Janet Street-Porter: Why should MPs get special treatment?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Have you ever heard such a spurious reason for hiring the costly legal company of Carter Ruck? Speaker Michael Martin claims that if MPs' expenses are published under the Freedom of Information Act, their security is jeopardised by revealing the location of their second homes and so he has instituted last-minute legal action in the High Court.

According to Mr Martin, if we know where MPs live, it might inhibit their ability to speak out on controversial issues, such as embryo research, abortion and animal rights, for fear of being targeted by protesters. Legal experts have commented the action stands little chance of success, and will cost taxpayers a six-figure sum. Where MPs bunk down is hardly a sensitive subject. Many newspapers published photographs earlier this week showing exactly where Tessa Jowell owns a country house after a group of travellers be-came her new neighbours.

Mr Martin has spent three years relentlessly preventing us knowing what MPs claim in expenses, using whatever blocking mechanisms he can. He seems completely unperturbed that under his watch MPs' standing in the eyes of many voters has sunk to an all-time low. He fails to understand that, having passed a Freedom of Information Act, there isn't any justification for exempting MPs.

His handling of the furore over the Conway affair was inept. Having set up a committee (largely composed of people who did not agree with the Freedom of Information Act) to investigate MPs employing their relatives, he did not envisage it would be able to report back to the House until the autumn. Only after some behind-the-scene arm-twisting, the committee magically revised its workload and will now present its findings before the summer recess.

In the meantime, all the party leaders have been swift to offer us more information about their expenses and who they employ. More interestingly, since the Conway affair, about 70 MPs now no longer employ members of their own families. Funny that. Freedom of Information campaigners obtained a ruling ordering the publication of 14 MPs' (including David Cameron and Gordon Brown) detailed expenses .

The MPs concerned were happy to comply, but Mr Martin created another blocking device. He has unsuccessfully tried to prevent the publication of travel expenses and claims for second homes, which are widely seen as perks.

Two Labour MPs live together in West London, but claim a flat in Covent Garden as a "second home". There are the occupants of grace-and-favour residences who maintain homes in constituencies and second homes in London. MPs with constituencies on the edge of London claim for flats in the West End.

Mr Cameron and Mr Brown are both frustrated at the continuing row over expenses. Both men recognise that it plays increasingly badly with an electorate facing huge increases in their mortgages, utility and fuel bills and that it gives the impression that MPs are a privileged elite exempt from the realities of modern living.

Most MPs work long hours, and do a good job. We should pay them properly, make them employ staff according to EU legislation, pay them on a published scale and stop the system of allowances altogether. There should be strict guidelines for accommodation and travel, a ban on second jobs and paid directorships. We want them act in our best interests – so they will have to stop claiming special treatment. It's a job, not a religious vocation.

Nature beats the gym

I put in a couple of hours walking daily over Easter, enjoying the Yorkshire moors in bright sunshine between the snow showers.

My skin looks great and I slept like a log – but youth-obsessed Madonna is unlikely to turn to anything as low-tech as rambling to stay fit.

Her trainer reveals she spends two hours, six days a week, indoors lifting weights on a series of specially- built contraptions. Scientists say it is harder for older women to build muscle than it is for their male counterparts. Over 50, we lose our ability to store protein as muscle, although this can be slowed down with the kind of resistance work Madonna is addicted to. But, what a miserable existence. Give me nature any day.

* Once, people grew up graduating to cliques defined by their musical taste. From mods to rockers, glam rock to the New Romantics, each tribe had a uniform, heroes, clubs and lingo. Now, the same thing seems to be happening with food, according to trend-watchers the Future Foundation.

Celebrity chefs are brands we tap into, just like rock gigs decades ago. Far more of us eat ready meals these days, but an increasing number of foodies cook from recipes up to three times a week, choosing from the "fresh" Jamie experience, the "sexy but quick" Nigella approach, or Delia's "acceptable cheating". The foundation predicts that a tribe of foodie "neo-Victorians" will emerge, obsessed with etiquette and presentation, while another more casual group will allow several hours for their food to cook slowly, and serving it straight from the pot. Talking about food, and reading recipe books, has replaced sex. A seminal sixties best seller was The Joy of Sex – now it's anything by Delia or Gordon.