Whether it was cash for questions or dodgy donations for peerages, politicians have all too regularly shown an almost suicidal disregard for the proper management of their financial affairs. What has proved so damaging about the latest scandal over claims for second homes, furnishings and food was the systematic way in which so many MPs were prepared to abuse the taxpayers’ generosity.
Journalists cannot be too high and mighty: in years gone by, when newspapers were more profitable, some reporters acquired quite a reputation for creative accounting in filling out their expense forms. But such has been the greed and ingenuity of our elected representatives that on this occasion the news media can hardly be accused of making it up. Unlike the so-called sleaze of the last years of John Major’s government, when the grave misconduct of a few Tory MPs inflicted fatal damage to the Conservatives’ election prospects, it is now obvious that abuse of parliamentary allowances had become endemic and was to a large degree almost institutionalised. MPs became their own worst enemy as successive governments and the House of Commons authorities turned virtually a blind eye to what was happening. Public cynicism about the trustworthiness of politicians has hit a new low, and so has faith in the democratic system, a ruinous state of affairs which hopefully will give those seeking to reform the system the courage to be bold. We need fewer MPs; we should pay them better, perhaps £100,000 a year rather than the £64,000 at present; their offices should be properly staffed with well-qualified assistants; and there should be a regime for expenses which cannot be manipulated and which most importantly of all should be open to scrutiny. While I have nothing but contempt for those who have rustled up every receipt they could find in order to claim to the limit on their allowances and who have as result profited from the property market on the back of the taxpayer, I do recognise that down the years hard-working MPs have had a grievance which has not been properly addressed. In the late 1960s, when I began my career at Westminster as a parliamentary reporter, the class divide was all too apparent. Many Labour MPs were former manual and industrial workers and were from a world far removed from the comfortable gentlemen’s clubs of Westminster and Whitehall which were frequented by well-heeled Conservatives. The ex-miners, steel and engineering workers who had taken up politics often as a result of their experience with the trade unions, were hard done by in comparison. They did not have second incomes or inherited wealth and they needed every penny they received in order to finance what could be a risky, short-lived career in the House of Commons. Often, if they did not have a bedsit or could not afford a cheap hotel, they would have to slum it at Westminster, either sleeping the night in their parliamentary offices or dozing in arm chairs in the various tea rooms and bars scattered around the Palace of Westminster. Political life under the Wilson, Heath and Callaghan governments was tough and demanding. By Thursday evening, at the conclusion of the parliamentary week, Labour MPs could be seen leaving Palace Yard, carrying their well-worn suitcases as they headed across London to catch the trains that would take them back to their constituencies in the Midlands, Wales, Scotland and the North. Rather than face the fact that MPs’ salaries needed to be fixed at a far higher level, reviewed independently and linked perhaps to a senior grade in the civil service, no government dared risk the potential unpopularity of establishing a proper pay structure for parliament’s foot soldiers. Short-term politics were always the order of the day and with a nod and wink from the whips, hard-up MPs were advised to make up the difference through their allowances. Therein lay the seeds of the current catastrophe. As the range of allowances was widened and the annual allocation for expenses was increased, so the did opportunities to exploit the system. Michael Brown, former Conservative MP for Brigg and Cleethorpes, suggested on the Today programme that the turning point was probably Margaret Thatcher’s decision to increase the additional costs allowance and allow it to be used to pay the mortgage on a second home. “Without doubt 1983 was the beginning of MPs in the property business”. While it might seem ironic that Mrs Thatcher should have given MPs -- as well as council house tenants -- a helping hand on the property ladder, it was after all some smug Tory grandees who really set the ball rolling by putting their families on the parliamentary pay roll and by their blatant abuse of allowances to subsidise their luxury homes. Nonetheless Tony Blair cannot escape criticism. New Labour almost halved the hours of work at Westminster and ushered in a generation of career politicians who believed that the much-enhanced second homes allowance of up to £24.000 a year was theirs as of right and there for the taking. In comparison with the vast sums claimed by some of their colleagues, the expenses paid to three cabinet ministers with Yorkshire constituencies – Alan Johnson, Ed Miliband and Hilary Benn – were minimal and their second homes modest. By apparently observing both the letter and spirit of the system, they demonstrated that at least some MPs understood that their parliamentary duties did not include playing the property market at the taxpayers’ expense. Such has been the timing of the revelations that Labour will pay a terrible price for public’s anger. Instead of falling back on the mantra that “this is a House of Commons matter”, Gordon Brown should have taken action months ago. If he had made a stand far earlier perhaps the moral authority of parliament would not – in the words of Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury -- be at its “lowest ebb in living memory”.
Nicholas Jones was a parliamentary and political correspondent for The Times and the BBC.
(First published in the Yorkshire Post, May 11, 2009)