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In defence of rorting

4 June 2009

The target of the public’s vengeance for the failure of the Thatcherite/Blairite compact has shifted from bankers to MPs, writes Frank Bongiorno in London

Right:

One of the country’s oldest and most exclusive clubs. btrenkel/iStockphoto

One of the country’s oldest and most exclusive clubs. btrenkel/iStockphoto



IMAGINE you’re a backbencher in the British House of Commons – let’s not worry unduly which party you belong to, for it really doesn’t matter. You’ve been in harness a few years, and you’re pretty good at what you do. It’s just that you haven’t been recognised with that ministry or shadow ministry to which your talent, dedication and years of labour so thoroughly entitle you.

You’ve done the hard yards: the long hours of university study, punctuated by the usual tedious part-time work in a take-away joint, along with happier times in student politics; “experience” in the office of some parliamentarian who took an interest in you, and whose help you needed; that first, satisfying if grossly under-paid research job in a think tank, or trade union, followed by an equally under-paid stint in an MP’s office. All the while, your university chums were making their squillions in the City or the Inns of Court, but by now you’d sniffed the career you’ve always wanted, and you looked around for a seat.

You found an opening – old Fred had decided to give the game away – so much of your time was now devoted to getting the right people in the local constituency party on your side. Once you’d negotiated this not inconsiderable hurdle with all the charm and powers of persuasion at your disposal, there were the long hours of door-to-door canvassing. You soon had the biggest collection of rosettes and election ephemera this side of the black country. There’ll be more of the same in the years ahead, provided always that you survive the next election.

After the triumph of your entry into one of the country’s oldest and most exclusive clubs, the Westminster Parliament, you’ve seen a lot of people exercising power but don’t have too much of it yourself. But there are long and tedious hours in the parliamentary chamber or some obscure committee hearing; ribbons to be cut at the local fete; a regular constituency “surgery” to be held on a Saturday morning, where you hear complaints about everything from the government’s failure to prevent a constituent’s cat from being run over, through to what you politicians are going to do about “all those Poles taking our jobs”. A large part of your job is to keep smiling and pretend that every hour of your working life brings with it a reminder of the privilege of serving your fellow citizens.

And your pay is £64,766 ($A 130,903) a year. That’s about the same as the Australian parliamentary base salary of $127,060 and isn’t to be sneezed at – especially if you’re being paid to mop floors for a lot less. But as any nervous Aussie tourist will tell you, those pounds don’t last long once you start hanging around London, which is where parliamentarians do much of their business. And during the late boom, it won’t have escaped the notice of our observant hypothetical MP that Jeremy, with whom he rowed at Trinity, was earning about ten times £64,766 in the City, while Penelope’s commercial practice is still really flourishing and she should make QC very soon, once she’s back from the Bahamas.

In the circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that large numbers of politicians should have organised their affairs in a manner that would allow them to supplement their base salary. Perhaps they began to think of their base salary as just that: a “base” on which to build a “superstructure”. I’m not convinced that many of those pointing the finger would have behaved any differently. Opportunity would have been a fine thing.

Now, I’m not really trying to present British politicians as a truly impoverished and oppressed class of citizens who must command the sympathy of any compassionate human being. But I am suggesting that the current expenses scandal needs to be seen as the outcome of a particular set of political and economic circumstances, and not simply as evidence of the eternal venality of politicians.

In the first place, the system of second-home allowances is clearly a dud. It’s open to abuse and manipulation, even by parliamentarians who remain within the bounds of propriety – whatever that is these days. For instance, there’s been a practice called “flipping” whereby parliamentarians have changed their minds about which of their homes is their “second home”, thereby being able to claim expenses on various properties over the course of a number of years. Alistair Darling, the chancellor of the exchequer, is accused of this practice, and also of having claimed for more than one property at the same time. There are calls on him to resign as Gordon Brown contemplates a cabinet reshuffle. Brown has carefully avoided defending his old friend and beleaguered chancellor, whose future looks other than bright.

But if politicians are able to make claims for the expenses from a second home as a result of their parliamentary duties, they’re going to do so. All the signs are that there has been some very fancy footwork on this particular – and rather lucrative – dance floor. Even the leader of the opposition, David Cameron, is being subjected to some intense scrutiny over his claims. He took out a large mortgage on a home in Oxfordshire, which was designated his second home (and therefore subject to claims for allowances), while using his own money – some £75,000 – to pay off his London home. I don’t think anyone has suggested impropriety. It’s simply another instance of organising one’s financial affairs prudently, apparently within the letter of the regulations governing MPs’ allowances, and – it just so happens – in a manner that maximises the particular MP’s call on the public purse. As our own Alan Ramsey would say, “Thank you, taxpayer.”

