Richard Ingrams' Week: Questions of cash, perks and the need for reform

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The Independent Online

It seems unlikely that MPs will mend their ways in the wake of the revelations about Derek Conway's freeloading.

One reason is that any proposed reform of the system is likely to be blocked by the powerful figure of the Speaker Mr Michael Martin – or "Gorbals Mick" as he is affectionately known because of his Glaswegian roots.

Mr Martin's own record in the area of questionable expenses has not gone unremarked. It has been revealed that his wife Mary has claimed huge sums, including nearly £50,000 for free air travel when accompanying her husband on various overseas trips. She has even claimed a few thousand for her shopping trips by taxi "in connection with household expenditure in connection with the Speaker's duties". Meanwhile, the Speaker already gets a salary of £137,000 while he and his wife have free accommodation inside the parliamentary estate.

Some people may find such facts perhaps even more scandalous than anything to do with Mr Conway, the Speaker being an iconic figure in the parliamentary hierarchy who might be expected to set an example more so than any mere backbencher.

However, we must be careful what we say about Mr Speaker. Critics who referred recently to another of his wife's perks – being excused the normal security checks when entering the House of Commons – were threatened with legal proceedings by the notoriously bullish libel solicitors Carter Ruck acting on behalf of Mr Martin.

Martin subsequently submitted a bill for £21,516 to cover his legal costs and this, along with Mrs Martin's taxi bill, was paid for out of the public funds.

To Miles, the great humorist

Every time I see a Parceline van I shall remember Miles Kington. Because it was Miles who had decided that it was the name of an Italian pasta dish.

That was a typical Kington joke and a sign of the way he could find something humorous wherever he went. Intensely curious, he would talk to strangers on trains or buses and invariably discover something unusual to write about. He would have agreed with Chesterton who said: "Either everything is interesting, or nothing is."

He was helped, too, by a very receptive mind and a prodigious memory. After we had lunch together not long ago, he sent me a letter written out like the minutes of a meeting detailing all the things we had talked about – what he had said and what I had said. Whereas I myself could remember only a pleasurable blur. Miles, who had been taught at prep school by the master stylist William Trevor, was one of the last of the great letter-writers. His letters were as amusing and nearly as long as his Independent column. And he was recently trying to make a collection of them with a view to publication. I hope it may come to something.

He was the least pushy of men and had no regular TV or radio presence to make him better known. Had it been otherwise he might have been made editor of Punch, and Punch might still be going today. As it was, the proprietors appointed William Davis, thinking naively that as he was a financial journalist he would be able to make profits for the ailing magazine. When he finally left, Miles told him that it was "the end of an error".

* The most extraordinary facts are often to be found buried in an article rather than emblazoned abroad in the headlines. Thus in a report by The Daily Telegraph's Middle East correspondent the other day I read the following: "Neither Mr Blair nor any of his full-time staff have been to Gaza since he began his role as Middle East mediator last June."

That will strike some people, one hopes, as rather extraordinary. And perhaps even more extraordinary is that it is not a piece of news that makes the headlines or results in any kind of public outburst of indignation.

During this period since June, the people of Gaza have been subjected to a harsh blockade by the Israeli government of Ehud Olmert who makes no bones about it. "We definitely won't let the life of Gaza residents be pleasant and comfortable," he recently announced.

Gaza residents, unlike their prosperous neighbours in Israel, have never enjoyed a life that could be described in Olmert's charming phrase as "pleasant and comfortable". But recently it has been made intolerable by a lack of food, fuel and medicine, or as the result of the blockade designed to make the Palestinians regret their choice of Hamas as their elected representative. The situation has now resulted in a mass breakout on the border with Egypt, above .

Yet while all this has been going on, Mr Blair, the EU's chosen representative appointed to try to bring about some kind of settlement in the area, has never once set foot in Gaza to see for himself the kind of dangerous situation that has developed there. It may be that he is only obeying orders; it may be that as somebody who has his London house guarded night and day by four armed policemen, he is worried about his personal security.

Whatever the reason, there seems no point in Blair being there at all if he is not prepared to venture out of his plush Jerusalem offices. He might just as well go to New York and make millions to pay off his various mortgages in the comparatively safe environment of Wall Street.

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