Are MPs being treated fairly?

It seems only fair to ask. I’ve been struck today by the cross-party consensus – noted here on Left Foot Forward – that the Blogosphere is united in disgust at MPs:

Bloggers of left, right and centre were united today in disgust over reports in today’s papers that some MPs will refuse to pay back expenses that they claimed erroneously.

The argument put forward is logical enough, and best summed up by Lib Dem blogger Mark Thompson’s exasperated question, “Do they honestly think that the public are going to stand for them rejecting the report, whatever the grounds?”

True enough. And yet. I’m rather wedded to the principles of equality before the law and due process – a bit old-fashioned, I know, but still. And two things trouble me about the consensus around MPs paying back their expenses:

1) the retrospective back-dating by Sir Thomas Legg of MPs’ expenses which were signed-off by the authorities. For example, my employer allows me to stay in a hotel when I’m away from home on business to a maximum value of £100 a night. Now you may regard that as excessive. But I wouldn’t take kindly – indeed I would likely take my employer to a tribunal – if they retrospectively lowered the limit to £75 and then demanded I repay the cumulative difference. Quite simply it wouldn’t be fair.

2) the lack of a genuine appeal process. For wholly understandable political reasons, the party leaders are expecting their MPs the abide by Sir Thomas’s findings without quibble – but why should they? If an MP feels a genuine mistake or misunderstanding has occurred, why shouldn’t they contest the conclusion, instead of feeling compelled to ‘take a plea’ deal?

What strikes me most, though, about this whole sorry saga is that some MPs who have perpetrated genuine abuses tanatmount to fraud – for example, ‘phantom’ mortgages and ‘flipping’ homes to avoid capital gains tax – are being mixed in with MPs who maybe over-charged the taxpayer for a cleaner or gardener. A small minority of MPs deserve all the opprobrium which can be heaped upon them; the trouble is, the ordure is being spread rather thinly at the moment.

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This entry was posted in News and Parliament.


  • Liberal Neil 12th Oct '09 - 9:30pm

    If what they spent doesn’t pass the ‘wholly and necessarily’ test then it is quite fair that they are expected to pay it back.

  • Another pertinent comparison is Ian Clement who has now been convicted and sentenced in relation to his fraudulent and relatively small expense claims from the London Assembly.

    Clement was a civil servant / special adviser rather than a Parliamentarian, other than that is there any relevant difference between his sad case and that of some of the MPs?

    “Equality before the law” and “due process” surely means the same law applies to the lawmakers as their staff, and in a similar time-frame does it not?

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th Oct '09 - 11:47pm

    The issue seems to me that we would like to have as MPs people who have a natural inclination to do what is right, if they do not, how can we trust them to make good decisions on our behalf, which is their job?

    Anyone who has a natural inclination to do what is right would take the attitude regarding expenses paid for by the taxpayer that they would only claim what is strictly necessary in order to do their job. So, I can accept a second home is necessary for those whose constituency is far from London, but expenses claimed for it should be at the minimum a small flat for a single person within, say half-an-hour’s commuting distance would be. No decent person who was an MP would ever contemplate claiming more than this in expenses for a second home.

    They ought not to need laws to tell them this. It ought to come naturally. The ONLY person I would want as an MP is someone who was allowed to claim unlimited expenses – as much as he or she liked – but would not even contemplate claiming more than the bare minimum justified by the requirements of the job.

    So ANYONE who claimed more than that and justified it by saying “But it was allowed” is, in my opinion, someone I would never ever want as an MP. Such a person has shown by his or her behaviour that he or she is completely unsuited to be an MP. Even to say “But it was allowed at the time” is to say that you cannot see a distinctiion between what is morally right and what is legal, and I do not want such a person holding any sort of postion over me which invovles – as is essential for an MP – making a moral judgment, or making legislation. Either they would wish to over-burden me with legislation because with that mentality they would want to make illegal anything they thought was immoral, or they would willingly make decisions which they know are immoral on the grounds they personally benefit from it.

    It is not a matter of punishing these people, I fully accept the idea that retrospective punishment for what wasn’t illegal when it was done is wrong. It is a matter of shaming them. So, yes, name them, and let them explain themselves. If they cannot explain their expenses in terms of absolute necessity for their job as MP, never ever vote for them should they stand again.

  • “If what they spent doesn’t pass the ‘wholly and necessarily’ test then it is quite fair that they are expected to pay it back.”

    Yes. Reality check. The MPs’ expense allowance covers weekday accommodation which is required close to the MP’s place of work. Many employers pay some sort of similar allowance. They expect the employee to find a hotel, bedsit or flat. One can easily imagine a typical employer’s reaction to the sorts of claims MPs have made. “Gardening? Gardening? Why on earth should you need a garden at your weekday lodgings? If you want one, you’ll have to pay for that yourself, chum.”

    OK, I concede that an MP whose claim was within the rules and agreed by the Fees Office should be allowed to “leave this court without a stain on your character”. Provided he/she pays up pronto, that is! Sir Thomas’s £1000 p/a gardening limit would sound excessively generous to most employers – and their employees too.

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