MPs’ expenses and the great national sneer

The Daily Telegraph has undeniably pulled off a great coup in getting hold of the details of MPs’ expenses claims and publishing them. It’s doing it in dribs and drabs, starting today, thus pre-empting the official plan to publish them all together in July, after the elections in June to the European parliament and the county councils.  “MPs’ expenses: ‘lack of moral leadership’ revealed by politicians“, shouts the Telegraph’s front page headline, leading into predictably grubby revelations about the claims made by a number of Labour ministers.  By selecting this group for the first day’s revelations, the Daily Torygraph ensures that the widest media coverage will concentrate on dubious expenses claims made exclusively by Labour front-benchers:  revelations about past claims by Tory and LibDem front- and back-benchers are being reserved for later, when public interest and outrage have begun to die down through inevitable indignation fatigue.  In this way the newspaper will hope to inflict maximum damage on Labour’s performance in the June elections, although all the signs are that this will anyway be so dire that the Telegraph’s latest campaign can hardly make it any worse.

Of course there can be no excuse for some of the self-serving, rule-bending claims that the Telegraph’s first set of revelations lays bare today.  A shamefully large number of MPs of all parties, on front and back benches, have apparently behaved carelessly at one end of the spectrum, and probably semi-corruptly at the other, with all kinds of petty fiddling in between, most if not all of it technically within the letter of the rules (which MPs themselves have of course approved), but in some cases miles outside their spirit.  Moreover, whatever its underlying political motives, the Telegraph can’t be blamed for having procured (stolen?) and published the information, either:  it’s self-evidently in the public interest that these matters should be available to us so that we can revisit our opinions of those caught with at least a couple of greedy fingers in the till.  And because the Telegraph has got the addresses to which the claims and payments relate (information that was not intended for publication), it can uncover the sly dodges that some MPs have been up to more effectively than it could have done without them.

And yet, and yet.  The whole scandal, especially after the detailed but partial revelations published today, has unleashed a predictable fire-storm of outrage and demonisation, not just of those identified today and in recent weeks as having fiddled or finessed their expenses, but of politicians as a class, especially but not exclusively focusing on Labour politicians (because it’s somehow deemed even more despicable to behave like this if you’re in government), and therefore of politics as a whole.  The blogosphere is humming with contempt for the whole breed.  So are the tabloids, and much of the broadsheets.  Phone-in programmes on radio and television are receiving buckets of bile to pour over politicians’ heads.  The illustrious ‘Guido Fawkes’ (not his real name), über-blogger and publisher of the smears of prominent Tories and their wives, goes to town with talk of villains, shame and charades;  the Guido fan club, faithfully following his cue, falls into line with a raft of ‘comments’ — 134 at the last count — of which the following, all posted anonymously, is a representative sample:

Hang the fuckers!

It’s all unravelling. So is this whole fucking charade of ‘public service’. Nice one to the whistle-blowers, moles and other dirt-diggers.

This isn’t just an abuse of the system, it’s wholesale theft and criminal deception. In any other line of work she’d be helping the Fraud Squad with their inquiries. ……” Perhaps Redditch Open Prison should be her 2nd home for a while ???

cabinet snouts in the trough

(But one refreshing note of dissent:
Not foaming at the mouth‘ says:
“This whole thing bores me Guido, a lot of hot wind and self righteous puritanism.”)

But it’s not really merely ‘boring’.  It’s calculated to bring our whole political system into disrepute, just at the very time when we need to support our political leaders, most of them decent and honest men and women trying to make the world a better place, in their efforts to salvage something from the current financial and economic disaster.  My own contribution by way of a comment on ‘Guido’s’ blog post (not yet available on his blog, but perhaps it will surface eventually), posted under my own name, was:

The worst thing about these revelations of petty venality on the part of some of our politicians is that they reinforce the general disillusionment with our politics and our politicians, just at the time when we desperately need widespread public support for action by governments everywhere (and governments are staffed by politicians) to get us through a massive global financial and economic crisis caused by a handful of much greedier private sector financiers, not at all by politicians.   Bloggers, and the parasites who merely comment on blogs (mostly skulking behind pseudonyms), might pause before they join in the sneering clamour of contempt and hatred of our politicians, to consider whether a few injudicious claims for bath plugs and new boilers for second homes are really so much more wicked than the money-grubbing greed and deliberate obfuscations of what the bankers and hedge fund managers and co. were doing with other people’s money to make millions for themselves while bringing down the whole financial system on which millions all over the world depended. Let’s keep this thing in perspective, OK?

