Feeding the mob
The Westminster expenses scandal has descended further into farce. Some genuinely shocking abuses were uncovered over the summer. However, in the furore of the media storm they became simply flotsam and jetsam in a sea of trivialities. Now the events of this week are acting as a current pushing these serious breaches of power further into the background.
In short, a mob rule mentality is in play. The solutions in Sir Thomas Legg's review of MPs' expenses are not about revealing further unjustifiable Parliamentary claims and effectively fixing the system, but about feeding into a national hysteria of mistrust. It is almost possible to start feeling sympathy for MPs. After all, most have simply played by the rules in an absurd system.
This bizarre system of expenses for MPs was always, in part, a form of compensation for basic salaries being held back at times when the government of the day wanted to avoid bad publicity. However, there is an issue to be addressed if we expect MPs to spend much of their time at Westminster as well as at their constituency homes.
Now Sir Thomas has decided to impose retrospective and apparently arbitrary caps on certain categories of expenses. MPs who claimed legitimately for items such as cleaning and gardening are being called upon to pay back hundreds and even thousands of pounds. While many in the public have little or no sympathy for politicians, retrospective and arbitrary judgments such as this should have no place in our political system.
Imagine arriving at work one day and your employer saying that a new retrospective cap on expenses had been implemented and that you needed to pay back £2,000. Today's litigious society already thinks of suing first and talking later, so in this instance the employer would be up before a tribunal in no time. Well, as soon as the ever-growing tribunal waiting lists allow.
In short, it is the anger of the mob which has allowed this to happen. The party leaders - Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg - have cowered before public opinion and declared their compliance with the recommendations of Sir Thomas, however irrational they may be.
MPs who have been asked to pay back money now face an impossible choice. If they pay the money back, it may be seen as an admission of guilt. If they refuse to pay money back, they will face the backlash of the media and possibly their own party leadership.
Cameron has already threatened to withdraw the whip from Conservatives MPs who refuse to pay up and Brown has promised unspecified "action". Clegg, eager to be seen to be leading on the issue, is calling for yet more to be repaid. This is not the politics of rationality but the politics of the crowd.
Former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith can feel particularly aggrieved. Her reputation has been trashed and she has been forced to make an apology before the House of Commons following a separate report by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, John Lyon. Yet the commissioner was unable to conclude whether her actions had cost the taxpayer any more than would otherwise have been the case.
Jacqui Smith did not "flip" homes to claim extra allowances but simply continued to designate her London home as her main residence in accordance with the standard practice for government ministers until 2004. She sought to clarify the position in 2007 but the advice given to her by the Commons Fees Office was flawed, according to the report.
Alongside what must be one of the most disreputable pieces of reporting on this case, the Daily Telegraph printed a front page photograph of Jacqui Smith standing beneath a display board with the word 'theft' in large letters above her head. It was a sickening smear from a newspaper that has gorged itself on the expenses scandal.
Sir Thomas should have kept to identifying past abuses and setting expenditure limits for future expenses. Better still, he might have recommended that the chaotic system be replaced by simple flat-rate allowances without the need for MPs to designate main residences and second homes. By reopening past claims that were within the rules that applied at the time he has merely compounded the problem and helped to reignite the mob mentality that will bring politics further into disrepute.
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