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Leader: MPs’ expenses: first repay, then reform

13 May 2009

IN 2001, the Church of England started publishing the expense accounts of individual bishops. The sums, modest compared to the funds of which MPs have been availing themselves, were largely for secretarial or domestic help, with an element for entertaining. (The upkeep of see houses is funded directly by the Church Commissioners.) After some initial surprise, annual publication has attracted little attention (despite steadily rising costs).

In the outrage about MPs’ expenses, there are several things going on. First, there is an element of misrepresentation, de­rived from the fact that, thanks to the leak, one newspaper has been able to interpret the material as it chooses. It will be easier to react when there is a clean set of figures. Second, it seems unlikely that there are plausible excuses for some of the practices that have become widespread among ministers and MPs, most obviously the concept of “flipping” the designation of different houses in order to take most advantage from capital-gains-tax avoidance, council-tax subsidies, and allowances for repairs. MPs have queued up to pronounce that everything they claimed was justified within the system; but details of the claims suggest strongly that a number of MPs have been deceitful and unethical, some scandalously so.

It is all very well to blame the parliamentary expenses system. It is easy to see how MPs have come to view it as an extension of their pay, divorcing it from the original purpose of reimbursement. But, as the party leaders have realised belatedly, promises of better behaviour in future do not repair the public purse. Repayment is necessary to begin the task of rehabilitating politicians in the public mind.

A further element in the public’s reaction is the view that MPs are simply receiving too much. It is a view shared by Sir Philip Mawer, the former parliamentary commissioner for standards, who remarked in 2007 that £86.7 million a year, as it was then, was too high a price to pay for parliamentary representation. The attempt to supplement salaries by a liberal interpretation of the rules governing allowances has now backfired, especially given the large number of people in the UK for whom the idea of claiming living expenses is an alien concept. The news of the past week arouses not so much envy as dislocation. Voters have concluded that MPs, like bankers, are not like ordinary people. They don’t pay their way.

The work of a constituency MP is hard. The salary is low relative to positions of comparable authority in the commercial sector, but high compared with the pay of most public-service workers. The answer is tighter, publicly scrutinised working expenses — and no increase in salary.

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