MPs’ expenses: What have we learnt?

So, what’s the upshot (so far) of all this brouhaha over MPs’ expenses?

Well, it seems to me that we now know that our elected delegates (not representatives – it’s an important distinction, but it’s also a separate post) display moral behaviour ranging from what would certainly appear to be outright fraud (claiming interest payments on a mortgage that’s already been paid off), to absolute whiter-than-white rectitude, with the majority falling somewhere in the middle – chancers who tried to slip some extra cash into their pockets when they thought no-one was looking.  In other words, our MPs have proved themselves to be human, and to be no better and no worse than the rest of us, albeit with greater opportunities for wrongdoing.  Some of what has been revealed is serious, but I’m not sure any of it is shocking, or even surprising.  Personally I’ve never been inclined to put politicians on any kind of pedestal.  As Ian Hislop pointed out on Have I Got News For You, things have even broken down along traditional party lines, with Labour MPs claiming for mock-Tudor beams for their suburban semis, while Conservatives claim for repairs to their moated country estate.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a great deal of anger about this, and I think most, if not all, of it is justified.  It seems to me that the anger is stemming from four things.

First of all, although I’ve never been inclined to put politicians on a pedestal, I think lots of people have.  A lot of traditional left-wingers, in particular, have I think assumed that, even if they didn’t agree with the politics of the ‘new’ Labour party, that at least backbench Labour MPs were still motivated by a sincere interest in public service.  Plenty still are, of course, (and in the other parties, too), but I think the expenses revelations about Labour MPs will be the final, final straw for a lot of old-school Labour voters.  If I was Gordon Brown, I would be very worried about what this will mean come the next election.

The second cause of the anger, I think, is that MPs of all parties have tended to put themselves on a pedestal.  Certainly they seem to have felt able to hold the rest of us to account.  It was just a few, short weeks ago that Labour MPs were queuing outside news studio doors to criticise the reckless greed and personal avarice of banking executives – that rings rather hollow now.  On the other side of the political spectrum, Conservative MPs have long felt able to criticise what some of them have called an ‘entitlement culture’ among the poor, a belief that the (pitifully small) social security payments they (I) receive are an entitlement not a benefit.  I think they may find that one harder to sell when they’ve been found believing that they’re entitled to chandeliers and swimming pools in the second homes they’re supposed to retain only for ‘necessary’ political purposes.

The third cause of the anger is that MPs have allowed themselves to behave in a way that the rest of us would never get away with.  I suspect that a majority of the people who work for a living have no opportunity to fiddle their expenses, because they don’t get any.  Even amongst those who do, expenses tend to be tightly regulated.  You might, if you’re lucky, get away with having a hotel add your bar tab to your restaurant bill and entering the whole lot as ‘Food’ on the invoice, but if you put in a claim for dry-rot repairs to a house you never have to go anywhere near in the course of your job, you’d be turned down flat.  In an ordinary business, expenses would be vetted by auditors, and if the auditors refused to sign off on the accounts, penalties would ensue.  This is the law – which is to say, it’s a system of regulation that MPs have imposed on other people that they haven’t (until now) been prepared to live under themselves.  This is really a key issue, I think.  I said at the start of the post that MPs are probably no better and no worse than any other randomly selected group, and I think that’s true, but it’s the fact of self-regulation that’s different.  Lots of people would very likely try to get away with what MPs have, but the systems in place would have prevented them.

And, finally, the fourth cause of anger is that MPs have made such a complete hash of things.  The major part of the blame for this attaches to Labour MPs, of course, but I would be guilty of lying by omission if I didn’t point out that Labour have, in very many areas, continued Conservative policies.  In particular, two very damaging beliefs – that it’s OK for the entire UK economy to be dependent on a single sector (banking and finance), and that the best way to ensure stability and continuing profitability in the financial sector is to regulate as little as possible – can be traced directly back to Thatcherism.  Until recently, conservative MPs, rather than criticising the Labour government for their dangerous and risky approach, have instead tended to criticise Labour for not pursuing these policies vigorously enough.  Her Majesty’s Government and Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition have equally hard questions to answer, I think.

As I say, I think a lot of the anger around at the moment is entirely justified.  I do also have some sympathy with those who think the affair has been rather over-hyped, however.  I was watching a Dispatches documentary about the personal financial rewards enjoyed by Britain’s top (and ex-top) bankers the other day.  The unjust rewards from 2000-ish onwards here are counted in hundreds of millions.  By contrast, the worst offending of the MPs have received inappropriate expenses money to the tune of tens of thousands.  The underlying attitudes are much the same – greed, an inattention to what they should actually be doing, a misplaced sense of entitlement – but in purely financial terms, we should (still) be more angry with the banking executives than we are with the MPs.  We should also hold the top bankers more responsible for the recession than we do MPs – politicians were wrong to allow the bankers to do stupid things, but it was still the bankers who actually did the stupid things.

