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MPs’ Expenses And A Question For Hazel Blears

The Sunday Telegraph is publishing information about MPs’ expenses.  This will have gone down like a Chelsea striker in Parliament because it allows everyone the chance to see just what our elected representatives are claiming for.

Remember where we are coming from.  This country has an economy in crisis, millions unemployed and others struggling to pay their mortgages, rents and bills.  Money – particularly the saving of it – is absolutely critical to people trying to stave off repossessions and bankruptcy.

We have elected representatives displaying an alarming lack of Clue in many aspects of life, spouting senseless garbage and not bothering to respond to open communications (I’m still waiting for your response, Mr Straw.)

Then Jacqui Smith’s husband was shown to have claimed from the public purse for watching porn.  Cue much hilarity and merciless mockery.  This after revelations about her second home expense claims.

People then started to realise that MPs’ expenses claims might not be as tightly regulated and enforced as it should be. The Sunday Telegraph’s publication of this information may well show that MPs from all parties have er, let’s say “benefitted” from the expense system currently in place, despite whatever protestations those MPs may make. I doubt whether any political party with MPs at Westminster will emerge untainted.

Mark Wallace offers arguments against such protestations.

Perception is reality, and this is something of which MPs should already be aware.  Not for one minute am I suggesting that an MP’s job is an easy one nor am I suggesting that they are all on the take.  A few bare facts don’t help MPs’ perception by the public, but a little further investigation brings up stories like this one which give credibility to the perception that there are a lot of MPs benefitting from the current system.

Iain Martin is clear on this issue: a Police investigation is needed.  He has already warned of a public backlash against MPs over this, “a hurricane of public anger” no less.  Others will write more detailed articles about who authorised what, who let standards slip, et cetera to provide a more detailed context.

Hazel Blears is today quoted as saying

“I understand entirely why the public hates this, right. The system is wrong. It needs to be changed.”

The public “hates” (your word, not mine) the expenses system because of the perception that MPs are taking advantage of it.  When one considers that Hazel Blears is one of the MPs of whom the current batch of reports names, this does rather smack of thinking “Oh hell, I’ve been caught. Better try to sincerely apologise my way out of it.”

So I have a question for Hazel Blears: When did you come to the conclusion that the expenses system was wrong and what have you personally done to get it changed?

Martin Bell, the former BBC correspondent and anti-sleaze campaigner may well be getting his white suit out of retirement to stand against one of the MPs named or soon to be named.  I get the feeling he won’t be short of targets.

I’ve written about how my work expense claims were checked and dealt with and how I see professional standards as important.  Arguments that claims were “not breaking the rules” don’t really cut the mustard.  There is also a requirement of MPs (and anyone in professional life) to act ethically and in the spirit of the highest standards of conduct.  Just because you didn’t break the rules doesn’t mean you didn’t drive a cart and horses through the spirit of those rules.

Ultimately this whole issue shows a seedier side to Parliament and taints those MPs and prospective MPs who are completely honest and transparent in their affairs.  Politics itself has been tainted by this issue.  There will be many now who won’t engage with the political system because “they’re all as bad as each other”.

Whether MPs resign or offer themselves for judgement by their constituency parties will be down to their consciences or the demands of constituency parties who believe there is a case to answer.  Reputation is something we can’t always control.  Being involved in something like this doesn’t help an MP’s reputation, that of the party they belong to or of politics in general, especially to the man on the street.  Bad news travels faster than good news.  Points I have made before and will no doubt make again.

An independent, transparent body which rigourously checks and challenges all expense claims is the only real answer to this situation.  Giving it the remit to work retroactively over the past year would surely generate some interesting discussions.  Then, perhaps, politics and MPs’ reputations might start to be restored.  Tarnish takes a lot of hard work to clean off.

That applies to all parties.

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