Editor-At-Large: If shopping is a drug, MPs need to go cold turkey

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The Independent Online

A year ago Gordon Brown lectured us on the evils of waste, and begged us to do our bit for the planet by throwing away less food. Sadly, he undermined his green message the next day when he boarded a privately chartered jet to the G8 summit in Japan (which had flown to London from Texas to pick him up, empty) and sat down to a six-course lunch followed by a dinner featuring 14 dishes.

In spite of that, I've never thought the Prime Minister was a committed consumer. Dour and austere, this isn't a man who enjoys spending time in John Lewis's cushion department, unlike most of his fellow MPs. Perhaps that's why Gordon seems out of step with the public, because, although we are outraged at the amount of taxpayers' money these public servants spent on stuff to fill their second homes, they were only shopping to the max because they could get away with it. If most of us had been in their position, wouldn't we have done the same?

Try as I might, I can't get too worked up about a group of individuals exploiting a corrupt system, especially if they were told (as former MPs have admitted) that it was how things operated. Shopping's great if you're not spending your own money! We used to be a nation of shopkeepers; now we're a nation of super-shoppers, and the most unpleasant effect of the recession was that we had to be temporarily weaned off our favourite drug – spending. It's taken a lot of shopping to achieve the highest level of personal dept in Europe.

In spite of the financial meltdown, some key high-street retailers report that business has resumed in earnest. Last week, the Co-op announced record results and Next reported better-than-expected results for the quarter up to May. John Lewis unveiled plans to create 50 new specialist home stores, with the first opening in Poole, in October, at a cost of £6m. That will be handy for many MPs, including Margaret Moran, whose constituency is Luton South, but who has inexplicably designated her second home a semi-detached seaside house in Southampton, a two-hour drive from Parliament. If the store is successful, the next John Lewis shops will be in Cardiff and Stratford, east London. Garden centres too, report good business, and Wyevale announced plans to develop "green malls" aimed at eco-aware baby-boomers.

Reading through the items MPs claimed as "essential", you find patio heaters, coat hangers, two repulsive leather armchairs costing £2,600 (bought by Keith Vaz for his London flat, though his £1.5m family home is only 12 miles away). Claims for Venetian blinds, mattresses (one female MP buying three in one year) and £699 music centres. One MP was furious to have his claim for a huge telly costing £3,100 chucked out.

I like being a consumer, and try to balance the need to be green with the baser desire to buy. I can recycle up to a point, then I admit I want a new sofa. That's why John Lewis is right to open more stores. The difference between my shopping (and I suspect, yours), is that we pay large amounts of tax, and then enjoy spending the bit left over on home comforts. The big mistake MPs have made is to expect us to foot the bill for their shopping addiction. Can there be a public auction of everything they've claimed? The profits could go to deserving causes.

Family politics: Now Palin tries to rebrand her grandson's mum

Is there anything Sarah Palin won't do to further her career? At last year's Republican Convention, she paraded the entire family, from baby Trig (who has Down's syndrome) to her 17-year-old pregnant daughter Bristol. We were told Miss Palin was engaged to her boyfriend, and they planned to marry after she finished school, but since baby Trip was born last December they've parted. Now Bristol is back in the spotlight – an ambassador for the Candie's Foundation, promoting teenage abstinence. She said: "Regardless of what I did, abstinence is the only 100 per cent foolproof way to prevent pregnancy." Some commentators think it's part of Mum's masterplan to rebrand her errant daughter to appeal to conservative voters. Others think the message is more confused: "Don't have sex as a teenager, but if you do, you could end up a celebrity with a happy baby." It's US National Teenage Pregnancy Awareness day next Wednesday, but unlike Bristol, two-thirds of young unmarried mums come from poor backgrounds. Bristol has clearly changed her position on abstinence. When asked in February, she said it was "not realistic". Perhaps being a mum has proved a wake-up call. She's moaned how "you don't have friends, can't go to the movies or get your hair done". They shared the same convention platform but John McCain's 24-year-old daughter Meghan clearly disagrees on premarital sex. In a column entitled "The GOP doesn't understand sex", Meghan wrote: "Daughters of Republican politicians aren't expected to have sex, let alone enjoy it... God forbid anyone talk realistically about natural sexual instincts. The answer is always abstinence." She pleads for better communication between parents and children. In the Palin camp, it's clear who does the communicating – Mum issues orders and the kids comply.

Slender pickings in Sophie's book

Gorgeous Sophie Dahl has a cookery book to promote, although I'm not sure who will buy one costing £18.99, written by a slender ex-model who shed loads of weight, losing the curves that made her so special. I prefer celebrity chefs who look like they enjoy eating – mind you, Sophie's collection of charming recipes and whimsical drawings (entitled Miss Dahl's Voluptuous Delights, published by Harper Collins) has rapidly shed some excess poundage of its own – slashed by more than 10 quid on some internet sites. Shamelessly turning on the seduction, Sophie writes that sea bass should be "served in the garden, surrounded by love..."; and although Sophie told this newspaper that she "liked Sunday roasts", it was a different story in The Telegraph where she trilled: "I don't eat meat but I'll happily cook it."

All stations need someone to care

Transport minister Lord Adonis took the train recently to see the state of our railways at first hand. Shame he told staff, user groups, MPs and journalists about his 2,000-mile trip (visiting 50 stations in nine days) – better to have done it anonymously and experience the full horror of arriving at a station at night only to find everything closed and no one to help, something I know only too well. Even so, Adonis ranted in his blog about no refreshments at Southampton at 8pm, about dirty or closed toilets and lack of parking. Music to my ears – many stations only offer one facility to passengers and that is a platform to stand on. Adonis has appointed two "service champions" to review facilities. A waste of money – the public could easily write in and given him the data free of charge. The solution is dead simple: every station needs someone who cares, in charge, on the premises.

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