London ~~ Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Here's what filthy rich really means
By Mark steel
One MP will have claimed for panda food, another for a Rembrandt
By now, Jacqui Smith's husband must be preparing a new apology that goes: "I am now TRULY sorry for fiddling porn films on expenses. What was I thinking of? Compared to the rest, I could have claimed for King Dong and Chesty Morgan to perform live on the lawn and not seemed out of place."
How do you top Douglas Hogg, who claimed £2,000 for the cost of clearing his moat? Presumably he thinks, "No politician can represent their constituents properly if they've got a dirty moat." Whenever there's a debate in Parliament about housing estates with squalid conditions, he must think, "Oh how dreadful, these poor blighters must make do with a communal moat."
Or Oliver Letwin, with his £2,000 claim for a pipe under a tennis court. Maybe this isn't the main issue, but why does a tennis court need a pipe under it anyway? Is he having Hawkeye installed? So he'll make a statement saying: "As a member of the Shadow Cabinet, I might be asked to entertain senior businessmen with a game of tennis, and if that was to end in a vicious fight over a disputed line call it would be highly damaging to Britain's interests."
And there's all the Hazel Blears types, who see nothing wrong in claiming that, on becoming an MP, they moved into a new residence in a litter bin, which meant the home they had been living in for 20 years was now their second home, and it was essential for their kids they employed a full-time snooker referee.
There's nothing that could now be surprising. By next week it will turn out one of them claimed for an original Rembrandt, insisting they lived under it as a second home. Another will have claimed for £20,000 of panda food, or a time machine, or £3,000 to have a light bulb changed by Elton John. David Davis, the Conservatives' former law and order spokesman, claimed £2,000 for mowing his paddocks. Maybe that's why he was so angry with teenage criminals – he was appalled by their lack of ambition. What he meant to say was: "These thugs should be ashamed of themselves. Instead of mugging people for a mobile phone they should grab them and say, 'Don't move, bruv, you're surrounded, innit. Now mow my paddock or I'll mash you up'."
And so many of these MPs have harrumphed with approval at the clampdowns on false claims for housing and invalidity benefits. They've gone along with campaigns such as "Rat on a rat" and "Benefit cheats, we're closing in". And then they object, as Luton's MP Margaret Moran did, that they had to claim for a house in Southampton (nowhere near her work) because "I can't do my job without somewhere to be with my family". So that's what to say if you're caught fiddling the dole. Tell the fraud officer you were saving up for a house in Southampton, because these days a house in Southampton is clearly a basic human necessity like toilet roll. Surely the Labour Party must set a target that by 2013 every family in Britain will have a house in Southampton.
But, of course, these people don't think they've done anything wrong because both parties now stand for the values of big business. Lord Peter Mandelson declared famously that New Labour was "relaxed about people being filthy rich". Politicians move in those circles. Their heroes are Murdoch, Branson and Berlusconi. They inhabit a world of clean moats and mowed paddocks. Bit by bit, I get the impression the way this country is run is not quite right.
London ~~ Wednesday, May 13, 2009, page 31
This mother of all expenses cock-ups is the stuff of banana republics
Hilarity aside, the exposé of expenses calls for a return to self-employed MPs – and a bouquet for old-fashioned journalism
By Simon Jenkins
No, no. Please not the expenses list again. The nation has spent the week at one long laugh-in, lying on the floor, legs wagging in the air, booming with righteous indignation. The British parliament has ridiculed itself and, for a moment, the British people have been distracted from recession and thoroughly entertained.
Never has HM Revenue & Customs' (HMRC) favourite phrase, "all claims must be supported by invoices", been turned on its progenitors to such devastating effect. The MPs' expenses row is a true mob uprising, a revenge of those downtrodden by power, victims of fat-cat parliamentarians who, for the past decade, have passed one oppressive measure after another intruding on the rights and privacy of citizens.
Now we have our own back. The row is no formal motion of political censure. It is not a buried report from some impotent comptroller and auditor-general. It is not a tedious ritual of democracy such as an election. This is something far more lethal – derision.
