There must have been several million words written in the last fortnight about the expenses claims of Members of Parliament. Until now, I have not really had anything to add to the clamour that has been going on. However, I will declare an interest. I used to be a district councillor (a long time ago) and I did claim some expenses. I also claim expenses from my present employer and have claimed them from my previous employers as well.
Over the past couple of weeks, I have been an avid listener to the Radio 4 Today programme, hearing the news unfold with increasing disbelief. So much so, I have been using the car to go to work on days that, frankly, I should have used the bike simply so I don’t miss the latest instalment.
Perhaps those MPs that have been caught out by the investigative media are the unlucky ones taking the fall for an entire corrupt culture.
I am not going to pontificate about whether the actions that have been revealed have or have not broken any rules. I am not even going to concern myself about whether the rules were fair and reasonable way – although I am positive that they were not. I am going to comment on the way that those rules have been made.
The expenses that I am able to claim from my place of work are clearly set out and based on decisions taken by our board of trustees. I wonder whether, if I had been able to decide the rules for myself, would I have been tempted, over a period of years, to push the system as far as I could. I would like to be able to say that I would always stick to the moral high ground, but really, which of us hasn’t pushed the envelope a little. I think most of us will make the odd personal phone call from work, most of us will bring home an occasional pen and who hasn’t spent at least a little time at work avoiding doing what we are paid to do.
Is there any difference in principle between our own actions and what has apparently been happening at Westminster?
Well actually, yes there is. We could be disciplined by our employers for making that personal phone call, stealing that pen or wasting work time. If our misdemeanours at work went beyond the trivial, we would soon feel the heavy hand of the local constabulary.
Isn’t the scandal with the MPs’ fictitious mortgages, duck islands and moat clearance a result the self-regulation that has long been exercised by parliament? The constitutional wisdom is that no parliament can bind its successors, but this has put too much temptation in the way of people who have been quick to remind us, are only human.
I find the spectacle of political parties and their leaders ganging up to force a few scapegoats to throw themselves onto their swords to be an unedifying one. If the system is fundamentally flawed, which it is, a few sacrifices will do nothing to clean it up.
If I fiddle my expenses, my employer would take quick and decisive action. We are the employers of our elected representatives. It is our money that that they are salting away for themselves. We should be able to take some decisive action in the form of either endorsing our local representative, or removing him or her from the gravy train. The only way that we can do this is by a General Election in which each MP and candidate will have to come very clean about their conduct.
I really believe that the next General Election will be fought on the most local and personal set of issues of any election in my memory. And I welcome this. Maybe I will even re-engage in the political process.
Along the way, the gravy train must be shunted into a siding, derailed and sent for scrap. The MPs’ expenses system must be taken out of their control completely, handed over to an independent, external body with no vested interest, if such a paragon can be found.
The new, strictly applied rules should allow only for reasonable expenses incurred as part of their work. I can’t claim for journeys between home and work, nor can I claim for a second home (or a first one, for that matter). Why should our servants?