Being an MP is a gruelling and demanding job: the mountain of dreary but inescapable constituency work requires you to be a social worker and legal adviser without any training or preparation for either role; working hours in the house of commons, although reformed, are still unsocial; the vast majority of the proceedings in the House and its committees are unspeakably tedious; the long separations from family and friends famously tend to lead to marital break-up, alcoholism and worse; the lack of real power over an over-mighty executive saps energy and will-power; dependence on the favour of the Whips for any chance of advancement to ministerial office is degrading; those who achieve it are generally unfitted for it, since ministerial success requires quite different talents from those needed to win a constituency election; many of your fellow-MPs will always be uncongenial company; you have little or no job security and your ability to hold onto your seat every three or four years depends on circumstances quite beyond your control; you are fairly poorly paid and if you make up for this by claiming all the allowances that parliamentary officials tell you you’re entitled to, you’re likely to be lampooned across the nation’s front pages and television screens as little better than a bank robber or hedge fund manager. No wonder the intellectual and charismatic cream of the population would rather be water-boarded than submit to the rigours and penalties of such a career.

But these are the people on whom we depend for rescue from the depredations of free market capitalism. Like the coal miners of the past, they do a job that few of us would be willing to do, but one that for all our sakes has to be done by someone. It behoves us to treat them more fairly and even — some of them, anyway — with just a hint of respect.


8 Responses

  1. Karl Simpson says:

    whilst I agree that the reporting of the expense claims could have been constructed to cause maximum damage to the Labour party in the run up to the June elections and perhaps that there are questions to answer about the leaking of the material to the Telegraph I think you are rather missing the point here. There has for a long time been a huge public appetite to shed some light on the expense allowances enjoyed by our “honourable” members of parliament. It is all well and good to suggest that the media and the blogosphere have between them whipped up the frenzy of public opinion (congratulations on picking out one Guido’s more vitriolic contributors to illustrate your point). However let us not forget that when evidence comes to light of of the sheer scale of generous allowances available and paid for by the taxpayer (see John Lewis list etc..) of which many of us can only dream of in these tough recessionary times, does it not make you question why disclosure has attempted to be blocked at every turn by Parliament? I make comments on Guido’s site and I take great exception to being labelled a “parasite”. I am an average earning ordinary working man who takes great interest in understanding where his income goes.  MP’s ultimately have a duty to us to provide an effective democracy at a value that is fair to all. Let us not forget that an expense is just that. Not a target to be reached.
    Now Brian, here is an alternative perspective for you to consider. Why did a so-called “socialist” government spend its time in office cosying up to bankers and hedge fund managers by implementing light touch regulatory frameworks that allowed the culture of greed to overwhelm the global financial markets?  And now, in an amazing and hypocrital volte face, that same government turns it’s back and crys foul at the mess the city got us into. It wouldn’t be the rules would it …. no, definitely the fault of the greedy bankers.  Move onto expenses and, hang on a minute…., no it’s not our fault, it’s the rules that’s the problem.  Can you see the difference? No, because there really isn’t one.  We are not sneering Brian – that would simply imply that we do not care –  we are totally and utterly indignant.

    Brian writes: Karl, You may be surprised to learn that I agree with almost everything you say, and I see virtually no conflict between my blog post and your comments on it. If you re-read my second paragraph I think you will accept that I don’t try to minimise the offensiveness of what a number of MPs — we don’t yet know how many — have been doing to abuse the system of second home allowances. I don’t in any way seek to excuse or condone these examples of greed and lack of principle. All I am saying is that it’s wrong to generalise from the limited number of offenders that we know about so far to a blanket condemnation of politicians as a breed, and from there to a rejection of the whole parliamentary system; that it’s especially destructive to condemn all politicians and the democratic system out of hand at a time when our political leaders need maximum popular support and understanding for the harsh and potentially unpopular measures that they (and only they) are having to take to get us all out of the unholy economic mess that others have got us into; and that it’s desirable to maintain a sense of proportion — which means sharply distinguishing between (a) the relatively petty venality of an unknown number of MPs who have abused a badly flawed system in order to save themselves a few hundreds, in some cases a couple of thousand, pounds at the taxpayers’ expense, and (b) the massive greed and lack of principle of a group of bankers and other financiers who have helped themselves to literally millions of pounds of other people’s money in complete disregard of the likelihood that the system they have been milking will crash and bring down with it the entire global economic system, causing ruin and misery for millions of wholly innocent people around the world. The behaviour of both groups is inexcusable and I haven’t tried to excuse it. But the scale of the offence of the first group simply doesn’t compare with the scale of the other.

