It was four years ago last week that the Telegraph broke the expenses scandal. It was such a bracing moment in our national life because the appalling details showed so clearly the collapse of the distinction between private interest and public duty. It emerged that hundreds of MPs were using public office for personal enrichment, in all cases against the spirit, and in many cases against the letter, of the law.
After the original outcry, little has been heard of the expenses scandal, and it is widely assumed that the problem has gone away. It has not.
The central problem concerns the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa), the body set up to monitor MPs’ expenses after the scandal broke. MPs have refused to accept its authority. Take, for example, the Labour MP Jim McGovern, whose £23.90 claim for a rail fare from Dundee to Glasgow to attend a Labour Party meeting was turned down by Ipsa (rightly so: the trip was not connected to McGovern’s work as an MP).
McGovern appealed, lost, and the taxpayer has been left with a £27,000 legal bill. It is not just Labour that behaves in this way. Last week, we learnt that Tory MP Stewart Jackson is refusing to hand back £54,000 in potential capital gains he’s made on his taxpayer-funded house, forcing Ipsa to mount a High Court challenge. This looks like a test case that will be followed with sympathy by Mr Jackson’s fellow parliamentarians, many of whom still can’t see that they ever did anything wrong.
Meanwhile, MPs from all parties have acquired a proven record of insulting and abusing Ipsa staff, in at least one case reducing them to tears. The organisation’s latest report, published earlier this year, is shaming. It records how “we were compelled to erect signs in Portcullis House warning those attending our induction workshops that aggression towards our staff would not be tolerated. Some of the Westminster opposition was overt and specific – an unwillingness to claim expenses online, resistance to registering their accommodation, a view that untested budget limits were too small, the rules too restrictive, the publication of claims unfair.”
All the indications suggest that this wretched, arrogant and uncouth conduct has been at least partly sanctioned by the authorities. Bear in mind that many of the senior politicians whose business it is to deal with the Commons were themselves caught up in the expenses scandal.
Let’s start first with the Conservative chief whip Sir George Young. Sir George is a disappointing individual. An Old Etonian and hereditary baronet, he is the kind of figure whom many people would expect to have a proper understanding of public integrity. Sadly, this is not the case. Sir George was chairman of the backbench Committee on Standards and Privileges – probably the nearest thing there is to a guardian of parliamentary integrity – when the Tories were in opposition and expenses cheating was endemic in the Commons.
While Sir George’s personal expenses were above board, he nevertheless fell down badly on the job, ignoring warnings that MPs’ allowances were being abused. Although strong on upholding MPs’ privileges, Sir George’s committee gave the impression of only understanding two kinds of standard: low standards and double standards.
Finding himself in government after the election, Sir George was quick to knife Ipsa, criticising it for “failing” to support MPs. His decision last week to grant the errant Nadine Dorries the Conservative whip is another case of Sir George’s laxity. Since last February, Ms Dorries has been under official Ipsa investigation for alleged accounting abuses. To make matters worse, she has bafflingly failed to declare her earnings from the ITV reality show I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! on the Register of Members’ Interests. Sir George would have been much wiser to wait until Ipsa had reported.
The Leader of the House, Andrew Lansley, a notorious house “flipper”, also emerged very badly from the expenses scandal. But it is Speaker Bercow who gives the greatest cause for alarm.
To be fair to the Speaker, some of his reforms have done a great deal to restore the ability of Parliament to hold government to account. But Mr Bercow is now working equally hard to restore the culture of impunity that brought Parliament into disgrace four years ago
Several weeks ago, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, wrote a polite letter to Mr Bercow urging that Parliament should make some additional spending cuts, along with almost everyone else. The letter was instantly rebuffed by the Speaker, who told Alexander that it was the duty of Parliament to hold the Treasury to account, not the other way around.
Perhaps. But this comes ill from a Speaker who ordered £45,000 in refurbishments to his grace-and-favour apartment (while reportedly failing to pay tax on this benefit) and was one of the most notorious expenses cheats to emerge from the Telegraph investigation. Ultimately it is the Speaker, and nobody else, who is responsible for the constant undermining of Ipsa. But for him, the stench of arrogance and greed would not be emerging once again from the Commons. Matters are little better in the Lords, where Tory peer Lord Hanningfield, back from a stint in prison for fraudulent accounting, has claimed £21,000 in expenses despite not speaking in one debate.
The public is entitled to view all this with disgust. Our standard of living is falling, our services are being cut back, the risk of unemployment grows ever greater. But politicians continue to live in a different world, with a separate set of standards. Meanwhile, Ipsa is pondering one more decision: should it recommend a serious, substantial salary increase for MPs in a report due out this summer? There is a reasonable case that Members should indeed be better paid, and it is one that deserves to be considered fairly. But in return they must learn to observe the same laws as the rest of us.