Sunday, May 10, 2009

Victim of The System

Unbelievable. Amidst the recent news stories of politicians' fraudulant expenses claims, several places have already tried using the term 'Expenses-gate' and someone has even bought expensesgate.com.

One site did admittedly follow up their use of the 'Expenses-gate' term with "for want of a better term for it", but really, using no term at all would have been for the benefit of the situation. Don't try to pretend you aren't playing along with the more mainstream media.

Now don't get me wrong, there is a genuine scandal going on here; a status the majority of the previous mis-monikered 'gates' couldn't aspire to. But this is an example of journalism so lazy even the Daily Star has yet to stoop so low.

As for the scandal itself, there are several ways in which various politicians have duped the system (not that it is apparently particularly difficult to do so), but the recurring theme seems to be that of the 'second home', a rule which has been highly controversial for years.

Officially, Members of Parliament can live either in their constituencies, i.e. the area of the country they were elected to govern, or in London, as they are required to divide their time between the two. Because it is necessary for them to effectively 'live' in two different places, they can designate either their London or constituency property as their 'second home' and are afforded an allowance, from public money, for where costs are "wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred from the purpose of performing your Parliamentary duties". The maximum yearly amount stands at between £23,000 and £24,000.

What seems to have been going on in a large number of cases, is changing the official designation they give their homes in order to make the best personal use of the free money from the tax-payers. Examples are not hard to find.

Labour MP Margaret Moran switched her 'second home' designation to her seaside house (100 miles from her consituency, incidentally) such that days later she could spend £22,500 of tax-payers' money treating dry rot.

Home Affairs Select Committee Chairman Keith Vaz spent his allowance on a flat in London despite his £1.15m constituency home being just 12 miles away.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith nominated her Redditch family home as her 'second home', while claiming her sister's property in London, where she stays some weeknights, is her primary residence. She has reportedly spent over £152,000 of public money on kitchen appliances, home entertainment equipment including televisions and DVD players, dining furniture, and even pay-per-view movies. Probably very little of which were necessary for performing of her parlimentary duties.

Communities Secretary Hazel Blears switched her 'second home' three times in the same year, and claimed an allowance against all of them.

The list goes on as many others are known to have 'flipped' their home designation in order to refurbish more than one property at the public's expense. This is without claims for chauffeurs (Michael Martin), gardening (Peter Mandelson, David Milliband) and personal security (Barbara Folletts).

The most comical part of all of this is comments from Labour Deputy Leader Harriet Harman, who has basically said it is not the responsibility of MPs to make legitimate claims, but of the Fees Office, who grant the claims, to reject them. That may technically be the case, but what she's really saying is MPs can be as dishonest as they like, provided no one catches them out.

Which is, of course, absolutely no surprise at all. Hasn't that more or less been the motto for all politics since THE DAWN OF TIME? You have a problem though, Harriet. You have been caught out. So now what? Carry on blaming the Fees Office? They're not going to take the rap, overseen as they are by Speaker Michael Martin, who has one or two less-than-moral expense claims of his own. And the calls for those found out to pay back the money are obviously not going to be answered.

I suppose it's easy enough to publicly claim it isn't your fault when party leader Rab C. Nesbitt is largely doing the same. He has, bless his tatty string vest, at least called for a vote on changing the rules so that the 'second home' allowance only applies to MPs living beyond "travelling distance" from Westminster. That only solves part of the problem though, as many of the blatant cash-ins for property refurbishment and furnishing are actually within the rules.

As Alastair Campbell recently said (one of the few sensible things the Jonathan Ross of politics has ever said), MPs should not be allowed to change their second home disignation once they nominated the property. And (he didn't say this) they should not be allowed to claim for furnishing the place. Let's not forget these people are paid huge wages, have more perks than a California nudist beach, and have such a large network of underlings working on their behalves to cover-up any wrong-doings they make Tony Soprano look like Joey Tribbiani.

So OK, maybe give them some money towards a second property because their job requires them to have the two residences (we all know if our own jobs required something similar we'd be in the manager's office with our hand out quicker than a Chelsea player to a referree) but almost all of the other things the leaked receipts have shown, absolutely not. They can afford those themselves. And they can afford mine too.