Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Just cos you can, doesn't mean you should

Many many years ago when I was a very junior production assistant at an academic publishers, I was taken to visit a printing factory, as periodically happens when you work on the production side of books. Part of the deal is you usually get a fancy lunch out of it, and with this particular printers, they offered you a choice of free books from the bookshop attached to the printing works. I was very new to the job and the industry, and not entirely sure what the form was. Should I demand a huge thick hardback, or find the cheapest paperback going? Eventually after umming and aahing for ages, I panic grabbed a selection of Metaphysical poetry (which still graces my shelves now, as it happens).

I was mortified about the whole thing, particularly as my work colleague refused to accept anything. He told me later, that he didn't like being given presents by printers (it was the end of the 80s and we were frequently given bottles of wine or spirits, particularly at Christmas. The printers I knew then were so generous, I didn't buy any alcohol at all for our engagement party ). His thinking was that by accepting the gift, he was in effect accepting a bribe - you give me a case of wine at Christmas, and I promise you work in the New Year, irrespective of the fact that your work isn't a) competitively priced and b) up to scratch. He was right too. Our boss at the time was far too cosy with one particular typesetter, and it didn't seem to matter how crap their work was, we still had to use them.

I mention all this now, because of course I have been totally transfixed by the MPs expense stories. I'm inclined to agree with Stephen Fry that as usual the media have blown it out of proportion, and that everyone is guilty to a greater or lesser extent to taking/accepting things in the course of their work life to which they're not entitled. You don't think so? Ever taken a post it note pad or a pack of pens home? MPs have been doing the same but on a greater scale. We live in a society which more or less dictates that you should get something for nothing, even if you don't deserve it. It's your right, don't you know? So I disagree with Stephen Fry that it doesn't matter that a few MPs (and let's face it, it really isn't all of them) have gone up to their limit on expenses, because as he rightly points out journalists are probably just as guilty of doing the same, because the whole point about it is that while technically they may not have done anything wrong, morally I think they have. Just because you can claim expenses for your second home, doesn't mean to say you should.

For a very brief period when I was an editor I was given a company credit card. It was mainly for business lunches, a part of the job I loathed - it is a perk for an author, and it's very nice being taken out for lunch now, but it's not strictly necessary - and for business travel and other work related expenses. It wouldn't have dawned on me to go and stay in a posh hotel, or travel first class and charge it to the company. (Although I still feel guilty about the bottle of champers I was persuaded to buy at a Christmas party which technically I shouldn't have. Luckily there was a mistake and it never came through on the bill (-:) Apart from the fact that in my view it would have been wrong to do so, I also felt quite strongly that if we all wasted company money we were shooting ourselves in the foot, because it necessarily would impact on the company profits and ultimately, our jobs.

Such considerations don't seem to have held any water at all for MPs. Indeed, some of them genuinely don't seem to get why people are so upset, that the people paid to represent them are using taxpayer's money to improve their properties, escape CGT and make a profit at our expense, particularly during a recession. Hazel Blears still doesn't get it. I can't stand Hazel Blears, she always looks so bloody perky, like a demented little elf. And there she was on the news last night, perkily showing off a cheque to show she was going to do the "right thing" and pay the money back, which she should never have had in the first place. She was smiling away like we should be bloody pleased for her, still unable to grasp that we all know she's only paying it back because she's been found out. There's no moral integrity there whatsoever.

I shouldn't just pick on Hazel Blears though. Michael Martin's performance in the commons, slapping down the likes of Kate Hoey (now Hazel Blears could learn a thing or two about integrity from her) was atrocious. He's another one who arrogantly thinks that the common people don't need to know what their lords and masters are getting up to in the Commons. But then it's not in his interest to make the system more transparent and open, given that he's had investigations against him in the past.

The Tories haven't exactly been squeaky clean either (though I applaud Cameron's swift and decisive action in vowing to stamp out bad practice) - what the fuck does Douglas Hogg need a moat for? And does David Willets really not know the cost of lightbulbs? How can these guys represent us, when they're so out of touch? The most depressing discovery for me, though, has been finding out that our MP, Chris Grayling has claimed for at least two, if not three flats outside of his family home in Ashtead. He can easily commute to Westminster. Why does he need a flat in London? (I can understand the logic for MPs who live miles away, but anyone within the M25 should not be allowed to claim on a second home, I reckon. I always had to get myself home after work functions. So should they.) I had a lot of respect for Chris Grayling - he's a good constituency MP and I voted for him on the back of it. I think my vote may well be going elsewhere next time, unless he can prove that the £68000 he has apparently claimed in expenses is all legit.

The Lib Dems, so far don't seem to have come out of it too badly. After the disappointment over Chris Grayling, I was hoping against hope there wouldn't be bad news about Vince Cable, who has been a beacon of light and common sense during the global financial crisis, so I'm glad to see my faith in him is borne out. And having thought of Nick Clegg as a Cameron clone, I've had a lot more respect for him this week - although I've just looked his expense claims up and he's pushed it to the limit. Vince Cable, incidentally always commutes by train. Yay, for Vince Cable. Make him leader of the Lib Dems and I might just start voting for them again.

This has been a crap week for democracy in this country. A once honourable institution is looking severely shabby and dishonourable (mind you notions like honour don't cut much ice these days, so maybe we shouldn't care so much). There is a possibility of redemption: if Parliament can put its own house in order, remind MPs of what a privilege it is to represent the people, and teach them to abide not just by the letter of the law but by the spirit of it, then maybe we can get the government we deserve.

