Expenses-Gate II: Why Andrew Rawnsley is right, and wrong.

First, let me say I hugely enjoyed Andrew Rawnsely’s magnificent rant in today’s Observer. It was hilarious. And it was quite right about many things.

It was right to say that some MPs have clearly abused the current system and have acted in ways that are tantamount to fraud – even if in a legal sense they can manage to get away with it “within the rules”. Designating a property as a second home and claiming expenses for it – including towards mortgage payments – for Parliamentary purposes and then as your main home for tax purposes is clearly wrong. Whether it is illegal or not will depend on the exact rules of Parliament and HMRC – but it is clearly immoral.

It was right to attack the claiming of ordinary living expenses that would have to be paid wherever you are or for ‘life-style’ choices. And some of the claims for “repairs” and “maintenance” – such as John Gummer’s mole-hunting and John Prescott’s Tudor beams are clearly ludicrous.

But even here we start to get into somewhat muddier waters. When I am travel University business I am entitled to claim for meals by both my employer and HMRC. Obviously I’d have to eat if I was at home, to a very small extent I am ‘saving’ money when travelling – although it never feels like that. The point is, this is a widely accepted norm so some of the trivial items MPs have claimed for would be allowed by employers and HMRC in just about any other job.

It was also right to attack actual false claims – Jack Straw’s council tax; Gordon Brown’s plumbing double; etc. But again, some of these are plainly just mistakes – I know as someone who travels extensively how hard it is to keep on top of expenses claims and how easy it would be to mistakenly claim twice for the same thing. And I travel a lot less than out of London MPs do.

It’s also right to say that the whole system of MPs expenses is a botched substitute for paying them properly and that they – and they alone – are responsible for allowing this abuse-prone system to be set up and continue long after it’s ‘sell-by’ date. And finally he’s right to say a little more humility about this botched system – and the abuse to which it has been subjected – would be welcome.

But Andrew unfortunately gets it wrong in several areas.

First, he implies that rich MPs – like Shaun Woodward – shouldn’t be eligible to claim expenses. In other words, legitimate expenses of doing the job should be means-tested. Whilst it might be fun to pick on rich MPs, is it really just or fair to force them to subsidise their public service job, when their less well-off colleagues wouldn’t? I don’t think that seems fair, and I suspect most people wouldn’t think it fair either if thought about in that way. I doubt they’d welcome their work related expenses being means tested by their employers – sorry chum, we’re not paying that hotel bill because you already get paid enough.

Second, he seems to imply that virtually everything MPs claimed has been illegitimate. MPs have to work in Westminster and their Constituencies and this incurs costs – for those who live beyond commuting distance this includes travel and overnight stays. It is quite reasonable that they should be compensated for that. Whilst the current system is open to abuse it is difficult to come up with any system which relies of direct recouping of expenses that wouldn’t be fiendishly complex and hard to police.

The only simple – and fair – solution would be to have a standard day/overnight rate(s) which is essentially what Gordon Brown, to his credit, suggested. This was widely attacked by the opportunist opposition and morally self-righteous media as ‘getting paid to turn up and do their jobs’. What rot. It is getting paid the right expenses to turn up and do their job in two places rather than just one. And such standardised rates are widely used in the private and public sector employment. Maybe if we turned it round and said they got an allowance for every day/night spent in their Constituency it might make the point rather clearer.

In the current febrile climate we can’t, however, expect much of rational debate about these things. MPs will probably get a bunker mentality and – as Andrew Rawnsley suggests – try and tough it out. But the media is exhibiting just as an irrational, nay hysterical, reaction. If the current Telegraph reporting is accurate – and I reserve a verdict on that as there are already signs of some inaccuracies’ – the degree of actual immoral or fraudulent claiming by MPs probably amounts to no more than 10% of the total, if that. That is still too much – but it’s not quite as bad as the picture of Sodom and Gomorrah that’s being painted.

What’s more the agitation over expenses misses the much bigger issue of MPs 2nd, and in some case 3rd, 4th and more, jobs. This is really a much more serious issue as it raises concerns about whether they are actually doing their ‘day-job’ of representing the people and to what extent they may be influenced by these outside interests. Both are potentially rather more serious for democracy than exaggerated MPs expenses for actually doing their proper jobs as tribunes of the people.

And finally the issue of the Telegraph buying stolen information, which was going to be made public anyway. They have done so for a combination of  pecuniary and political reasons – to boost sales and damage the government. A nice win-win for them, but nothing to do with ‘the public interest’. And they have almost certainly broken several laws and the Press Code in the process. In the current atmosphere there’s not much chance of getting a hearing for such a view – but illegal cheque-book journalism is not something we ought to be welcoming, even if the resulting discomfort of the ‘powers that be’ is the cause of such amusement.

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