Thursday, May 14, 2009

Enough is enough

Fact: MPs regarded their additional cost allowances as an "entitlement", following which a system was set up to enable them to claim them. They represented a covert – and largely tax-free – pay rise implemented on the sly by a legislature which did not have the bottle to make the public case for higher salaries.

All the rest is detail and, however odious they might be, it is unfair to pick on individual MPs. Collectively, they are all guilty – some were just more creative than others in the paperwork they submitted which allowed the fees office to give them the money to which, under the system, they were entitled.

The fact is also that the political journalists – and many others – knew all about the system. It was put in place since 1972 and has been part of the remuneration system ever since.

The basic mistake the MPs made, of course, was not to adopt the European Parliament system, where the MEPs are given a block grant, no questions asked, and no receipts required. Thus, perfectly legally, and with only minor and occasional protests, MEPs are able to trouser £45,000 a year as "office expenses", nearly twice the amount paid to MPs for their "expenses", with no damning paperwork that can be used against them.

Thus, for the media now to indulge in a feeding frenzy, touting its high moral – but incredibly selective - principles and "outing" individual MPs, is little short of hypocrisy. The system is at fault but, for more than thirty years, MPs have kept that system in place and the media have conspired in allowing it to continue.

Fixing the system, however, will change nothing. If anything, it will make it worse. With the intense media scrutiny now directed at individual MPs, many of those who might have thought of becoming MPs will now think otherwise.

The net effect will almost certainly be a continuation of the trend towards hiring professional MPs, colourless, brainless apparatchiks, whose main claim to fame will be their ability to keep their expenses accounts in order and tick the right boxes on their claim forms.

What will not be addressed – and nor is it being addressed – is the competence of MPs and the performance of Parliament as an institution. Egregious examples of its failure are seen even today, but they are lost in the torrent of prurient outrage over what amounts to trivial sums of money.

Thus, we see public money by the billions poured down the drain, while Parliament stands idly by, failing in its duty to check the profligacy of the executive. For that failure, there is no censure. The media ignores the billions and goes for the petty cash.

Thus do we say – or I say – enough is enough. But this is a cry which will go unheeded. The madness of the crowd is upon us, from which there is no escape. And when it is all over, Parliament will not be a better place. We will not be better off. We will have achieved nothing.