I do understand that there is more concern about MPs because they are using ‘public money’, but I’m not sure of the validity of that distinction.  Partly, of course, that’s because a lot of public money has now been ‘invested’ in the banks, to the extent that we own a majority stake in many of them, and even where we don’t we’re underwriting a lot of their credit exposure.  But even if that weren’t the case, I don’t think the distinction really holds water.  Public money is accrued, basically, by charging people to do various things, by means of the tax system.  The profits of the banks, on the other hand, were accrued, basically, by charging people to do various things, by means of the retail banking system.  In both the private and public sector, the effect is the same – to diminish the wealth of the private individual.  Personally, I feel the public sector is more justified in taking money than the private sector is, because they spend it, for the most part, on things that are essential, not on excessively luxurious lifestyles for a few people.  But, in a sense, that’s irrelevant – whoever formally owns the banks, baking executives’ lavish lifestyles are and always were being funded by ordinary people who can’t really afford to lose the money.

It’s certainly galling to hear about an MP building a rather expensive duck island in his garden, then effectively sending the bill to a soldier risking his life in Afghanistan because of a lack of basic equipment, or a nurse working a 12 hour shift on a horrifically understaffed hospital ward.  The MPs who have done this sort of thing deserve to be punished for it, if not by the authorities or their parties, then by the electorate.  But I don’t, personally, see any difference between the politician who pays for his horse manure with the proceeds of taxes, and the banking executive who pays for his horse manure with the proceeds of the needlessly expensive mortgage the nurse struggles to pay.  Both of them are living the highlife at the expense of people who both can’t afford to lose the money, and are more deserving of it.

I understand the anger against MPs, and I share it.  I really hope there are a network of independent candidates standing at the next election in every constituency so we have the opportunity, not just to reject the worst-offending party, but to reject the whole sorry edifice of party politics, which has been offering us non-choice and more of the same old shit for at least the last 15 years.  But I also hope that we don’t lose sight of the fact that the real damage, the worse exploitation, is being committed by people who aren’t MPs (but frequently offer lucrative non-executive directorships to serving MPs).  We need MPs who are not self-serving, self-aggrandising, control-freaks, certainly.  But even more than that, we need tough-minded, independent-thinking MPs with the courage and determination to do away with the much worse exploitation and greed that infects the corporate world.  It really isn’t MPs who are the most guilty of exploiting us.

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11 Responses to MPs’ expenses: What have we learnt?

  1. Lucy McGough says:

    Why aren’t you a journalist?

  2. lsnduck says:

    Because he is too honest and interested in the truth.

    “The third cause of the anger is that MPs have allowed themselves to behave in a way that the rest of us would never get away with.”

    There is part of me that wonders about that. although the vast majority of us don’t have access to an expenses system, there are plenty of other ways to tweak the rules a little here and there. As in your comparison between MPs and bankers, most people don’t have the same scope for benefit. Me being a little, um, creative with my flexi-time recording isn’t the same as claiming expenses for my hamster’s cage, but it is still not right.

    There is a thought in the back of my mind that says a lot of people huffing and puffing about it all are also gloating over the fact that the MPs got caught and their cash payment tax dodge or slight dishonesty to the benefit office hasn’t been.

  3. Lucy McGough says:

    Isnduck – I agree. If I were an MP, who’s to say I wouldn’t do the same? This affair has made us all look at our own dealings much more closely. I don’t think any of us are as honest as we’d like to think.

  4. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    Lucy McGough – for the same reason i’m not a burger-flipper at McDonalds – the pesky mentalism keeps getting in the way… ;o) But thanks for the compliment.

    abysmal musings – thank you :o)

    lsnduck – i do think it’s a trait of human nature to get away with whatever we can. I’ve never really had much scope for dishonesty, but i did ‘liberate’ quite a lot of stationery when i was working as a cleaner while i was a student. My rationale was that my employers could afford it far more easily than i could, plus i knew some of the other cleaners were far more lightfingered than me. I would guess a very simillar thought-process (especially the ‘other people are worse’ bit) went through the minds of a lot of MPs.

  5. la says:

    I’m in two minds about it. I understand the public anger at what seems like institutionalised dishonesty, but at the same time I agree with Stephen Fry that there are more important things to worry about than Hobnobs and a Corby trouserpress.

    Actually, that’s the most niggling aspect for me: how banal and humdrum and petty it all is. Surely Blears can afford her own bloody bathplug. Moats, chandeliers, tennis courts etc. – that’s what you expect from the Tories. But kitting your house out with Ikea furniture? There’s a bad smell in the air. It’s the smell of public money funding the lifestyles of the petite bourgeoisie.

