Tuesday, 19 May 2009
Where's there's Blame, there's a Claim....
The Cabinet Member in question was baffled
as to why his modest second home featured
in his morning Telegraph
I walked through Westminster last week, and the atmosphere felt tense. Even Big Ben seemed to cast a wary eye each way before he moved his hand, as if he would be accused of claiming for the time that elapsed since the whole sorry saga of MP's expenses exploded. On the streets, eyes were cast probingly from suit to suit, before being turned to the pavement, as if hoping for it to obligingly open up. It must have been quite entertaining to observe MPs over the last week or so inside the bowels of the Houses of Parliament, each unsettled by what may transpire in the Daily Telegraph concerning their financial exploits of the last couple of years. No doubt they were aware of each other’s too. Picture the scene in a leafy garden on a summer’s afternoon in Pimlico, with a colleague's hearty backslap greeting a cabinet member’s gloat that the barbecue they are gorging on is courtesy of HM government. That same barbecue now sits conspicuously on the lawn, hanging its coals in shame.
This whole business reminds me of a time during my schooldays when the entire year group were called together to investigate a spate of thefts from the school canteen and tuck shop. The thing is, everyone was at it. The dinnerladies in charge were woefully inattentive, and the smuggling out of a curly wurly here, and an apple there (for the more health conscious thief) had become commonplace. That was the problem; because the abuse of the sweet shop was so widespread, it became acceptable within whole groups of students, and consciences were collectively cleared as a result. It was only when it became clear that so many individuals had been spotted, following a sting operation between a squealing student and a despotic biology teacher that everyone began to get nervous. Guilty glances, not dissimilar to the ones being cast around Westminster, replaced the collective sanctuary of the shared secret.
It is surely this mindset that has set the bar for the expenses that have been claimed in recent years, and with each stage of acceptability, the bar has been raised. It has long been known that Parliament exists in a totally different world to that of you and I; or as the newspapers are so fond of calling it, a gentleman’s club that exists within an insular bubble of security and affluence. That bubble was burst when news of the leak was reported; the fact that there was immediate talk of calling in the police to root out the whistleblower now seems unbelievable, and gives weight to the accusation that the lascivious W1 club was attempting to cover its back. Perhaps it was in an effort to exclude herself from this Westminster trap that Margaret Moran claimed for a second home in Southampton. How very noble. Admittedly there are MPs that exist outside of this circle, politicians such as Norman Baker who have long campaigned to make public the expenses claims, but they seem to be few and far between as the Telegraph continues its relentless charge against Westminster. In fact, so much coverage has been given to this story that regular readers have been outraged; you now need to delve inside the paper as far as page 12 before there is even a mention of cricket!
So what is the next logical step for a horde of marauding money grabbers without so much as a phoney mortgage receipt to hide behind? Why, what any self respecting guilty party (or parties) should do; find a scapegoat. Luckily for them they don’t have to look very far, as the Speaker Michael Martin is asking for it. Not that he doesn’t deserve to go, of course; his reluctance for this whole debacle to see the light of day is well known. His own expenses have come into dispute long before this particular episode, although that is not the main reason for his culpability. If he had his way, the whole scandal would have remained under wraps, and the corrupt ship Westminster would have sailed on undeterred, and as the representative for MPs as a group, that is unforgivable (but somewhat typical).
Whilst I don’t sympathise heavily with MPs over these revelations, I do take issue with all this talk of ‘pigs in troughs’ and ‘we pay for your luxurious lifestyles’. Yes, ‘we’ as taxpayers do ultimately foot the bill, but it is by no means an exclusive invoice that starts and ends in Westminster. The same collective ‘we’ pays for the exorbitant wages and needless management consultants at the BBC, not to mention some of its journalists, whose expenses claims probably remain their most creative work to date. ‘We’ pay for the extortionate pensions claimed by disgraced heads of city Police Forces. ‘We’ pay for the shambolic social services that operate children’s services in London, and for the council tax that haemorrhages from every orifice of inept local councils. The counter argument to this is that MP’s are responsible for making their own rules, but let us not forget that the corrupt expenses system has existed for a long while. Just as I have claimed for spurious mileage on my company car in the past, so hundreds of thousands of workers up and down the country exploit their systems in a time honoured fashion. I’m not saying its right, that’s just life. What’s that you say, as a society we’re not greedy? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the banking system.
It is time now to draw a line through the current system and create a fairer and more level expenses playing field. Increase MP wages if necessary but cut funding for anything other than travel, food and essential basic accommodation costs. Even that is generous; most of us pay for our own food do we not? I expect the Speaker will stand down, and examples will be made of the most erroneous claimants, but eventually the public needs to put its high horse back in the stable and allow the government to tend to the lame donkey of an economy that it shares a stall with.
Lastly, is there a demonstrative collective noun for a group of expense claiming politicians? Any ideas? Might I suggest ‘a Moat of MPs’?