It is the scandal that keeps on giving. The row over expenses abuses by members of the British parliament has for the last two weeks filled the papers and news broadcasts. Everyone is talking about it, and heads are rolling.
Conservative paper The Daily Telegraph has been behind the flood of details on money claimed for gardening, paying off house mortgages, porn videos, horse manure, new kitchens, and even, in one case, the cleaning of a manorial moat. It has taken full advantage of a “deep throat” source leaking titbits from Westminster. In fact all details of expense claims have to be made public before the year’s end thanks to a new law, so there is some suspicion about the timing of the affair. Until now parliamentary commissions have set the rules without any independent supervision. An MP’s salary is relatively modest, but it can be boosted by maintaining a home in London and claiming that cost. Money is also available for secretarial costs, there is a daily eating allowance, and travel is unlimited. Some MPs have made money trading those London homes. The rules allowed the secondary homes to be reclassed as first residences on sale, avoiding taxes, so voters were effectively subsidising the profits MPs made. That is what Communities Minister Hazel Blears did, taking advantage of elastic rules critics say could only encourage abuses. But she inisists she has done nothing wrong. “I complied with the rules of the house, the rules of the Inland Revenue, and you know that’s the situation, but I do understand how strongly the public feel about it, and I hate all of this.” Blears has promised to pay back thousands of euros, as have a whole group of others, to the tune of over 150 000 euros so far, and counting. But Heather Brooke, who last year took the right to know MPs’ expenses to the High Court and won, is not impressed; “There has been a definite lack of understanding by MP’s about how democracies change, the relationship with the public. They seem to think we are living in some sort of dark ages, of feudalism, where we are all content to just have them spend our money without telling us what they spent it on or why.” With local and European elections on the horizon, the fear is a disillusionment with politicians could lead to a big protest vote for smaller parties.