    That’s your first point. I didn’t expect Labour MPs to live in terraced houses and wear hob-nail boots, but I did expect some honesty and integrity. I didn’t expect them to be money-grubbing.

    Yes, most of us don’t stick to the rules by the letter. But at the bottom it’s largely people trying to get by and they’re FAR more likely to get prosecuted than rich people who lie and cheat to get richer. Is it the same crime regardless of the circumstances? I don’t know, but I don’t begrudge benefit money to the woman who does a couple of hours cleaning a week cash in hand, though it’s technically theft. That’s theft. Yet when MPs avoid tax, and when the super-rich move their money abroad, that’s clever financial planning.

    I can claim travel and lunch expenses from the charity I volunteer with. I’ve claimed for a train ticket when I was travelling from out of town. I’ve also claimed for lunch, because I was there in the morning and afternoon and I needed to eat. But I don’t ask them to reimburse my £1.15 bus fare or claim lunch for the sake of it or buy £4 worth of food because that’s the maximum I can claim. And I think that’s what stinks so badly about this scandal: the pettiness and the sense that expenses have been claimed just because they could be claimed, how cheap and tawdry and unpleasant these people we thought were decent and upstanding turned out to be.

  6. Mandy says:

    Hi A

    I don’t think I have learnt anything that I didn’t expect to learn.

    You give people enough power (or turn a blind eye) and they abuse it.

    I think MPs ruling that they are excempt from certain acts has prevented the public from getting the level of accountability that should be there from those who govern but I think it goes deeper than that. It shows that human nature is what it is and you can’t simply trust people because you vote for them. There needs to be more accountability than voting and then MPs doing what they want.

    I hope that whatever changes are made to the system mean that the level of corruption that goes on is halted. However, I can’t help feeling that one door will open to the public and another one will be shut. Still, there is a chance for postive change and now is the time for people to be playing a part in making it happen.

  7. ynotoman says:

    If MP’s expect the Head of State to declare income and expenses – whats good for the Goose is good for the Gander –
    ps Any Taxpayer (yes YOU the MP’s employer) can take out a private prosecution. THE 2006 FRAUD ACT… (C35) 2) Fraud by False Representation 4) Fraud by Abuse of Position. MP’s are subject to the law.

  8. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Thanks for the extra comments.

    la – it was Jackie Smith who claimed for the bathplug. Hazel Blears did quite a lot of things, but probably the most significant was to dodge payment of Capital Gains Tax on the profit she made selling a flat she had been claiming expenses on. It was this money she ‘volunteered’ to pay back.

    I saw Stephen Fry’s comments too, and while i sort of agree, i thought the use of the word ‘petty’ was unfortunate. Things like Hobnobs and trouser presses certainly are, but not all expenses claims are at this level. Compared to the bankers, it’s all been pretty small beer, but compared to the budgets of most poeple, it’s been anything but small beer. Which is why i feel much of the public anger is justified. But i do take your point that the determination to claim whatever can be claimed, no matter how small, does look grubby and shameful in a particular mean-spirited sort of way.

    I agree with you 100% on the inbuilt bias our legal system has against the poor. It is absolutely apalling, and it is infuriating when attempts to get the rich to live by the same rules as the rest of us are described as ‘the politics of envy’ (a Tory catchphrase that seems to not be repeated as often as it used to be…)

    I hope, btw, that you didn’t interpret my comments on what most people will try to get away with as a criticism – your record with your expenses claims at the charity make it clear that you absolutely don’t deserve to be tarred with the same brush as those MPs who’ve been milking the system. :o)

    Mandy – i agree. It was disgraceful that the MPs tried to exempt themselves from the Freedom of Information Act. I also agree that it needs greater public involvement to hold them to account.

    ynotman – the Queen does provide information on her expenses, but these are not fully itemised. Prior to the Telegraph’s revalations, we already knew about MPs’ expenses under general headings (2nd home allowance, travel expenses, office expenses) – the scandal has been what were counted as legitimate expenses under these headings, especially 2nd home. The level of information we currently have on royal expenses is not that different to what we used to have on MPs.

    On the private prosecution issue, as i understand it one doesn’t have to be a taxpayer to bring a prosecution – we wouldn’t have to prove that we had been personally defrauded, merely that fraud had taken place. The problem with a private prosecution is going to be that it would be very expensive. But, if the police investigations turn out to be a damp squib, then i think there would be a good argument for raising a public subscription to fund prosecutions. I suspect there would be a number of lawyers and barristers who would be prepared to work on the case at cost price – legal types do tend to sincerely believe that no-one should be above the law.

    Lucy McGough – thanks for the Neil Tennant link. I think i would be forced to concede that Mr Tennant is a more talented lyricist than he is a diarist, but it’s interesting to read all the same! :o)

  9. la says:

    Shit on a shingle, I knew it was Jackie Smith. I was blinded by alliteration.

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