Michael Brown: A great divide looms: MPs who have – and those who have not

The expenses saga could leave us with the two-tier system of a century ago

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If we thought that Sir Christopher Kelly's report reforming MPs' expenses was the last word on the scandal we need to think again. Yet another batch of expenses involving "flipping", DVDs, toasters, Swiss roll trays and refuse bags will feed the insatiable appetite of the headline-writers and add further fuel to the anti-politics mood of the public.

The usual suspects, including Jacqui Smith and Douglas Hogg, will, no doubt, be singled out (probably unfairly this time) for further ritual humiliation at the hands of their local press. Tories will enjoy a quiet snigger at the expense of turncoat Quentin Davies, now a Labour defence minister, who disputes that he claimed for repairs to the bell tower at his stately home. The irony is that Mr Davies does not take a ministerial salary.

It is clear, however, that during the latest period covered, MPs were already aware that their receipts might be published and there has been some tailing off of the previous excessive claims. This proves that all that was needed, instead of the setting up of inquiries, commissions and reports, was a simple system of open disclosure.

Meanwhile, the damage to the body politic will continue to sap the remaining energy of the current Parliament until the dissolution sweeps away those who have decided (with a little arm-twisting from their party leaders) to call it a day and the electoral grim reaper dismisses others whose expenses are likely to be the subject of fierce campaigns by rival candidates.

This forthcoming election will be no time for incumbents to "enjoy" the campaign and they will grind through an unenviable three-week assault course of ritual abuse by voters. Doorstep embarrassment over disputed claims for biscuits and sofas will drown out the arguments over wider policy issues, while challenging candidates – especially in marginal seats – will don the hair shirt. Promises by unsullied, aspiring, MPs to claim for no more than a bed in a Salvation Army style hostel will be made in haste and regretted at leisure.

Only once the results are declared will this wretched saga finally come to an end. Except that, even then, the discomfort of the new arrangements will see a number of those, newly elected, not wearing the hair shirt for long and an increasing number of suitable applicants in the future unwilling to submit themselves for public office – unless they are filthy rich.

In the meantime Parliament still has to decide to provide legislative time to enact the recommendations of Sir Christopher Kelly – which are themselves subject to the final arbitration of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA).

Sitting MPs who are re-elected have five years to divest themselves of their second home and find rented accommodation while new MPs can only rent. The rich MPs will presumably pay off their mortgages from their own resources and continue with their current domestic arrangements. We'll be back to the days of a century ago with a two-tier system of MPs – those living in style in Belgravia while others slum it in the rented digs to be identified from a list compiled by IPSA.

It is a recipe for chaos, especially for women MPs representing constituencies a long distance from London with small children. Will they be expected to leave their offspring in the constituency or will IPSA find suitable premises for their families in Westminster? Yet again, only the rich who can afford boarding schools will be the winners in this new system. Of course the argument over MPs' domestic arrangements is unlikely to concern voters but sections of the press will enjoy every story of family dysfunction created by the new system.

In my early days as an MP, over 30 years ago, we also had the system of only claiming for rented accommodation or hotels. I lived happily, as a single person, in the cheap but grand surroundings of the Reform Club. With no family ties it was a pleasant and comfortable arrangement – the alternative was very unpleasant digs around Victoria which my married colleagues endured, with marital break-ups higher then than now. This is to what we will return in the new Parliament and I hope the respective party whips' offices will keep a statistical log of divorces that will undoubtedly ensue as a consequence.

But the ticking time bomb in this saga remains the unwillingness of anyone to recognise that an MP with a family, and no outside interests, representing a constituency beyond commuting distance of London will find it hard to make ends meet. And with a massive turnover next May, a large number of those newly elected will probably only serve one term before being defeated. Even if IPSA recommends a substantial pay increase the new Government is bound to set it aside. These new arrangements will create more problems than they will solve. Voters will eventually end up with an even more unrepresentative Parliament than at present with only the wealthy able to afford to be MPs.

m.brown@independent.co.uk

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