    I hesitated before describing as parasites those who write comments in extravagant language, anonymously, on other people’s (often also anonymous) blogs. I wouldn’t apply that term to those who write sensible and reasoned comments, even if I often disagree with them, on others’ blogs, although I still think that anonymity is often used as a shelter for irresponsibility (in the literal sense of not being prepared to take responsibility for the accusations and denunciations commonly made in such comments). I write my blog under my own name, and respond to comments similarly. Your own comment above is perfectly acceptable, it’s written under what I take to be your own name, it makes entirely reasonable and sober points in reasonably restrained language, and I am genuinely grateful for it; nothing parasitical about it. (However, I’m amused to see that an almost identical comment to your own comment above has been posted in reply to mine on Guido Fawkes’s blog — but under a different name….) There are others, though, who seem almost to make a full-time job out of writing offensive comments under a false name on other people’s blogs while not apparently being willing to write their own blogs, thereby exposing themselves and their views to the comments of others. I don’t think ‘parasitical’ is an exaggeration for that kind of activity.

  2. Karl Simpson says:

    thank you for your reply. To clear up your amusement over the almost identical comment posted on Guido’s blog I should perhaps point out that I am that same author. I would be surprised if you hadn’t already suspected as such given the similarity of pseudonym to my real title. For my part the reason I use a pseudonym as opposed to my real name in the online world is as much to do with safety and security – I don’t particularly want my personal information broadcast to all manner of fraudsters on the web – and also because it is my nickname amongst well known friends. I’m also increasingly wary of the encroaching surveillance society we live in and the fact that our activities on the net are available to scrutiny by who knows how many agencies. Before I give you the wrong impression I am not a conspiracy theory nut, just an ordinary free minded citizen with a concern for individual civil liberties.
    I appreciate that a number of posters use the cloak of anonymity to vent offensive comment and content that add nothing to the overall debate. Guido invites a wide spectrum of views some of which are more welcome than others. Some, while cynical, are undoubtedly very funny. Care should be taken that libelous or overtly personal remarks should not be made. I guess it comes down where you determine the boundaries of respect versus free speech lie. Politicians (particularly left wing ones) often talk of trying to engage the public more in political debate rather than political cynicism. I happen to think that the descent is more a sign of the times of our current society and the state of our political democracy then they would care to admit.

    I have re-read both posts a number of times and perhaps my ire was a little misdirected . I accept that you have a perspective and I have mine and I respect both.
    My main criticism is with the political classes that make the rules then bend to suit. There is a system in place that is open to abuse and it has been abused. It is not beyond the wit of the government to change the rules on expenses but until recent media and FOI exposure it was beyond their will to do so. You alluded to the fact that due to the scale of material gain of MPs expenses running into only the hundreds or thousands in some cases, there is a distinction between those and the massive greed of the bankers and financiers who helped themselves to millions of other peoples cash.  From the language used by Gordon Brown one would assume that all bankers are a tawdry bunch on the make.  Possibly this is also a generalisation ? The problem however with greed is sadly it is embedded into human nature. Even the newspapers who we might applaud for bringing the revelations to light are drip-feeding the stories out so as to maximize their sales.  We all strive in life to make an honest living, to do well for ourselves and our families. There are many though who when presented with an opportunity to take the prize for free, even though it has consequences for others, will do just that. It is because of that occasional lack of trust – as in business, as in Parliament –  that we need the rules. But for me it comes back down to my original point – who makes the rules? Who is responsible for the implementing the checks and balances that we rely upon as a society?
    We do need a strong government with ideas for stimulating the economy and helping to take us out of recession.  We, the public, need our MP’s more than ever. But we need them to represent us. There is a long way to go to rebuild the trust between the public and Westminster. We expect them to deliver on accountability, only then will they be deserving of our respect for their efforts.


