on the level of claims is a nonsense, the sort of nonsense that any sensible person would protest about if applied to them. Indeed, such legislation, if enacted in Parliament, would undoubtedly be shot down in flames by any self-respecting lawyer.

But in the rush to closure, it seems that a sufficient number of politicians are willing to do anything to 'make it go away'. Well, I've got news for them. The only way to make it go away is to live up to the standards expected of our lawmakers. And of course, most of our lawmakers do just that, not that you would believe it from the buzz in the blogosphere and in the 'dead tree media', as Guido Fawkes loves to describe the newspapers.

You see, I don't get the impression that paying the money back will actually change that many minds. The damage has been done by the announcements of perceived wrongdoing, and nobody is going to be paying attention to the trickle of announcements that MP X has repaid £Y, especially if MP X submitted perfectly valid claims, approved by the Fees Office. Indeed, MP X gets the worst of both worlds, condemned by the public for alleged greed, regardless of the merits of his or her claim, just because someone has retrospectively imposed his own judgement of what is 'right and proper', and is then expected to make a repayment based on (currently) provisional and arbitrary guidelines.

A sense of retribution and a sense of justice are not mutually inclusive, and in our rush to punish MPs, we risk debasing the currency of our democracy to a point where anyone with any sense of self-respect and self-preservation will avoid public service to the detriment of our society as a whole. Just as being a Muslim doesn't make you a terrorist, being a politician doesn't make you a crook. Whilst most of us seem perfectly willing to accept the former, the latter appears to be more difficult to comprehend.

4 comments:

Liberal Provocateur said...

Sorry, I don't buy it.

The old rules were quite clear, the Fees office didn't stick to them and were often bullied by whips, speakers and MPs.

The only retro-active change is to cap some reimbursements for cleaning and gardening, I really don't see what the fuss is about here - you can live in london (even during the week) and not have to spend money on these things - MPs chose to live somewhere nicer with a garden or that's large enough to need a cleaner then they can pay out of their generous salary.

It's not as if MPs are on minimum wage, they're well paid before expenses, and even the new expenses regime is still far more generous and lenient than that those of us who are self employed face.

Mendez said...

'perceived wrongdoing'
I know you love politics, but you have to understand that although they didn't do anything ilegal, what they did was immoral.
The public's distrust of politicians is rightly founded on their behaviour.
While it's true that not every politician is a crook, more than a few of them are morally bankrupt.
It's the duty of the honest to root out the dishonest.

Mark Valladares said...

Aaron,

You miss the point with a glorious inevitablility. Until you know what a particular claim was for, you are unable to tell whether or not it is reasonable or realistic. A retrospective cap means that no consideration has been taken of whether or not an individual claim is actually entirely reasonable.

If such a viewpoint was taken in relation to house insurance, the public would be outraged, "But my camera cost £500!" "Well, you shouldn't have bought such an expensive one then. We now believe that nobody should spend more than £200 on a camera." "But you promised to cover it when I paid my premiums!" "Tough."

The old rules were not clear. if they had been, most MPs would have stuck to those limits. However, the fact that there were no clear limits encouraged some to claim whatever they could get. Unless, of course, you're assuming that all MPs are crooks...

Your assumption appears to be that every MP went into the Fees Office and bullied them. We know that they refused some claims - various MPs have said so, or been outed by the Daily Telegraph - so the idea that the Fees Office were so cowed that they waved everything through is an unreasonable one.

You also appear to want your MP to spend time cleaning their second home rather than representing you. Frankly, if you're happy with that, don't complain when they do less constituency work, or spend less time in the chamber of the House of Commons. If they are in Parliament until late most weekday evenings, in meetings the rest of the time or answering correspondence and reading the vast amounts of paper from lobbyists, experts and pressure groups, they're probably spending a lot more than 37 hours a week doing it. Give some serious thought to the number of hours your MP puts in a week and then tell me whether or not it represents a 'generous' salary when looked at in terms of an hourly rate.

The comparison with expenses available to the self-employed is a ludicrous one. As a self-employed person, you can claim any expenses you like from the business - it's your business. Whether you can claim them as wholly, necessarily and exclusively incurred in the course of your business is a matter between you and HM Revenue & Customs.

Mark Valladares said...

Mendez,

"It's the responsibility of the honest to root out the dishonest.". Are you aware of the expenses claims of your workmates? Do you know what they're claiming? If not, does that make you complicit if they are cheating? Of course it doesn't, that's what the law is for.

If you make a claim which is accepted, based on factual information and fully vouched, why should someone be able to arbitrarily decide four years later that, now we think about it, that was a bit more than we now want to pay, and we'd like the money back? The Government is in trouble and would like more income. Is it fair that they decide to raise the tax rate for 2004/05 to 28% and ask you for immediate payment? Of course it isn't.

If a Labour MP pays their cleaner a living wage, and actually pays that amount over, withholds tax and NIC and pays it over, puts in a claim stating exactly what it is for, and is repaid on that basis, why should they now be punished?

Indeed, the arbitrary basis on which the limits have been set is a strange one. The limit for cleaning includes dry cleaning. Gardening costs include, in at least one instance, the cost of repairing an unsafe retaining wall.

One MP has been asked to provide mortgage statements for the year before she was elected. Is she a crook, was she behaving immorally? No, but it will be all over her local newspaper and her voters may well decide that she is guilty regardless.

All I'm saying is that each individual case needs to be looked at dispassionately and those who are actually guilty of fraud should be punished. This is not justice, it's a lynch mob.