CommentIsLinked@LDV: Norman Baker triple bill on MPs’ expenses

The Lib Dems’ very own sleazebusting terrier Norman Baker (who daylights as our shadow transport secretary) has three – count ’em – articles on MPs’ expenses in the papers. Excerpts as follows:

Never in my 20 years in politics have I seen the public as angry as today (Daily Mail)

Little did I know, when I submitted a Freedom of Information request back in 2005, what a Pandora’s Box was opening up. That modest request, simply asking for a breakdown of MPs’ travel costs by mode of transport, was fought tooth and nail by the senior MPs who comprise the House of Commons Commission. To my horror, they used thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money to try to stop disclosure, employing the best legal brains your money could buy.

And when they were eventually forced to concede defeat more than two years later, there was then a disgraceful attempt to move the goalposts by exempting MPs from the Freedom of Information Act entirely.

I watched in disbelief as Minister after Minister was wheeled out on a Friday, normally the graveyard day for Westminster, to push that odious Bill through. But the Bill was so toxic that not one member of the House of Lords would touch it, and so it fell.

Yet still MPs would not see the writing on the wall, and when a sensible package of reform proposals finally came before the Commons last summer, what did the majority do? They voted to keep the bits that were financially positive for them, while throwing out the measures that would have gone some way to deal with the abuses.

So the flood of damaging headlines we have seen in recent days has been, I am afraid, all too predictable, if dispiriting nonetheless. The basic problem is this: claims for expenses should reflect expenditure legitimately and necessarily incurred by a Member of Parliament as part of his or her duties – no more, no less. Instead, they have been used by too many MPs as an alternative income stream, as a way of bumping up their salary without having to vote through an embarrassing increase.

I’ve never seen voters so angry before (Daily Telegraph)

Never in my 20 years in politics have I seen the public as angry as they are today and, frankly, who can blame them? It doesn’t help that the revelations have come at a time of recession.

And yet still many MPs fail to understand the need to face up to reality, to apply the emergency brakes as the reputation of Parliament hurtles ever faster downhill. So we have MPs criticising The Daily Telegraph and wanting to call in the police, as if shooting the messenger is the answer to this mess. Then there is Peter Mandelson, attempting to spin that this is all some sort of smear campaign. In this case, his spin looks more like tailspin.

Worst, we have MPs plaintively insisting that whatever they have claimed has been “within the rules”– rules written by them. That defence may give legal cover, but it is all too redolent of, “I was only obeying orders”. What matters is not what the lax rules have permitted, but where an MP’s moral compass points, and whether we can face voters and defend our use of taxpayers’ money. Many will struggle to do so.

Our task as Members of Parliament is to regain the trust of the electorate (The Independent)

It is quite wrong that MPs should be taking out mortgages with money provided by the taxpayer, then pocketing the capital gain when the property is sold. It is even worse when they regularly change the designation of their second home in order to maximise the income they can generate through the allowance system. … The standard defence trotted out is that everything done has been within the rules. But that does not make it ethically correct, not least because those rules have been written by MPs themselves. …

MPs must ensure that when the outrage has subsided, they repair the damage with new rules that limit claims to rent and other running expenses, with every claim subject to complete transparency and external audit. The test will be this: can we walk into our local pub or supermarket and feel comfortable defending what we claim. Until the public think the answer is yes, this corrosive matter will not go away, and nor should it.

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  • Mark Littlewood 11th May '09 - 12:36pm

    Superb stuff from Norman Baker. He truly is a national treasure.

    Word is (well, rumour anyway), that LibDem revelations will hit the Telegraph in the next couple of days. The paper will then finish of a grand finale of the worst revelations of all (probably involving Labour ministers).

    A bit difficult for Nick et al to act until they are sure of the nature of any LibDem allegations. Perhaps they are sure. Perhaps they are preparing a detailed response/reaction.

    What surprised me about the Tories and about us, is I think it would have made sense for the opposition parties to demand to see Shadow Cabinet ministers’ expenses. Then to release these in adavance of the Telegraph. And then to simultaneously take any necessary disciplibnary action against any culprits.

    We’re several days in to this story now. It’s a bit strange that the news agenda is still being set almost entirely by when the Telegraph chooses to drip out the info.

  • Rob Shepherd 11th May '09 - 5:23pm

    Any sensible MP, never mind party, would fess up before being fingered by the Telegraph, and would admit wrong instead of ‘I didn’t break the rules’. A snap election now would see half of parliament joining the dole queue. But congrats Norman Baker.

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