    Brian writes: Thanks once again, Karl. Yes, it did occur to me that two longish comments in almost identical terms by two different writers would represent a coincidence considerably less likely than my chance of winning the lottery (even taking into account the fact that I never buy a lottery ticket). On the other matters you discuss, I’m glad that the gap between us has turned out to be rather narrower than at first appeared. Certainly there’s nothing in this comment of yours that I could quarrel with.

  3. Matt says:

    This is really a question from the turn of the 20C.
    A payment of £300 pa was first introduced 1906: (22K in todays money) and still causing problems nearly 20 years later: In fact as I recall Winston Churchill threatened to support every socialist candidate up and down the land until MPs were provided with sufficient remuneration to alleviate their hardship.
    Although things are not so desperate now, the reason why MPs are trying to boost their salary is the same… they are essentially not paid enough. Here is a brief comparison:

    MP Salary £63,291
    MD of medium size company (turnover £50m) £131,359.
    Senior NHS Consultant £176,242
    Senior QC (approx) £500,000

    Brian writes: Matt, thank you for these thought-provoking figures. I agree with you: MPs are essentially not paid enough. I haven’t done a comparison with members of the parliaments of other comparable countries, but I strongly suspect that ours are among the least well paid: something of the sort emerged, I seem to remember, when there was a review of the salaries paid to MEPs of the various EU member states.

    It should be axiomatic that, as you remind us in your comment, (a) MPs should be paid enough to enable people without private means to live at a reasonable standard of living from their MP’s salary (and allowances!) without needing to supplement them from their own private means or other outside employment; (b) MPs’ salaries should be commensurate with their responsibilities and comparable with the salaries of other people in society with similar responsibilities and with those of members of legislatures in comparable countries; and (c) MPs’ salaries should be high enough to attract and retain the ablest in the land, taking into account the need to compensate them for the negative features of an MP’s life as described in my original post above. On at least the second and third counts, and possibly the first as well, I would argue that we don’t pay MPs enough. The cost of paying them a proper salary would be trivial, especially in relation to the likelihood that significantly higher pay would attract people of a significantly higher calibre than many of those now in the House. The benefit to the quality of government that we might then expect could be enormous.

  4. John Miles says:

    “Like the coal miners of the past, they do a job that few of us would be willing to do, but one that for all our sakes has to be done by someone.”
    How can you say this?
    I’d certainly be willing to have a go.
    I might not be much good, but I don’t think I’d be that much worse than some of the current comedians.
    Sixty or so grand is more, I think, than I, or most people, have ever managed to earn, but that’s not really the point.

    (Long term inflation and short-term memory make it difficult to be quite sure of this, but the two most prosperous periods of my life were in 1946, when – as a young bachelor – I served in a minesweeping trawler for eighteen bob a day plus free food, accommodation and uniform, together with duty-free booze; and in 1971-2, when I was on about£4,500.
    Plus, of course allowances!
    Those were the days, mate, those were the days.)

    So why don’t I stand for my local constituency?
    First, because nobody has ever asked me to, or is likely to do so.
    Second, because there’s a massive queue of people apparently much more eager to get the job than I am.

    Brian writes: I agree that the analogy with coal miners is not exact: few analogies of this kind are. The point is not the scarcity of people willing (or longing) to be MPs, but the scarcity of outstanding people of wisdom and integrity who might be willing to put their names forward if they felt that the salary on offer was enough to compensate for the poor working conditions, multiplicity of roles, potential damage to family life, poor status in the eyes of the public and the media, lack of job security, and all the other disadvantages discussed in my post. In my view current salary levels do not adequately compensate for these drawbacks. Independent salary review bodies have repeatedly recommended substantial salary increases for MPs, confirming my judgement of current levels, but successive governments have been too cowardly to accept recommendations likely to incur the displeasure of the editor of the Sun newspaper. The result has been the present indefensible system of allowances, eagerly exploited by too many MPs when they thought their claims would never be subjected to serious scrutiny.

