Opinion: MPs expenses

The wrong kind of friends?
The wrong kind of friends?

Last night, in their most shameful vote since 42-days, Westminster MPs voted against reforms to their expenses system.

The reasonable - actually fairly conservative - recommendations of Michael Martin's committee were rubbished and discarded. Things will stay as they are, and when the next torrent of controversy hits the newsstands they will have no one to blame but themselves.

How long will it be before another MP gets caught soaking up taxpayer money for his own personal benefit? One week? A month? Three? Judging by recent performance, possibly even less than that. And when it comes, the public will rightly draw conclusions about the function of parliament and the motives of those within it.

The recommendations were not radical. MPs would lose the John Lewis list, whereby they buy furniture and improvements to their second home with public money. They would have to provide receipts for purchases charged on expenses. External auditors would check their behaviour out every four years or so.

There were plenty of people calling for something more substantial. Maybe MPs should stay in specially-designed London flats. Maybe they should be paid a flat rate for trips to parliament and leave it at that. To accept yesterday's proposals would have hardly been courageous. But even that was too much for them.

One wonders what possible reason they could have beyond basic self-interest. But even on that level it doesn't make sense. Public anger is palpable. Just out of self-preservation MPs ought to have seen the bigger picture. In conversation, I haven't met a single politician who doesn't worry about the alienation and resentment the public feel towards Westminster. And yet, presented with an ideal opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to the country, they fall at the first hurdle.

Tax issues are traditionally seen as right wing. That has always been a foolish and superficial analysis. When Tony Blair spent £6,000 on a kitchen he spent tax money taken from a cleaner by the government. He spent tax money taken from a road sweeper, a teacher, a nurse. Well-off men taking money from the less well off so they can have a nicer house is not a right-wing issue, it transcends anything of the sort.

When people talk of a gulf between Westminster and the public they are talking about something very real. Average earnings in this country stand at £23,700. The earnings of the people who socialise with MPs are considerably higher than that. Businessmen, lobbyists, directors, chief execs - MPs have begun to see themselves as variations of these men and women, and they have begun to ask why they can't lead the same lifestyle too.

About 200 years ago, the Chartists were on the march demanding members of parliament be paid a salary. The thinking was that a lack of salary prevented the poor from entering parliament.

How things have changed. Now MPs eat in restaurants the vast majority of their constituents could never afford. The irony is that few, if any, of these men and women entered politics for the money. They entered it to do some good - although whether their idea of good corresponds to yours is another matter. Most of them - the vast majority - work very hard. And many of them could earn a hell of a lot more tomorrow if they quit their job and accepted the first private sector offer they got.

But intentions don't matter anymore. MPs proved yesterday that they live in a different world. A world that looks like public school for powerful adults. They are cut off from their country in a way that transcends income, and now constitutes culture. They are a million miles away.

Ian Dunt

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