Andrew Grice: Our MPs are honourable. Honest

After July, Jacqui Smith's blue movies will look like a trailer for the main event

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Solutions Architect - Permanent - London - £70k DOE

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

General Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Great opportunities for Cover...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The bustling Accident & Emergency ward at Milton Keynes Hospital  

The NHS needs the courage to 'adapt and survive'

Nigel Edwards
 

Letter from the Sub-Editor: Canada is seen as a peaceful nation, but violent crime isn’t as rare as you might think

Jeffrey Simpson
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?