If not. We all know there's going to be an election next year. We have an opportunity to punish the lot of them. We should use our vote, and use it well.


Expat mum said...

The shame is that it probably goes on everywhere when people are given expense accounts. Some people just abuse it more than others. Mind you, here in Chicago, where four of our past govenors are either languishing in prison or under FBI investigation, it seems like chicken feed!

Henrietta Bird said...

Here here.

I hate the way we now have almost tearful MPs going on TV and making out that giving back £40,000 makes them a saint.

Shouldn't they be busy sorting out the economy?

Anonymous said...

What bothers me is how easy it is for them to pay back that £40K. How many of us have that kind of money to hand? And wtf are they all
doing with second homes anyway? How can they afford two mortgages? A simple solution would be for us to build a hostel for MPs in a cheap part of London, and they stay there when they have to be in town. That's what the ordinary folk do when their job takes them away from home...

Meanwhile, we in the public sector have to account for anything worth more than about twenty pounds. This has had me scratching my head in the past. A family carer was grateful for the work I did for her son. She spontaneously gave me three Christmas presents for the kids. I was so busy totting up what they were worth it was hard to give a gracious response & acknowledge this was a genuine reaction from someone who appreciated my work.(She is an exceptionally nice woman)Ho hum.

Mad Twinxxx

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

Grand post -- thankfully our MP seems pretty clean on this (as indeed are the majority) but it does all make everyone look shoddy.

Re: the moat thing, well I guess it comes out of the fact you may well have one if it comes with the house that you own because you are a rich b*steward even apart from being MP (and I really would not want only rich people to be able to afford being MPs, which is partly behind the moral high ground of certain Hagues and Camerons et al).

Just for laughs btw at the Levellers Day march that we attended yesterday we ran up chants responding to 'what do we want?' with 'MPs expenses for all!' and 'cleaner moats!' Well, we all chuckled!

PS second homes may not be the luxury some would like them appear to be for MPs. Do we want women MPs? Who may be likely to have school-aged families (as indeed may male MPs but raises bigger equality issues about why families are a more visible concern for women then men in the public eye perhaps?) Should the families be compelled to be uprooted?

And there you have at least one simple reasoning behind 2nd homes, let alone the fact that very often MPs become MPs for areas from where they do not necessarily originate.... unfortunate but true.

Jane Henry said...

Expatmum. Yes it probably could be worse (-:

Henrietta Bird Oh the hypocrisy of the tears is so bleedin' annoying. (Chief culprit: one Hazel Blears. Sorry, love, we know you're only doing it cos you got caught.)
MT Yes the paying back the 40k thing quite staggering. Maybe they are honest after all: they held onto it just IN CASE they weren't entitled (-:

Lisa, agree that we don't just want rich MPs. And also understand if you live outside London then you have to LIVE somewhere. But also think they could put the MPs up in hostels - apparently they do in Oz - County Hall would have been a prime location (it was mooted at one stage apparently) - but failing that they can all go and live in Chelsea Barracks and see for themselves what pisspoor conditions they expect servicemen and their families to live in.

I think some of the DT reporting slightly disingenuous. Not all the claims quite as bad as they first appear. Heard one Tory MP saying how he had used his flat in London as his first home, and was told by the people who oversee expenses he should flip to his family home in Pembrokeshire. He claimed that he had eschewed TVs as being unnecessary etc, and was feeling a little sore at being named and shamed. I thought he had a point.

The Julie Kirbride story is also interesting. Heard one version that she and her husband had separate homes in their consituency as well as London home where they live, which I suppose makes sense, and have claimed for both, but then also heard her say that they only have two homes between them, in which case I think they should have claimed on one not both.
Also, can see Stephen Fry's point that people are basically likely to be on the take given the opportunity to do so, but don't agree with him that because that is so, it doesn't matter when our MPs do it, because while they are only human, they also should be aspiring at least to have some integrity, even if they don't always manage it.

On the plus side. I have never seen such an hilarious episode of Question Time, and HIGNFY this week was a classic....

Political Umpire said...

I'm extremely late on this one Jane, but I've recently discovered a fairly comprehensive answer to most of the lame excuses offered thus far by the impugned MPs. It is from a letter to the Times by Francis Bennion (a very eminent public lawyer). He says that the House of Commons Green Book sets out the rules: "It contains a large number of detailed rules, which perhaps were not broken. But these are expressly made subject to specified overriding principles, which in many cases were broken.

The Green Book expressly says: ‘When making claims against parliamentary allowances, Members must adhere to these principles’. The main overriding principles are:

 Claims should be above reproach.

 Claims must only be made for expenditure that it was necessary for an MP to incur to ensure that he or she could properly perform his or her parliamentary duties.

 MPs must ensure that claims do not give rise to, or give the appearance of giving rise to, an improper personal financial benefit to themselves or anyone else.

 MPs are committed to openness about what expenditure has been incurred and for what purposes.

 MPs should avoid purchases which could be seen as extravagant or luxurious."

Hence it is not acceptable to say, as some have, that this is their private business. The relevant rule above proves the opposite. So too all those games of Monopoly MPs have blatantly been playing.

In any event, one might reasonably wonder why it is that the Inland Revenue will consider any expenses received as income (therefore subject to 40% tax in the MPs' cases) unless it can be shown that they were absolutely necessary for business, which of course duck islands and bath plugs are not, but MPs have escaped this.

All of your points about honourable members acting honourably of course still apply. But they do so even more when one considers that 'within the rules' was a lie from go to whoa.

Political Umpire said...
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