Here's some shock news: the vast majority of our MPs are not corrupt, or lining their pockets at the taxpayers' expense. I suspect they are a much more honest and honourable bunch than many of their foreign counterparts, including members of the European Parliament.
The stream of stories about MPs' expenses are not wrong, and are fair game since they involve public money. But they add up to a rather misleading picture: staffing costs of up to £100,000 a year account for two-thirds of what a typical MP claims, dwarfing the controversial £24,000-a-year "second homes" allowance. To describe staff costs as "expenses" is pushing it a bit. The money isn't seen by MPs but paid by the Commons direct to their secretaries and researchers.
You can hardly blame the public for believing the governing class are in it for themselves. The recession makes the sense of alienation worse, and more corrosive for the political system as a whole, which is as dangerous for the people as the politicians.
Labour may suffer most as the governing party but the mood of the voters is "a plague on all your houses". Eric Pickles, the normally down-to-earth Tory chairman, was howled down by the audience on BBC1's Question Time last month when he defended the "second homes" allowance. Later he admitted his performance was "like a car crash in slow motion". He now backs sweeping reforms of the expenses system.
It only takes a few bad apples to give the impression that the whole barrel is rotten. How else could voters react to Jacqui Smith's expenses claim for two porn films ordered by her husband? As it happens, my own favourite is the Home Secretary's 88p bath plug. It sums up a system that invites both anger and ridicule.
Many MPs have been painfully slow to realise the damage all this is doing to politics. The younger ones, David Cameron and Nick Clegg among them, got it first. For months, Gordon Brown wondered what all the fuss was about. As Chancellor he perpetuated the root cause of the problem: since the 1970s, MPs' salaries have been artificially held down to prevent bad headlines and to send a message to other workers. In return, their perks mushroomed. New boys were told to claim their full whack of expenses; the rules of the club must be upheld. Much of the current furore could have been avoided if MPs had grasped an opportunity to sweep the stables clean in July last year. But they rejected proposals to scrap the "second homes" payments and abolish the "John Lewis list" which allows them to fit out their second properties. Why? Because keeping their generous expenses was again the price of holding down their pay, which they voted on at the same time. Thirty-three ministers opposed the reforms in a free vote, even though they were supported by Harriet Harman, the Leader of the Commons.
Mr Brown, who didn't bother to vote then, certainly realises the scale of the expenses problem now. He threw the kitchen sink at it – which was appropriate, since Ms Smith had claimed £550 for a stone one from Habitat – when the list of MPs' claims for 2007-08 was published last month, urging the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life to speed up an inquiry that was not going to produce results until after the next election, and calling for the "second homes" allowance to be scrapped.
The Prime Minister is getting conflicting advice. Some of his aides and ministers say the expenses row is such a disaster that he must sort it out quickly – if necessary, by announcing his own reforms. Others say that would pre-empt the committee's review, still not due to be completed until around the end of this year. Some warn that Mr Brown's proposals could be voted down by MPs – a clear sign that many of them still don't "get it" – which could be worse than doing nothing.
The problem is that the stream of stories about expenses is about to turn into a tsunami. About 700,000 pages of data, including thousands of receipts, are due to be published in July following a freedom of information ruling. This sends shivers down the spines of MPs in all parties. It will make Jacqui Smith's blue movies look like a mere trailer for the main event.
Ms Harman would like the Government to have its own proposals ready by July, so it can argue that the abuses revealed then are a thing of the past. She told me this week: "Everybody is aware of the need to do something as quickly as possible, and not to allow the process to be drawn out. It will be sorted as quickly as it possibly can be."
What's the answer? A pay rise on top of the £64,766 that MPs currently receive, implemented after the next election. Let's say £10,000 a year, to cushion the blow of losing their subsidy to buy second homes. That should be replaced by an overnight allowance based on hotel costs for those MPs who need to stay in London two or three nights a week. It's the system that is corrupt, not the MPs – though that's not how it looks to the public. Perception is reality here. MPs from all parties should now come together to clear up a mess of their own making.Reuse content