My feelings about the Daily Telegraph’s exposure of MPs’ expenses and the ensuing scandal are mixed to say the least. Whilst this is undoubtedly a great public interest exclusive and a massive victory for freedom of information, it has left me feeling somewhat cold.
The Telegraph grabbed this story with both hands and ran with it, understandably. Friday’s revelation warranted nine pages of broadsheet coverage, 11 on Saturday and a further nine on Sunday, and it seems no other national could resist delving into this story. Today’s publication of the Tories’ expenses gives the lie to traditional allegations that The Telegraph is exclusively a loyal Conservative paper. With Cameron cruising to Number 10, The Telegraph will have to get used to criticising its favourite party, even if it will not be championing Labour’s opposition as much as it has done for the Tories. Who knows, after Smeargate, the Lib Dems may even regain their status as Britain’s second political party? (Wishful thinking perhaps.)
But the main thing which surprises me from all this is the suggestion that the suitable remedy is increasing MPs’ salaries, which I find frankly preposterous. Rewarding them for abusing the system is comparable to giving wasteful investment bankers multi-million pound bonuses. Instead, I have to agree with Gordon Brown (for a change): “The system doesn’t work… it’s got to be changed.”
That’s right, changed, but not scrapped. The second home allowance, controversial though it may be, is based on sound reasoning. MPs almost invariably have and need two homes. The failing of the system has been twofold. Firstly, ministers have got greedy, pushed their luck and got away with it for years and years. Clearly this cannot and will not continue. Call it the court of public opinion if you must.
But secondly, and more importantly, there has been a failing in regulation. The House of Commons fees office has not been strict enough, and this is a combination of the Green Book guidelines being too generous and the rules not being followed closely enough.
MPs’ expenses should be restricted to extra costs incurred by coming to parliament that should not be covered by their (already handsome) income. The second home should be defined as within 10 miles of Westminster, and the first home must be more than a commutable distance away from the House (say 50 miles). If Keith Vaz thinks 12 miles is an unacceptable length to be commuting, he should try the rush-hour train from Guildford to London Waterloo and see how he prefers that. Nonetheless, there is nothing to say the system cannot be saved, it just has to be policed much more rigorously.
What is truly concerning about this whole fiasco is that everyone seems to be tarred by the same brush, labelled as greedy and deceptive. Cameron will probably come off better for his readiness to offer an apology, with Brown hot on his heels, but overall the main impact will be growing political disenchantment. What with all the scandal going around, it seems logical that more and more of the voting public will start to see all politicians as greedy liars and simply not turn up and vote in the next general election. Regardless of who gets the chop from the Cabinet, this scandal could have much further-reaching implications for the state of democracy in this country.