Editor-At-Large: Forget class. It's your perks that define your status

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The Independent Online

It's time to redefine class. In modern Britain your social position has little to do with what your dad did for a living or where you went to school. As our opinion poll shows, voters are not as obsessed as Gordon Brown is with David Cameron's time at Eton – they don't think it makes a difference to his ability to run the country. In fact, the class system is just as rigid as ever, but these days it has subtly changed.

The latest furore over MPs' expenses reveals that we have become a nation of those who enjoy perks, and those who do not. Perks are the little extras that grease your way through modern life – bonuses, expenses, allowances and inflation-protected pensions. The vast majority of the workforce faces higher tax, higher national insurance, higher VAT, shorter hours and frozen pay. But it's so different for a small privileged group – top executives, high-ranking public servants and MPs, who all benefit from these nice little extras whether they do anything to deserve them or not.

Last week, Phil Woolas, the immigration Minister, defended the payment of £300,000 to senior officials at the UK Border Agency, in spite of the fact there is still a massive backlog in applications. He manipulated the English language to tell us he had inherited a "legacy organisation" – I think he meant a backlog brought about by total ineptitude. The number of prominent public servants who routinely award themselves bonuses in controversial situations is astonishing – they've all got their noses in the trough, setting their own targets and then patting themselves on the back when they achieve them. Here's a typical example – in spite of falsely predicting a "barbecue summer" more than 1,700 staff at the Met Office got bonuses of over £650 each because of the "accuracy" of their work. And what about the directors of social services in areas where children are at risk and those NHS bosses in charge of filthy hospitals?

Taxing bankers for their annual payouts is pointless – they'll only find a way around any attempts by Mr Darling to impose a tithe on their obscene earnings. It's a bit rich for the Government to announce that it finds city bonuses so disgusting, when MPs have colluded to increase their own earnings by manipulating a system of allowances and expenses, which is just as morally dubious and which isn't even contingent on hitting productivity targets.

Last week, the Office for National Statistics published its first report on national wealth – in spite of a prolonged period of Labour government which trumpeted a commitment to eradicating poverty, little has changed. A third of the population never save. Three-quarters have credit card debts and almost half of us have loans. One in 10 of us is in arrears, unable to meet minimum payments on at least one financial commitment. Around one half of the population owns just 9 per cent of the nation's household wealth (calculated by adding up housing, pensions and possessions), whereas the richest 20 per cent of the population own a staggering 62 per cent of the total wealth. Not much social mobility in evidence.

We can sneer at John Reid's claim for a glittery toilet seat, Alan Milburn's need for a set of Nigella Lawson measuring spoons and a Jamie Oliver frying pan, Harry Cohen's £2,000 freestanding bath, and James Arbuthnot's three garlic peelers costing £43, but the vast majority of taxpayers haven't got the cash left after deductions for anything more than basic food from economy ranges, let alone garlic to fry in a designer pan.

MPs can bleat on about what living expenses they "need" to carry out their job – but what they really need is a large dollop of reality. Why should they be able to claim (as Denis MacShane did) for the cost of having five shirts regularly washed and folded? For packets of Pringles, bottled water, and having their bedding ironed (David Miliband)? In spite of Mr Darling announcing that public-sector pay rises will be frozen at just 1 per cent in 2011 and 2012, MPs are not covered by this ruling. Currently they earn just over £64,000, and are seeking a 10 per cent rise after the next election.

The Tories pledge they will cut ministers' pay by 5 per cent, but that's not enough. Ban bonuses for public-sector workers, pay MPs properly and abolish their expenses altogether.

Talking Tiger: Everyone's a winner in this sleaze parade

The next phase in the unfolding drama of Tiger Woods's astonishing double life sees the band of women he's slept with go through a familiar pattern. First, they hide, then they get a PR and an agent, then they release a statement, and finally they apologise. Never mind what's happening to Brand Tiger, these girls have got one chance to capitalise on their new fame. Some, like former cocktail waitress Jaimee Grubbs, are said to have picked up hundreds of thousands of dollars for their reminiscences and copies of the steamy texts Tiger sent them, and are now appearing on television talk shows looking suitably contrite (in a glamorous kind of way). Others will be stripping off for glamour magazines, while some have accepted large pay-offs from the golfer's legal team to keep quiet.

Tiger's earnings from advertising and endorsements may take a dip from the $99m he earned last year, but PR experts reckon he'll bounce back in a couple of years, with a new, raunchier image. His wife is bound to have negotiated a massive pay-off to remain at his side, so it could be a win-win situation in commercial terms, with the only losers his two children, who hopefully are too young to understand what's happening.

BBC's strange idea of equality

The BBC constantly tells us it is an equal opportunity employer. So I was a little surprised to read that of the six guest editors chosen to present the Radio 4 flagship current-affairs Today programme after Christmas, four are men and two are women. And, much as I admire them, PD James and Shirley Williams – both pictured right – are not entirely representative of British womanhood. All six are white, by the way.

Come home soon, Amir

Amir Khan is not only a brilliant boxer, but a wonderful role model for young men, no matter what their skin colour. So it's a shame that he told an interviewer that he's been treated "like God" since moving to the USA a year ago to train, and that if he'd been born white, he would have been regarded as a "superstar" in the UK. Khan, who retained his WBA light-welterweight title in just 76 seconds last week by knocking out Dmitriy Salita, has been booed at his last three bouts and has received plenty of abuse on the internet. Ironic, when this is the same young man who entered the ring shortly after the London bombings in 2005 draped in the Union Jack, and who has spoken proudly of his Britishness on so many occasions. The USA might have a black president, but many of the major cities are rigidly divided on racial grounds. I hope he comes home soon.