Deborah Orr: Accusations of expenses fiddling come and go, but the gravy train trundles on

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The Independent Online

Obviously, it never looks good when a politician is exposed as an expenses fiddler. But it does look better when a guilty politician quickly resigns, enabling his leader to utter phrases such as "not tolerated" and "rooted out".

Except that Giles Chichester, who was this week exposed as having dodgily trousered nearly half a million pounds over the past 12 years, has resigned only as leader of the Conservatives in Europe. He remains an MEP.

It may be "unacceptable" to be head boy in Europe when you are breaking the financial rules – especially when that job entails monitoring financial irregularities. But it is still OK to represent your constituents; it is still OK to assume that your behaviour is no bar to public service. What sort of foolish voter is expected to fall for such fake moral rectitude? All of us, because we have been falling for it for decades.

Much has been made of the fact that Giles Chichester was light-hearted about his misdemeanours when they were first exposed. "Whoops-a-daisy," he told a local television interviewer. "I am shown up to have made a mistake. OK, hands up, mea culpa and I am putting it right."

It is suggested that this attitude exposed that Mr Chichester did not even understand just how immoral his behaviour was. It only displays the typical attitude of most MEPs from most countries. Finding gratuitous outlets for your allowances is not considered to be corrupt in Europe. On the contrary, it is instead seen an integral part of a complex and thankless job.

MEPs are not like the rest of us. They get paid extra if they actually turn up for work, about £200 for every day they sign in at the European Parliament, whether they stay there or not. And they don't have to cough up for their expenses and then claim them. Instead, generally, they are given generous lump sums in advance, and if the expenses don't match the outlay, then so much the better for them.

The most notorious of these perks is the allowance that assumes that MEPS will have to make a trip by air from their homes to the European Parliament every week. The money is doled out on the assumption that they will fly first-class. But if they travel on a cut-price airline, they still get the money. It wouldn't save much cash to close this loophole – the buggers would simply fly first-class anyway. After all, it is this contemptuous disregard for the fact that they are spending other people's money – ours – that typifies the attitudes of MEPs, generally, as a group.

If Mr Chichester had laundered his allowances in a slightly different way, he would have been in the clear, like his colleague Den Dover, who has diverted much more cash into the family coffers, but legitimately. In fact, some of Mr Chichester's wheezes – such as the one that entailed using up some of his allowance by paying rent to himself on his own flat – were outlawed only in 2003. Likewise, some of Mr Dover's wheezes will become illegal next year, when the rules about paying salaries to families, out of the £180,000-a-year staff allowance, will be "tightened up".

Tightening up, of course, will not save any money. MEPs, and again I generalise, are interested only in the cosmetic side of reform. The whole idea is to look as though you are addressing gravy-train issues while defending the available cash.

That's why, when it was found in a random audit of 167 MEPs that they made an average of £125,000 a year each out of their allowances alone, they decided to keep the details secret. That's why, when they reluctantly agreed in 2003 to produce receipts for their expenses, the deal crumbled under the weight of the demands that were being made for a compensatory increase in salaries.

MEPs don't mind these sporadic eruptions of controversy over their allowances. Why do they persist in such arrogance? Because they believe that they are the defenders of Europe. Then they wonder why no one seems to appreciate their stalwart efforts at regulating everybody else. Meanwhile, it gets harder to stay pro-European.

It's that time of year again

OK, so I might have watched a little bit of Big Brother's opening night. But that was only so that I could enjoy informed debate with my stepdaughter. I was, however, in for a shock, because on display on Thursday were a couple of commendable displays of sexual morality.

This year's exciting "twist" is that for the first time a couple have been admitted to the house. In their early forties, Lisa and Mario were from the start keen to emphasise that Lisa, who had been with Mario for three and a half years, had contributed nothing to her boyfriend's divorce in 2005.

Then, in another exciting "twist", it was revealed that Lisa and Mario had to keep their relationship secret, while Mario was charged with having to pretend that he was involved with beautiful 19-year-old Stephanie instead. Mario, bless him, looked dumbfounded. "But ... she's young enough to be my daughter!" he exclaimed, looking as perplexed by this concept as he ought to be. "I'm going to have to pretend to be a ... a ... a footballer!"

For the sake of verisimilitude, Mario knocked a number of years off his own age, and inflated Stephanie's to a number he felt to be just about socially acceptable. For a footballer, anyway. I fear I was charmed.

On the road with winners and losers

Happily, one group of consumers has not been damaged too much by the credit crunch, or indeed by any of the other financial pressures the ordinary person is labouring under, and of which we hear so much.

Sales of 4x4 vehicles are down, but in this unique case the problem seems to have been entirely the result of judgemental and moralistic government intervention against the poor put-upon motorist.

People may be thinking twice about outlay on other luxury items due to their own cash-flow worries. But in this special case, the Government has stumbled on a policy that perfectly achieves its ambitions, and without any influence from those pesky international economic conditions. If only ministers could work out quite how they managed that great success, we'd all be motoring along quite merrily.

We would all have liked to be flies on the wall during the meeting between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, below, not least because the pickle the two of them are in is no more or less pretty now than it has ever been. Obviously, for the sake of Democratic unity, Hillary has to swing behind Barack now. Yet even more obviously, she cannot swing too closely behind him, as Barack's whole campaign has emphasised that the old elites of Washington must be swept away. Sweeping them as far away as the vice-presidency probably won't be far enough. Poor Hills is probably just going to have to fail to reform the healthcare system again, and pretend she's thrilled at the prospect. How much must she hate that guy.

* We hear a lot, and quite rightly, about the corrosive effects of snobbery. Less well documented, however, are the corrosive effects of inverted snobbery. That's why I'm so proud of my six-year-old, who has rejected the sort of pathetic appeasement I've been employing all my life. (Ooooh, but I lived in a council flat. Ooooh, but I went to a rough comprehensive, etc) Confronted on a beach by an older child who poked him and said, "You're posh," he made no excuses. "Yes," he replied. "And I've got a lot of friends who are even more posh than me." Hostilities collapsed.