The MPs themselves have engaged in some over-blown rhetoric about this business, using terms such as “tragic” to describe it. They’ve made much of the need to reform the system, and all kinds of ideas are being thrown about, including the introduction of a system of recall on the Californian model, whereby a by-election must be held if a certain number of voters demand it. It’s hard to argue against reform, but this talk does have the effect of deflecting attention from some blatantly unethical behaviour, which is instead portrayed as systemic.

There’s also plenty of pre-election posturing; local and European elections are to be held here shortly and a drubbing for the Labour Party is widely expected. And there has been talk of an early election in order to clear the air – or the parliamentary decks. In theory, because the culprits have come from all parties, Labour shouldn’t have been any more badly affected by this scandal than the Tories. One of the parliamentary claims that has attracted particular attention was a Tory MP’s claim for the expenses involved in the cleaning of his moat. Two others claimed thousands of pounds to pay for servants for their second homes.

In practice, the affair has further eroded confidence in the government and Gordon Brown’s leadership, while contributing to a larger sense of a moral vacuum being at the heart of political authority in this country. There’s no getting around the fact that Labour’s been in charge for twelve years, and so has to bear the greater share of the moral responsibility for a failed system. Of course, the unwillingness of governments to deal with the thorny issue of parliamentary salaries goes back much further than that. Fear of tabloid populism ensured that a succession of governments over the last thirty years have refused to set up a workable system for reviewing – and, where warranted, increasing – parliamentary salaries. Instead, they were apparently satisfied to oversee a system that allowed parliamentarians to formulate their own salary packages on the sly.

Solutions to this problem have not so much been devised as improvised in a panicky effort at crisis management. The parties have set up their own special panels for assessing the culpability of particular members. Those found to have behaved improperly have been told they will be deselected, a process that has caused considerable dissatisfaction in some constituency parties, where there have been references to “star chambers” and “kangaroo courts”. Along the way, we’ve lost the speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin; the home secretary, Jacqui Smith, (whose husband’s pay-per-view porn made it into her claims); and several MPs who have been suspended from their party, deselected, or otherwise persuaded to retire at the next election. MPs under fire for particular claims have ostentatiously repaid money to Treasury, but the bad publicity perversely focuses at times on the trivial – such as a claim for a bag of crisps bought from a hotel mini-bar – and at other times on the outrageous or extravagant. The implication of this approach seems to be that no politician should claim any allowances. On the other hand, some of the claims do seem to be fraudulent, with prosecution a real possibility.

Senior ministers are increasingly being dragged into the net. Geoff Hoon, the Transport Minister, is said to have claimed for two houses at the same time. Apparently a real couch potato, he claimed for three television licenses in a single year. The Daily Telegraph has been receiving and then publishing a vast amount of leaked material, releasing it drip by drip, in a process that has with some justice been called “systematic humiliation” by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. The Telegraph has been publishing MPs expenses claims on charts that, in their formatting, look for all the world like election results.

There is a righteous anger in the air that has as much to do with economics as with the political process itself. People battling along with inadequate pensions, low wages or – increasingly – unemployment benefits, see politicians making claims for allowances that dwarf their own meagre wages. These people mightn’t have moats to be cleaned or duck ponds to be decorated, and they wonder why the taxpayer should have to pay for their MPs’ home renovations. They report having been heavily fined for submitting a late tax return to Inland Revenue, and point out that there seems to be one law for those in power, and another for them. The parliamentary expenses row has tapped into some very old forms of populist disdain for politicians and their ways.

But it is also a product of the times in which we live. The parliamentary expenses scandal isn’t just a turn of the political wheel, but speaks of a deeper erosion of confidence in “authority” and a larger rejection of the compact that a succession of governments since Thatcher’s have imposed on the public. People have been enjoined to look after themselves because it was not the job of governments to do it for them. There was supposed to be a pay off. By leaving you alone, governments would allow you to make the most of your own talent and effort. Those who lacked drive or initiative had no claim to a share in prosperity, or to a sense of security. Politicians have in some ways set an excellent example, for they have looked after themselves and their families very well, even if it was ultimately with someone else’s money.

While the economy boomed, it was easy for politicians to talk about reward for effort; and no one paid too much attention as they generously rewarded their own efforts. Their sanctimonious prattle about welfare cheats and mutual obligation also had plausibility – until they were revealed to be far more skilled in the art of the rort than any single mother or unemployed teenager.

The public’s vengeance for the failure of the Thatcherite/Blairite compact was at first directed against the bankers, but it has now settled where it was always going to settle; on those whose actions, and failures to act, made the mess with which we’re all now forced to live. •

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Right:

Which way out? Labour leadership contenders Andy Burnham (second from left), Yvette Cooper (third from left) and Liz Kendall (right), together with Labour MPs Mary Creagh and Tristram Hunt, address delegates at the Progress annual conference in central London in May. Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

Which way out? Labour leadership contenders Andy Burnham (second from left), Yvette Cooper (third from left) and Liz Kendall (right), together with Labour MPs Mary Creagh and Tristram Hunt, address delegates at the Progress annual conference in central London in May. Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images