Over the past months the story of MPs expenses has been rumbling on, and once again revelations emerged about MPs claiming money at the taxpayer’s expense. This all began with Derek Conway, it’s his fault. He paid his son Freddie (no, not the one who was as camp as Christmas, the other one) for some work he didn’t do. Now every MP is under scrutiny.
We’ve heard about Gordon Brown’s loo, Margaret Beckett’s pot plants, and of course the Home Secretary’s husband’s penchant for mucky movies (which proved Jacqui spent a lot of time in London, wink wink). To address any concerns, Brown has fired up Youtube, and vowed to pull Jacqui Smith’s bathplug (75p) on the whole system.
Yet some issues concern me about how the press has handled this. For one thing the details were stolen, (someone clearly thought that it was outrageous that Jacqui Smith claimed for a bathplug, and so sold the details for £300,000) and for another, nobody has made the point that MPs do actually need expenses of some kind, albeit not in the form that they are currently.
Let me be clear. The current system stinks. Claiming for potplants is wrong, and Gordon, if you have a blocked loo, I hear Derek Draper is looking for work, he’s good at handling muck. Yet we have to remember that MPs do a very unrewarding job, for pretty unrewarding money. Currently they earn £63,291 which although is a good wage, the conditions aren’t great. You have to reapply for your job every five years, the public blame you for everything, you could lose your job through no fault of your own, and you have to work in the same place as George Osbourne. Worst of all has to be the travel, not bad if you’re Kate Hoey, MP for Vauxhall, not great if you’re Alistair Carmichael, MP for the Shetland Islands. MPs tend to work around four days a week in Westminster and the rest of time in their constituencies, and it’s for this reason that they require somewhere to live in London. Obviously widescreen TVs aren’t essential, but the basic provision of somewhere to stay is.
What’s more, the press hasn’t seemed to appreciate that it shouldn’t cost someone any money to be an MP. In the 1830s Chartists demanded payment for MPs so poorer people could stand for Parliament. Getting rid of expenses completely will only drive away those who can’t afford to stand.
What we need is a fair system which allows MPs to cover the expenses they incur whilst being tightly controlled, open enough to allow us to scrutinise them if we want to. Crucially, what we need from MPs, the press and the general public, is a bit of Commons sense.