MPs’ expenses – the real point

Beneath all the media sensationalism, there is no doubt that some MPs have, to put it colloquially, been “taking the piss” with their expense/allowance claims.

For those who have been caught with their hands in the till to bleat that “the system is wrong and needs to be changed” should cut no ice with the taxpayer. That line of argument doesn’t work with the taxman, the courts or the police, and it should not be allowed to work here. After all, the brokenness of the system has not made it impossible for some MPs to behave ethically and honestly.

The real point is this: the system under which MPs vote on their own pay-rises, expenses and allowances is one established by the MPs themselves – and insofar as it is in any way accountable, it is accountable to a committee of MPs.

The second Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Elizabeth Filkin, called them on this and was hounded out of her post. She had pursued investigations into the conduct of a number of MPs whose names may be familiar – among them Keith Vaz, John Reid and Peter Mandelson. She resigned in 2001, shortly after finding out that the Speaker of the House, Michael Martin, had already started advertising for her successor – without informing her. The successor would be appointed for 3 days a week instead of 4, and at a reduced salary.

Seven years ago, in May 2002, Mrs Filkin noted that MPs’ expenses and allowances, amounting to an extra £74,000 to £100,000 on top of their salaries,

“by any standards […] usually involve substantial sums of public money, adding that there was currently ‘no rigorous audit of these claims, although guidance has been improved following investigations into misuse’.

‘I think that for anybody in a position of public trust, their claims should be very carefully audited to make sure that we, the public, are spending that money correctly. Of course MPs impose that sort of requirement on all sorts of other public office holders. I think it should apply to them.”

There is only one group of people who have spent the last seven years arguing that she was wrong.