Friday, 8 May 2009

The Worst Of The Worst

Our Parliament: only a prison has a larger concentration of crooks....

OK. Calm down.

Right, the worst of the scandal broken by the Telegraph is not the appalling, habitual - even casual - abuse of public money by MPs day to day with, basically, furnishings and the housekeeping - although this is bad enough. No, it's the 'househopping', done simply to 'max-out' year-on-year claims. How any of the ministers involved in this practice choose to spin this - and Guido explains the linguistic dodges they use - is immaterial.

What they were doing - especially Hoon, Blears, Darling, Smith and Purness (among others) was an abuse of position, privilege, of Parliament and of the public. Frankly, it is fraud - this is nothing to do with "doing the job" as well they know. It's just pocket-lining fraud.

They must resign.

Then they must be investigated by the police.

The Telegraph's editorial on this is excellent.

The systematic misappropriation by MPs of the allowance paid to defray the expense of keeping a second home is one of the great scandals of modern public life. It is a story that our readers, indeed the whole country, need to be told. Now, for the first time, it can be.

As The Daily Telegraph discloses today, it goes far beyond the now familiar tales of barbecue equipment, bath plugs or adult movies bought at the taxpayer's expense. Many honourable members (of all parties, because this is, explicitly, not a party political matter) have been complicit in what amounts to an officially sanctioned and sustained abuse of public funds perpetrated against their own constituents over many years.

The extent of their rapacity is astonishing; and its scale can only be fully appreciated with the disclosure of the information being published by this newspaper. It will make uncomfortable reading for the MPs, for their families and for their voters. But it is right that the public should know what has been going on. Indeed, had the House of Commons accepted a ruling by the Freedom of Information Tribunal, a body established under legislation passed by Parliament, it would already have been published.

Last year, the tribunal ordered the disclosure in the public interest of receipts to support claims made under the second-home – or "additional costs" – allowance worth up to £24,222 this year. After a challenge by the parliamentary authorities, this decision was upheld by the High Court, which said public money "should be and should be seen to be properly spent". The judges added: "We have no doubt that the public interest is at stake."

Further attempts were made to block publication until it was agreed that much of this information would be disclosed. MPs were given time to go through their receipts in order to withhold any item that might reveal their home addresses. Indeed, Parliament was emphatic that home addresses should not be published on privacy and security grounds even though the Information Tribunal, backed by the High Court, favoured disclosure.

Later this summer details of more than a million receipts for expenses claimed between 2004 and 2008 are set to be released. However, MPs have already passed a law to prevent the publication of their addresses, making it impossible to understand the way the allowance has been misused. Only when the addresses are examined does it become clear how some MPs routinely switch the designation of their second home in order to maximise the benefit that accrues from the allowance.

Many have claimed tens of thousands of pounds to furnish and renovate what any reasonable person would consider to be their principal residence – the home where their families reside. A large proportion of MPs have refurbished, decorated and sold second homes at taxpayers' expense, using the allowance to pay the mortgage interest and then pocketing the profit or buying another property. Many seem to have come to regard the allowance as a basic human right to be used for the most prosaic purchase.

MPs maintain they are all acting within the rules, but that is only because they set the rules and enforce them. It is arguable that some have acted beyond the rules. Those responsible for the most egregious abuses must have known that what they were doing was far removed from the purpose of the additional costs allowance. Yet because everyone was at it, they all joined in, with few exceptions. It is clear many MPs regarded the money as theirs to be claimed whether it was proper to do so or not.

They have done so to bolster what many in the Commons consider to be an insufficient salary, currently £63,291. That may be so; and it is a matter to be considered by Sir Christopher Kelly and the independent committee on standards in public life in the inquiry now under way. This tawdry state of affairs is having a serious impact on the country's opinion of our elected representatives. A recent YouGov poll for The Daily Telegraph showed that 60 per cent of voters thought worse of MPs because of what they have discovered about the allowances system. Yet the evidence seen by this newspaper demonstrates that we did not know the full story – and nor were we going to be told it even when the receipts are officially published in a few weeks' time.

Efforts are under way to clean up this mess. Some reforms were agreed last week after a somewhat ham-fisted attempt by Gordon Brown to obtain political advantage from a scandal that afflicts every party. However, the central issue of the second-home allowance was deferred to Sir Christopher's inquiry. It is essential his committee expedites its work and comes up with its recommendations before the end of the year. In view of what we know now, there can be no doubt that the current system is rotten and cannot survive.

Any system based on an allowance that MPs are encouraged to claim in order to increase their income must be abandoned. There needs to be an independent audit of expenses that will obviate the need for future publication of receipts. If a system has public trust, it is not necessary for everyone to see what MPs claim.

But in order for the Augean stables to be cleansed, it is first necessary to show how filthy they have become. Today, The Daily Telegraph does just that.

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