Scandals in the Mother of Parliaments

By Mullen, Richard | Contemporary Review, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Scandals in the Mother of Parliaments

Mullen, Richard, Contemporary Review

THROUGHOUT the month of May the British public and Parliament have been convulsed by the most extensive political scandal in modern British history. Beginning on 9 May, The Daily Telegraph, which has the largest circulation of the quality newspapers, has been publishing pages of details about the expenses of MPs. At least one sixth of all MPs from all parties have seen their claims for expenses portrayed as excessive, absurd and, in some cases, fraudulent. By the end of the month, public fury at MPs, including the majority who have not been accused of anything, was at fever pitch.

There has been a slowly gathering storm about the expenses MPs claim. In March there was a furore, which provoked as much laughter as outrage. It was revealed that Jacqui Smith, Britain's first woman Home Secretary, had expenses for her 'second home' which included a [pounds sterling]10 bill for her husband's use of two pornographic films. The present crisis really arises from the expenses for MP's 'second homes'. The British system does not require a candidate to be a resident of the constituency he seeks to represent. Most candidates grandiloquently proclaim that if elected, they will acquire a house in this most delightful of constituencies. Thus a newly elected MP is often faced with the need to acquire two new residences: one in London and another in the constituency.

For several decades the prestige of the House of Commons has been declining. Newspapers that used to carry extensive reports of parliamentary debates now usually only provide a daily sketch often making fun of the politicians. Power has flowed from the Commons either to an increasingly dominant executive or to the ever grasping bureaucracy of the EU where most legislation originates.

Amid this decline there remains one subject which unites virtually all MPs: the conviction that their salary of [pounds sterling]64,766 is not enough even though it makes them among the top one per cent of earners. MPs are given two types of expenses: one is to pay for staff, employed to deal with constituents' problems. Often the MPs employ their spouses or other family members. Thus Jacqui Smith made her husband her assistant. For some time there have been calls to make sure the family members actually do the work for which they are paid. A particularly notorious case arose in 2008 when the Conservative MP Derek Conway was forced to pay back money given to his two sons although one of them was a full-time student who was never seen doing anything at Westminster. Conway was forced to apologise to the House and the Conservative leader, David Cameron, expelled him from the party meaning that Conway cannot stand as a Conservative candidate at the next election. Cases like these led to the Commons reluctantly agreeing to release details about members" expenses sometime in July. However the Telegraph acquired - presumably by purchase - files with far more details and these have formed the basis of the articles that have precipitated the crisis.

While there is a perfectly respectable defence to be made - at least in a less heated time - for MPs to maintain two residences, the manifold abuses are rightly denounced. Many Members have manipulated or 'flipped' their homes, that is, claimed one house one year as the 'second home' and the other house the next year. This allows them to claim mortgage interest or repair costs on one home one year and another one the next year. The ever-growing number of MPs who are 'couples', married or in partnerships, have often been able to claim the maximum amounts for the same home. The sums claimed for furniture have been particularly scandalous, with numerous MPs demanding over [pounds sterling]2000 for a plasma TV. One even claimed over [pounds sterling]8000. In these cases the House of Commons Fees Office rejected or reduced the claims.

All the main parties and every type of politician have been implicated in some way. The Cabinet were the first to be examined and several prominent names were shown to have claimed for all sorts of expenses and also to have used the Additional Cost Allowance to build up a collection of rented houses that would do credit to an enthusiastic player of Monopoly.

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