This Is Greed and in Many Cases Corruption

New Statesman (1996), May 18, 2009 | Go to article overview

This Is Greed and in Many Cases Corruption


This is a salutary and dispiriting time for anyone who thought that the term "Honourable Member" meant anything. Where is the honour in having your moat cleared at taxpayers' expense? Your chandelier hung? Swimming pool cleaned? Tennis court dug? Silk cushions? With MPs conferred with the "Honourable Member" title, surrounded by deferential police and commons staff and aides, it is all too easy for them to slide into the indolence of greed and complacency, and treat the Palace of Westminster as their fiefdom.

Make no mistake. This is greed, and in many cases it is corruption, and not on a nicking-post-its-from-the-stationery-cupboard level. It is theft of taxpayers' money, in the most underhand way. "Flipping" your primary residence to avoid tax and maximise allowances doesn't just sound dodgy, it is dodgy. Nor is it mere "oversight". Putting in a receipt for swimming pool maintenance takes time and deliberation. Claiming for a bath plug or porno films displays nothing but contempt for the electorate. Anyone else who stole from their employers like this would be fired. If local councillors did anything like this, they would be prosecuted.

It is perhaps the lack of contrition that appals most. In the Commons on Monday, Michael Martin took the opportunity to miss an open goal by berating the messengers and launching a leak inquiry. MPs who had the temerity to question his priorities--such as Kate Hoey--were given short shrift. Speaker Martin is a model of admirable social mobility. His journey is impressive, and it is true that some of the attacks on him are motivated by snobbery. But that does not excuse his abject failure to appreciate the seriousness of this crisis. Many Speakers, Mr Martin included, like to compare themselves with the great Speaker Lenthall, who defended parliament against Charles I, and who told the king: "I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here." That's all very well in standing up to a bullying king, but turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to parliament's own failings in spite of the disgust of the voters is quite disgraceful.

Prompted by a desire not to be outdone by David Cameron, Gordon Brown has earned some credit for his (inevitably late) half-apology. Yet look again at his actual words. Speaking to the Royal College of Nursing on Monday, the Prime Minister said: "I want to apologise on behalf of politicians, on behalf of all parties, for what has happened in the events of the past few days." Hold on. Nobody need apologise for the events of the past few days. It's the years of graft we want an apology for, not the well-deserved headlines of a few days. Waving a cheque in front of the cameras, as Hazel Blears did on Tuesday, while still protesting your innocence, suggests that MPs still don't get it.

Nor do we accept politicians' complaints that they are underpaid, and that allowances are a legitimate top-up. At [pounds sterling]61,820 a year, a jobbing politician's salary is quite large enough, and if any of them wants to go out and test his or her employability in the wider market, good luck to them. Such is the state of voters' ire that the weekend poll which suggested that 89 per cent of the public believe that politicians have been tarnished by the revelations was surprising only in the 11 percent who disagreed. Just how low was their opinion of our lawmakers beforehand? Did they all work for the Fees Office?

It is easy, faced with the morass of drip-drip detail from the past week, to assume first that they are all at it, so corruption must be more excusable; and second to blame the messengers- in this case the Daily Telegraph and the Freedom of Information Act. Wrong on both counts. Not every single MP was on the take: Alan Johnson, Hilary Benn and Ed Miliband are among the few who emerge well. …

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