Monday, May 18, 2009

Damaging the system

"Parliamentary authorities, overseen the Speaker, gave secret permission for some MPs to over-claim thousands of pounds, according to leaked documents seen by the Telegraph."

Er … yes. That is the way the system was designed, and it has worked this way for over thirty years. This is exactly what Booker wrote yesterday: "MPs are told they can claim their 'allowances' as an automatic right, so long as they go through the charade of handing in largely meaningless invoices."

It is a "permissory" rather than a "proscriptive" system, aimed at assisting MPs to claim their full allowances. Every Westminster hack has known this, and exactly how the system worked.

The real issue is that, for more than thirty years, MPs have been using the "allowance" system as a covert means of increasing their salaries. The fundamental dishonesty was (and is) in pretending that it was anything other than a means of awarding themselves pay rises.

The problem they have now is that, barring a few, none of them are prepared to admit it, thus allowing the media to capitalise on the original deception, and present the allowances as "expenses". To that extent, the MPs are authors of their own misfortunes. Lacking the "bottle" to own up to the fact that the system itself is dishonest – intentionally so - individual MPs are having to take the "rap".

The point though is that, with a few honourable exceptions, they have all been playing the game. This is "institutional fraud" on a gigantic scale. Thus, to single out individuals is unfair. All those who took any money are complicit in the deception. The only difference between the individuals who have been fingered and the others is the degree of creativity in the receipts produced.

However, the "deception" in itself is no big deal. The MPs have voted themselves a "remuneration package" rather than a straight salary. It was a very shallow deception and one which was obvious to anyone who took the time out to make even the most basic enquiries.

Thus, to position this issue as MPs deliberately fiddling their expenses is also a deception. The real crime is bad enough, but there is no purpose served by over-egging the point, if – as is the case – the effect is to do real damage to the institution of parliament. And this is what The Telegraph is now doing.