In scenes reminiscent of Gillray and Cruickshank, MPs have been kicked downstairs amid a cascade of loo seats, tampons, light bulbs, chandeliers, mole-traps, dog biscuits and horse manure. I cannot imagine it better done. Thank you, freedom of information. Thank you, Daily Telegraph. If that miserable expenses merchant, Mr Speaker, and his henchmen sue to defend their laughable reputations, roll on the day. Let the charivari move to the courts. Let the lawyers in on the fun.
MPs don't know what to do. They are like soldiers lost in no man's land, mines exploding, bullets felling them on all sides and no one in charge because all are wounded. How can the Speaker, the prime minister or the leader of the opposition lecture others when their own taxi fares, cleaning women and mortgage payments hardly bear public scrutiny? How can anyone plead that they were "within the rules" when the phrase only invites hilarity? It is like "only obeying orders". How will the mother of parliaments recover from this mother of cock-ups?
The Tory leadership said last night it will pay back its more outrageous claims, clear acknowledgement that they were unjustified. The Speaker has shown no such remorse. I do not see how he can continue for another day. It is not just his bumbling performance in the Commons on Monday. He chairs the House of Commons Commission, which should have stopped this shambles. His job is to maintain the dignity and effectiveness of the House, and in this he has failed. Michael Martin's response has been to spend a fortune on lawyers trying to shield his and others' expenses from freedom of information and calling in the police when this fails. He is not fit to lead parliament through this dark night of its soul.
Most of the expenses racket is a distraction, the result of a bureaucratic requirement to justify rounded claims with invoices. What is no distraction is "house flipping", in almost every case a fraud on public funds that if exclusively licensed to MPs, makes it no less outrageous. It is a fraud Martin and his commission colleagues fought to keep from view by suppressing MPs' addresses, without which it would not have been detected. They had planned only an anodyne disclosure in the summer.
House flipping was a double disgrace. It not only enabled MPs to be reimbursed for fixed expenses on one, two or three properties sequentially. It also enabled them to define one as a principal residence for capital gains tax if sold, but to "elect" another as a principal residence for expenses purposes. This is banana republic stuff. It meant MPs could buy a property, get the taxpayer to restore or otherwise upgrade it, and sell it for an untaxed profit before moving on.
Given the draconian approach of HMRC to such devices, it passes belief that MPs can have wilfully fashioned such a scam and believed it honest. That something barely worthy of a dodgy used-car dealer should be operated by the cabinet minister for housing, no less, is astonishing. Hazel Blears is busy imposing on the rest of us a Home Information Pack, a meaningless tax on property sales, while she avoids a property transaction tax. The housing deals that scuppered the early career of Lord Mandelson were peccadilloes in comparison. Last night Blears offered to pay her tax after all, albeit under pressure.
Hard though it is to believe, there is a substantial bureaucracy devoted to political ethics: a committee on standards in public life, a select committee on standards and privileges, and a parliamentary commissioner for standards. MPs plead for it to show vigour in their defence – forgetting that a previous commissioner, Elizabeth Filkin, left in disgust. These bodies are armed with peashooters and are anyway subject to the "will of parliament", which regards itself as free to reject all advice. What can the monitors say beyond try harder?
My remedy is simple. Remove MPs from working for the state, laden as it is with PAYE, tax breaks, expenses fiddles and corruption. Make them self-employed, as they were before the war, paid an agreed salary but from funds supplied to and disbursed by their constituency returning officers. If they want a pied a terre in London, let the constituency own it. Let them pay VAT, fill in their own tax returns and make their peace on expenses with HMRC. This is hardly a drastic punishment, to have to behave like ordinary citizens.
As for the antics of the press, victim of Speaker Martin's wrath, I cannot see what the Telegraph has done wrong. It presumably paid for material that had been stolen and which it has published. It thus offends the rule against profiting from crime. But a more glaring public interest defence cannot be imagined. Publication was the only way to reveal a systematic fraud on the public accounts, whose perpetrators had already shown they were determined to use the courts to suppress it.
Those who chant the obituary of the "mainstream media" might care to cite any electronic organisation able to put together such an investigation. Like the Guardian's recent disclosure of corporate tax avoidance, this work requires staff and resources. When the BBC tried to reveal the truth about the Iraq war dossiers, its cowering chairman and director general were driven by a mere Downing Street press officer into resignation.
Crude, unfair, bolshie, whatever, the old-fashioned newspaper is still desperately needed to keep democracy on its toes. God forbid that it should ever cease.