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Melanchthon: MPs have not been unethical in their expense claims, and should stand up for themselves

Melanchthon prefers to remain anonymous (and is NOT an MP).

In the current scandal over MP expenses, there have been perhaps three or four cases that appear criminal or verging on the criminal — apparently outright frauds in which claims were made for expenses that simply didn’t exist.  Beyond that there have been five or six cases that, though perhaps not illegal, were politically highly problematic — such as schemes for avoiding tax set up by people that preached about the wickedness of attempts by others to avoid paying taxes, inviting the charge of hypocrisy.

Now, there being perhaps eight to ten MPs engaged in serious wrongdoing or blatant hypocrisy is quite a high number.  But the vast majority of the claims that have been discussed in the press, including most of those about which voters have been most upset, have not involved any wrongdoing or unethical behaviour at all, and it is only straightforward ignorance or knowing distortion that has made it seem as if they did.

Suppose I employed you to work for my company, and required you to go on a business trip to New York in which you had to stay overnight.  You would need somewhere to stay, and would need to eat.  You need these things in order to do the job I sent you to do.  You would probably rent a hotel room, then buy some dinner in a restaurant.

Now, suppose that when you brought back your receipt to make your expenses claim I looked at it closely and said “Your expenses claim includes a chocolate mousse for your dessert.  Did you need a chocolate mousse?  Was your having a chocolate mousse necessary for you to do your job?”  Do you think you would be able to defend your claiming for a chocolate mousse against this line of scrutiny?  I put it to you that you would not.

And yet, I’ll bet that, to within a rounding error, 100% of those of you reading this blog that have put in a business expenses claim for dinner have claimed for your dessert.  Do you consider your having done so to be something that was “strictly within the rules but actually unethical”?  I’ll bet you don’t.  I’ll bet that what you think is that that the norm in your business was that it was fine to claim for dessert, that everyone understood that.  So, does that perhaps mean that providing you with expenses for dessert implies that your firm should pay some extra tax for the fringe benefits it gives you?  I’ll bet no-one reading this works for a firm that does that.

I would not arrange MP expenses the way that it has been done up to now.  But the way it has been done up to now is not obviously stupid or wrong.  It’s not, I think, the best way it could be done, but the judgement call is not nearly so straightforward as the current commentary suggests.

If I were to require one of my staff to work abroad, temporarily, the practical upshot might be that she would need an additional home.  My firm would pay a reasonable sum for that, including the house and furnishings.  We might even pay a subsistence allowance covering food – it’s not obviously abnormal for food to be covered.

An MP, to do his job, might need to follow the news.  So perhaps he need a TV.  So an allowances system might pay for his television in one of his houses.  But if we were to push the point, could he really defend having a 21” screen rather than a 14” screen, or having a built-in DVD player, as being necessary to doing his job?  Probably not, but only in the same sense that none of you can defend claiming for your dessert.

Does an MP need both an iron and a trouser press at both his residences?  Perhaps not, but if on a week-long business trip you put your suit out for the hotel dry-cleaner rather than ironed it yourself, would you really be able to defend doing that?

MP houses in their constituencies probably need to be on a certain scale, so that they can host large constituency events or have important people come to dinner.  They probably have gardens that need to be maintained.  Do we expect MPs to be out in the sunshine on a Saturday afternoon doing their own gardening?  Or were we thinking they might be meeting with their constituents?  Some gardens may contain ponds that need dredging.  Others may contain streams.  Occasionally the garden may contain a moat.  All these things need to be maintained, and it is by no means obvious that it is illegitimate for people to claim the expense of maintaining these things if everyone accepts that their having some decently kept grounds is a normal requirement for them to carry out their duties.

On Remembrance Day, party leaders and various other functionaries lay rather spectacular wreaths at the Cenotaph.  Do you think Gordon Brown pays for his own wreath?  I don’t know, and I can see it being done either way — he may prefer to pay for the wreath he lays himself, or it may be that he is placing the wreath there not as himself but as a representative of the country, in which case the taxpayer would fund his wreath (since it is a wreath from us all).  Similarly, if an MP must attend a number of official events on Remembrance Day, he may have to put in three or four wreaths.  Are they all his own offerings (in which case we might think it reasonable if each wreath is a little smaller than it would be if he were submitting only one), or is he laying wreaths as our public face, in which case we the public should be paying for our wreaths?  I see an argument in each direction here, and it doesn’t seem in any way unreasonable to me for an MP to at least ask whether it would be in order for him to claim for a wreath?

And as for nappies, tampons, and dogfood on grocery expenses...  Well, surely what has happened in such cases is that the MP bought some groceries, then gave the receipt to some intern to check and pass on to the relevant claims officer.  OK, so the receipt shouldn’t have included the dogfood (£4.47) etc..  But do you really want your MP spending his time going through his grocery bills knocking off £4.47 from his expenses claim — especially as there will certainly be some other occasion on which he bought a £4.50 kebab and forgot to take the receipt.  I want my MPs to have better things to do that worry about such trivia, and I can’t take seriously the idea that the House of Commons officers should have been stricter over such matters.

So, there are three or four properly bad apples — if they’ve really done what it appears they’ve done I hope they are prosecuted.  Every Parliament ends up with two or three MPs being prosecuted for something — some Parliaments have alleged spies or murderers; others just have fraudsters.  And there are a few others that have probably been guilty or hypocrisy or some other important political sin.  But the numbers of proper offenders can be counted on the fingers of two hands.

The vast, vast, majority of MPs have done nothing wrong, and have nothing to apologize about.  I am disappointed that so few of them have the backbone to stand up and defend themselves.

Change the system.  Fine.  That should have been done long ago.  Build or buy a block of apartments and assign one to each MP.  Abolish housing allowances.  Increase their basic pay an in future honour the recommendations on how much their pay should be raised and when (instead of whipping frontbenchers to vote against rises when — as almost always— they seem politically inconvenient).  The system has flaws.  But it is not a corrupt or obviously stupid system, even as it stands, and the vast majority of MPs have not been improper or unethical in their working within in it.


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