  5. John Miles says:

    What exactly was wrong with your mention of the miners?
    It certainly highlights the point that, for the same money, most of of us would rather be an MP than work down t’bloody pit.
    Or don’t you agree?
    You might argue that a miner may well have more congenial, friendlier fellow-workers than an MP, but I doubt if that would cut enough ice for most people to change their minds.  

    Your job description of parliamentary duties is very like that of working for a long-haul charter airline in the late twentieth century.
    But you’ve left out the bottom line.
    It’s better than work.

    You say,“Independent salary review bodies have repeatedly recommended substantial salary increases for MPs, confirming my judgement of current levels, but successive governments have been too cowardly to accept recommendations likely to incur the displeasure of the editor of the Sun.”
    Who appoints these independent review bodies? 
    Of whom do they consist? 

    You seem to blame “successive governments”  
    Can governments do anything without the cooperation, or at least the connivance, of Honourable Members.?
    I would guess that the thinking of quite few of these Honourable Members went something like this:
    If we vote ourselves a pay rise the electorate – including of course the editor and readers of the Sun – will be seriously upset.
    So why don’t we just exploit our wonderfully ramshackle allowance system. We’ll probably make more that way anyway, and it’ll all be tax-free.
    No one need ever know what we’re up to.
    We can always say we can’t do anything till the publication of some inquiry, and with any luck the electorate will find something else to worry about.
    And of course our speaker knows the score – he’ll keep it all under wraps, and if the worst comes to the worst he knows how to use the security ploy.

    Your job description of parliamentary duties is very like that of working for a long-haul charter airline in the late twentieth century.
    But you’ve left out the bottom line.
    It’s better than work.

    You blame “successive governments”  
    Can governments do anything without the cooperation, or at least the connivance, of Honourable Members?
    I would guess that the thinking of quite few of these Honourable Members went sometning like this:
    If we vote ourselves a pay rise the electorate – including the editor and readers of the Sun – won’t like it.
    So why not just work our wonderfully ramshackle allowance system?
    That way we’ll all do even better, and it’s all tax-free.
    If anyone asks any awkward questions, we’ll just set up an enquiry, and with any luck people will lose interest.
    Anyway our speaker knows the score, and should be able to keep it all under wraps.
    As a last resort there’s always security

    If the workload of MPs is really as heavy as you say, why not employ a few more?
    Then they should be able to do their job properly and still enjoy a decent quality of life,

    Brian writes: Just to be clear: it has been governments (under Mrs Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown) which have vetoed (or phased in over several years, i.e. reduced) independently calculated salary rises for MPs our of fear of the wrath of Rupert Murdoch. Most MPs would have welcomed the rises in full. There’s general agreement, I think, that resentment at being denied the salary increases which they ought to have had has tended to poison attitudes to allowances, making some MPs feel that if they can’t have the money in straight salaries, they are in effect entitled to squeeze their expenses allowances to the last drop. Of course this is unethical and grasping, and in no way an excuse, but the background helps understanding of what has been going on.

  6. John Miles says:

    I’m afraid it still isn’t clear – clear to me anyway – how Thatcher, Blair etc could have vetoed or reduced these pay rises if the Honourable Members hadn’t gone along with it.

    Brian writes: I don’t know what the precise procedures are, but there’s no doubt that this is what happened.

  7. John Miles says:

    Quite so.
    It’s clear that successive prime ministers have vetoed or reduced the pay rises which have been recommended.
    What’s not so clear to me is whether they could have done so without the support of MPs.

    The more I think of it, the less inclined I am to agree with you and all those independent salary review bodies – whoever they may be – that that our MPs are seriously underpaid.

    It’s true they don’t get as much as Sir Fred, but, if my calculator is to be believed, they do get more than two aand a half times the median wage; and, if that’s not enough, they can employ family members at pretty generous salaries.

    An MP gets something like thirteen times the old age pension, and somethig like twenty three times the allowance for a full-time carer.

    A carer’s allowance is means-tested, and reducible if he/she also gets the old age pension.

    All this under a Labour Government.

    Come to think of it, why shouldn’t MP’s emoluments be means-tested?

  1. 11 May, 2009

    […] the depth of public disillusionment, he has only to read the ferocious comments on an earlier blog post of mine in Ephems, reproduced in Labour List, in which I ventured to suggest that MPs were relatively poorly paid.   […]

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