18 May 2009

Parliamentary Expenses Scandal - The Way Forward

Scandals involving abuse of the parliamentary expenses by MPs have been hitting the news this last week, and frankly I am horrified and disgusted by what are blatant cases of abusing the system for personal gain. In any other organisation, making expense claims like what we have heard about would likely get you sacked, and certainly they would not be paid by any conscientious accounts department. Some MPs have come up with excuses like "But the expenses body was willing to pay it" which to me sounds like "I was able to game the system as they didn't stop me".

The scandal has hit all the political parties to some extent, so the question arises as to how we can move forward from where we are. It's likely that minority parties will do well out of this in the forthcoming european elections, but this doesn't seem like a good enough punishment to those who have abused the system. After all, it is not MEPs but MPs who are at the centre of this scandal. Here is what I propose should happen, as a bare minimum, to enable a line to be drawn under this and the UK government to be able to pick itself up and move forward.

1. Full details of expense claims for all MPs should be published immediately, so the public can make their own informed judgements about their own MP. The Telegraph should not have a monopoly on this information, although it's understandable why they should want to keep that monopoly.

2. A short period of time should be allowed to elapse, so that the public have time to digest this information and the details can be sorted through (I would suggest 2 weeks).

3. A general election should then be called immediately, to allow voters to remove those MPs from office who are deemed to have acted inappropriately.

4. A system should be set up by an independent body on what is and is not allowable as a parliamentary expense. The MPs should not be able to make these decisions themselves as at present, as they very have a very clear conflict of interests. As part of this, all future expense claims should be published for public scrutiny.

5. MPs who have clearly abused the system should be prosecuted for fraud. Whilst any claims that the parliamentary expenses office essentially condoned this abuse by failing to stop it might be taken into account during the ensuing investigation, this excuse does not remove personal responsibility when submitting expense accounts to abide by the rules.

The rest of us, whilst going about our business, have to abide by a set of rules when it comes to expense claims and those from whom we claim our expenses (usually our employers) need to know what we are claiming and that the claims are justified. In the same way MPs are claiming their expenses from us, the taxpayers, so we need to know what they are claiming and that they are justified. There should be no 'one rule for them, another rule for us'.

It seems that some MPs forget (as indeed do some taxpayers) they we are their employers, we have collectively employed them to oversee our interests as a nation. Some people seem to have a view of the 'state' as an organisation that interferes with our lives, makes up arbitrary rules that take away our freedom and generally interferes in a way that is often short-sighted and ultimately counter-productive. Whilst I believe that all of these are accurate assessments of the way things are currently, it is not what we pay them for we should remind ourselves that the members of government are our paid servants, not our rulers. I'm sure many MPs (probably even the majority) are very honourable in the way they go about their business, but we need to take radical action to remove those who are not and make sure that this systemic abuse is stopped.