Pardon me if I don’t come over all indignant about MPs’ expenses. “Gordon Brown has cleaner at his constituency home.” So what? “He’s so busy he gets his brother to pay her, and then reimburses him later.” Hang on a minute. It hardly seems a grievous offence that the First Lord of the Treasury has someone else to pay the cleaner. What with international financial meltdown, a global flu pandemic, and all the rest, do we seriously think the Prime Minister should be wasting time on that kind of thing?
It is the same with Jacqui Smith. The Home Secretary has enough on her plate dealing with members of the public mysteriously dying at the hands of the Metropolitan Police, without worrying about how much a bath-plug costs for her London home. If she had time to fine-toothcomb through her expenses claims, she would not be doing her job properly.
Of course, when she found that one of her staff, whose job it was to do her expenses, had claimed for two porn films, she should have sacked him — and all the more swiftly if the miscreant was her husband. But let’s be rational about where we direct our fire.
If the system allows an MP to claim £24,222 a year for the cost of running a second home, we should not be complaining about Ms Smith spending 88p on a bath plug. Do we seriously expect her to have a bath without a plug? No, we should be asking questions about whether that is an appropriate system — not implying that she should not have got a luxury 88p plug from John Lewis, but made do with a back-to-basics one from Jack’s DIY.
We are all getting hysterical about these overheated headlines. There certainly is a problem. Parliament has created a system that chaotically confuses allowances with reimbursement. The root of the trouble is that MPs think they deserve to be paid more, but they know that the public bridles at parliamentary salary increases. So they have devised a generous expenses system to bring their income up. It was all so open that new MPs were advised by Commons officials to take the year’s maximum allowance, divide by 12, and claim that every month.
All this combined a sense of grievance with a culture of entitlement, which has now produced a raft of examples that outrage the public. They feel, understandably, that they should not be paying for Oliver Letwin to repair a pipe under his Tory tennis court, or for Labour’s Margaret Moran to spend £20,000 treating dry rot at her seaside home, 100 miles from her constituency.
There are also systemic abuses, as MPs constantly redesignate which is their official second home so that they can maximise their claims. Nor can it be right for Cabinet ministers to designate one home their main residence for tax purposes, and call another the same thing for expenses purposes. All that requires reform.
But we need to display some discrimination in separating what are legitimate causes of concern from scattergun assumptions that all MPs’ expenses are dodgy. To do that risks undermining politicians’ moral authority, which does a disservice to democracy. It is easy to jump on the bandwagon of this poujadist populism, as Lord Carey did, writing in that fine arbiter of public morality, the News of the World, repeating unchecked facts and complaining of “clawing greed”, a “sordid culture of abuse”, and pronouncing that Parliament’s “moral authority is at the lowest ebb in living memory”.
It is not just politicians who must guard against undermining democracy. Press and prelates have a duty, too.
Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.