One can only imagine the tempestuous scenes in Downing Street this morning, following the Telegraph getting it’s hands on a much sought after fully untouched list of expenses claimed by MPs. The list itself was due to be published in July this year, after the House lost a legal battle to keep expenses secret. The July publication however, would not have revealed addresses, and so we’d have no way of knowing who claimed what and for which of their homes, much would have remained a secret.
“If this was received by unauthorised means, it is disgraceful that a national newspaper should stoop so low as to buy information which will be in the public domain in July.
It undermines the very basis of our democracy and is against all the rules of fair play, rewards thieves or leakers of information who may be in breach of contract and does no service to our democracy.” said Stuart Bell, member of the House of Commons Commission.
I’d have to disagree with Mr Bell on this one; the fact that The International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander doesn’t seem to have a problem with claiming £1,340 for food, £830 for a carpet, £230 for a CD player amongst other expenses claims, whilst at the same time on a salary of £141,000 and then votes to keep MPs expenses away from the public eye, is what undermines democracy.
The fact that Hazel Blears was able to claim improvements to her Salford home after declaring it her second home, and then just decide to change her second to her flat in Kennington, South London, and claim further expenses of £850 toward mortgage payments, only to then sell the flat for £200,000, making her a tidy profit of £45,000, is what undermines democracy.
The fact that former Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon has assumed it is perfectly acceptable to refurbish a £300 a month mortgaged home in Derbyshire, claiming expenses of the maximum allowed £20,902… only to sell the property for £135,000. Not only that, but claimed for his London Flat, which he rented out, and didn’t actually live in himself, selling it in the end for £315,000 more than he’d actually paid for it. Suddenly, the taxpayer spending £800 cleaning his carpet and curtains, doesn’t seem that excessive. Although, i’d still quite like my money back on that one.
Hoon released a statement, in which he calls his expenses “not unreasonable” and goes on to stress: “I was told by the House of Commons fees office that this was entirely within the rules“. Firstly, in that case, the rules are so horribly wrong it’s unthinkable. Secondly, the rules are there to provide help to MPs who actually need it. It’s a safety net. Much like the welfare state. If I were to claim £750 for a new TV, whilst in a job paying me in excess of £145,000 i’d be in court, wouldn’t I? The rules are not there for the Defence Secretary to kickstart an international property empire.
The rules are not there, to help the wealthiest member of the cabinet, Shaun Woodward pay £100,000 toward his mortgage, whilst he rents out property in the West Indies and New York.
This is what undermines democracy. The fact that the Prime Minister issued a three lined whip vote in the Commons, to block full disclosure of MPs Expenses, is what undermines Democracy. The Telegraph, and whomever leaked the documents to the Telegraph are actually supporting Democracy, because without these kinds of leaks, the Commons would not have suddenly gained a moral conscience about their excesses. Expenses have became more of a free bonus (a banking bonus, as I now refer to them). Margaret Beckett tried to claim £600 for hanging baskets and plants. Why couldn’t her immense salary deal with that? Why expenses? How are those plants and hanging baskets essential to her survival outside of London? How was a stay in one of the most luxurious hotels in Britain, essential for Hazel Blears? Why not a simple cheap hotel?
Predictably, the Tories are keeping quiet. The expenses claimed by backbench Labour MPs along with the Tory frontbench and backbenchers is due to be published by the Telegraph in the next few days. The Tories have had a bit of a head start with this, giving that today’s Telegraph dealt entirely with the Labour Government, and so the Tories will most probably be planning their list of responses for the coming days, emphasising that most ridiculous of excuses “it’s within the rules!”. I’m perplexed by the Tory Policy website, which tells me they plan to pretty much dismantle – whilst punishing harshly anyone who even slightly breaks the rules – the Welfare system designed to help the poor, and yet the £60,000 Tory MPs have their own little Welfare State that they couldn’t be exploiting more right now. So it’s no surprise that the Tories aren’t saying much. However, Tory Kettering MP Philip Hollobone is the least expensive member of the House of Commons. I may not agree with his voting record on some issues, such as his vote against a Bill that makes it illegal to dock a dogs tail for anything other than medical reasons, but I must applaud Hollobone for not flaunting the rules on expenses.
Labour’s Deputy Leader Harriet Harman told The Today Programme on Radio 4: “I know this looks bad and people are angry….We have recognised that the allowances system needs to change, but people have claimed in good faith under the old system – we’ve already changed the old system and we’re going to change it further.“
It looks bad for two reasons. Firstly, you didn’t “claim in good faith under the old system”, certain MPs claimed to fuel their extravagances and to profit off the back of the tax payer. That isn’t claiming in good faith. Secondly, You’re only changing the old system, because you were found out. If this mess hadn’t come to light, they’d still have their little pink noses in the troth. Her comments proved quite beyond reasoning, that she is way out of her depth, and way out of touch with the public thought process.
The report in July would not have published the differing homes claimed for, we would not have known about the switching of official second homes Blears undertook, or the systematic abuse of the system committed by Geoff Hoon. We would not have known just how much the taxpayer subsidises the apparently extravagant lifestyles of MPs and Ministers. The Telegraph report, I commend. Something has to change, and it has to be drastic. And during the worst recession in over a life time, the timing of the release of these receipts could not be worse for MPs across the Commons. Happy Expenses day, everyone.