If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Monday, 29 June 2009

That expenses stuff again ...

Now that the dust has started to settle, I am revising my view of the MPs' expenses affair. I was as angry as anyone else when the Telegraph first started its publication of the unredacted details. But with the benefit of a bit of reflection, I have calmed down a bit.

Clarity on one thing: MPs who live some distance from London need a base in the capital in order to do their jobs. I have no problem with the taxpayer funding all reasonable excess living expenses incurred by this. Any half-decent company would do the same. A house or flat, a few sticks of furniture, a TV, all to a reasonable standard, no problem. So the question of allowances is not the issue, to me at any rate. How the allowances are administered is a whole new kettle of worms.

The first question is: what do want from our MPs? I want them to be honest, most certainly, and I am aware that, like pregnancy, there are no degrees of honesty - you are either honest or dishonest. But I also want them to be human beings rather than squeaky-clean cardboard cut-outs fresh from a Politics degree and a few months working as a politician's gopher. I regard myself as honest, but I'm not sure if I could measure up to the high standards that are being demanded (with 20/20 hindsight) by some commentators.

If we go back to 1997, there was a massive intake of new MPs. Fresh from a different and unrelated job in most cases, they arrive at Westminster for the first time. The Mother of Parliaments! All that oak panelling! All those arcane traditions! Putting myself in that position, I think I would have been pretty much overawed by the experience. And if someone greatly senior to me later said to me, "you can claim for this, and that, and the other thing as well," and then went on, "we all do it, we've always done it, and it is approved by the Fees Office," I'm sure I would have gone along with it. For the reasonable stuff, anyway - a bit of redecoration, a TV, an allowance for the odd burger after a late-night sitting. It would have taken a very strong will to resist that kind of blandishment, especially as the MPs were told - and it was true - that the Parliamentary authorities had approved it. Some MPs, and these are the ones I feel sorry for, actually sought the approval of the Fees Office and received it in writing before claiming items under their allowances. I can't fault that - it's exactly what I would have done. So I suppose I must allow a new category of honesty to add to the binary distinction I referred to earlier: "basically honest, but willing to go along with the majority view which appears completely acceptable to everyone else here". I would probably fall into that category, and so I bet would most other people when they are not on their high horses prancing on their newly-discovered moral high ground.

So I am prepared to forgive the odd bath-plug and TV subscription [1], the mistakenly-included tampons and the leaky water-pipes. Even a change of second-home designation where it can be justified is not a problem. Where I get angry, really really incendiary, nuclear angry, is where I see evidence of manipulation of the system, an awareness of the potential for profit. Claiming for a mortgage that has been paid off is fraud, pure and simple, and the claimant should go to prison. The day that the Inland Revenue allow the rest of us to say that things were just an oversight in the midst of a very busy schedule is the day that I will forgive that kind of grasping mendacity. No normal person (even if they hadn't kept track of the final date of mortgage repayments) would fail to notice an extra £800 in their bank account every month, unless they were so wealthy that these kind of sums were pocket money and not worth accounting [2]. Regularly flipping the designated second home to maximise the allowances for repair and refurbishment is evidence of malicious intent. If a similar thing occurred under a private employer, there would be instant dismissal for gross misconduct and a demand for full repayment, at the very least. Claiming allowances on a 'second home' 100 miles from your constituency and the same distance from London is another clear abuse of a loosely-worded system. Claiming an empty flat as your main residence in order to get the taxpayer to fund your massive 'second home' where you really live is even worse: lying to gain financial advantage or, in the language most of us understand, fraud. Building a property portfolio on the taxpayer to provide you with a nice little nest-egg when you retire is criminal - and doubly criminal when it's Labour politicians - those scourges of greedy capitalism - doing it. Somehow, with the Tories, you can forgive it, because you expect them to be on the lookout for an investment opportunity. How the Labour offenders square making a few million on the property market with loyalty to their trades union roots and their minimum-wage constituents is beyond me.

But all these are understandable, if reprehensible, human failings. What brought me to boiling point was the way in which MPs tried to first of all hide it, then cover it up, and finally make a partial disclosure in the hope that public interest would die away. Hah. It didn't. When it became obvious that these things were of public interest, they tried blocking it. Then they tried to amend the FoI bill so that MPs would be exempt (how the hell did they think we would swallow that one?). Then they made a big play of publishing all the redacted receipts in the hope that we would be grateful for their magnanimity and forget about the whole thing. Of course, the information that they blacked out is the very information that led to the discovery of flipping and deliveries of expensive goods to the 'wrong' house, and so on. Michael Martin was the driver of this venal process, and that was why he had to go. And every MP who voted for it should hang his or her head in shame.

We've caught you out now, and it will never be the same again.

Rant over.

[1] Yes, even the porn films. Realistically, they were just a couple of items half-way down a long list of things that were just chucked in with the rest, without any particularly dishonest intent (except the one that says "Another bill? Give it to the taxpayer"). It should have been checked, certainly, but this isn't a hanging offence. I was pleased it happened to Jackboot Smith, however - a richly-deserved comeuppance, if that's not too graphic a phrase.

[2] And how the fucking fuck does anyone think that being able to write a cheque for several tens of thousands of pounds somehow makes them less culpable? I couldn't write a cheque for that sum at all, ever, and even one for £500 would make me think for a long time about where it was coming from. Show me someone who can pull out a cheque for 20 grand on live TV, and I'll show you someone who has more money than they know what to do with. My money, and yours.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Like a kid with a new toy ...

Here I am again. Just checking it was still there. Time for bed, I think.

Well, hello there

Having just gone through Blogger's Krypton-Factor style set-up process (Think of a name! Think of a title!) I now have a blog. I will no doubt regret the hasty decisions I made on the way in (if I can remember them at all - what was my name again?) but the die is now cast. If you read this, and I doubt very much that you will, welcome and thank you for stopping by. It's been a pleasure.
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