When I entered the House of Commons 30 years ago, I had an appointment with the Fees Office to give them my bank details for payment of my salary – just under £7,000. I was given a wad of expenses claim forms for the tax-free, additional cost of living in London. No receipts were required from me. I divided the amount – from memory about £3,000pa – by 12 and a monthly payment, with no questions asked, was transferred into my account. If I had chosen to live under the arches at Waterloo station to subsidise my salary, no one would have known. In any event, nothing was published and there was no transparency or accountability.
I was, however, explicitly forbidden from claiming mortgage interest payments – the money had to be used for either a hotel or rent on a flat. I stayed, for the 35 weeks a year that Parliament sat, on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays in the Reform Club – driving back to Scunthorpe after the 10pm vote on Thursdays. I had a 486 majority and no expectation that I would be there for more than five years. Many MPs – as they will find to their cost next year – are ejected by the swing of the electoral pendulum or the stroke of a boundary commissioner's pen. Few survive until they are able to choose their own time of retirement, as I can testify, and some live in penury thereafter.
The arrangements suited me as a single man with no family commitments, but many of my colleagues lived in appalling bedsit conditions while their families were left on their own in the constituencies. The divorce rate soared. To add insult to injury, Margaret Thatcher frequently set aside recommended pay increases for backbenchers. But in 1983, to compensate for her meanness, the additional costs allowance was extended and claims that included mortgage interest payments were also permitted. By the time I left Parliament in 1997, the annual allowance was £11,000. Remember that mortgage interest rates were in excess of 10 per cent for much of our period in office and the allowance rarely covered the cost of my £900 monthly mortgage payment.
So let's get one thing straight. MPs with constituencies outside London and the Home Counties have to be reasonably accommodated in two places. And if we want more women in Parliament they are likely to have children who will want to live with them in London during the week. So going back to the old system of bedsits, hotels or even introducing a kind of student-style hall of residence system is utterly unreasonable and unworkable.
And let's also be grown up and recognise that for all their faults, the Prime Minister and his cabinet colleagues are not personally corrupt. But the convoluted method by which Mr Brown claimed for his cleaner through the payments via his brother simply looks appalling. Jack Straw's oversight in claiming the full council tax when he was receiving a discount was corrected only when he checked his expenses claims prior to publication. Under the old system, before full disclosure, he would have no opportunity to do this and might otherwise have unwittingly pocketed several hundred pounds. But I do not accept Mr Straw was either corrupt or on the fiddle. There is no doubt that the system is as much to blame for this mess as Mr Straw's acknowledgement that "accountancy is not my strong suit".
The problem has undoubtedly been exacerbated by the dubious practice of "flipping" between the main residence and the second property so that huge sums can be lavished on home improvements at taxpayers' expense on both properties. Hazel Blears, on the face of it, appears to have been pushing the envelope by kitting out several properties in this manner. But again, there is no suggestion of breaking any rules. And in fairness to ministers, it was once always the practice that any minister was deemed to have their principal residence in London and a backbencher who became a minister was required to alter their constituency home to become the "second" property.
All this is a mess which has brought all politicians and politics into even more disrepute. It is also discouraging good people from putting themselves forward as MPs. Of course the expensive televisions, replacement fitted kitchens, new mattresses, down to Jacqui Smith's 85p bath plug and blue movies for her hubby are disgraceful examples of petty abuse that cry out for reform by a third party.
I have no doubt that there will be similar embarrassments for many MPs and shadow spokesmen in other parties when they are also put under the spotlight. I am also confident, however, that every single expenses claim now being submitted this year, which will be eventually published next year in every national and local newspaper, will stand the test of scrutiny. The discipline of transparency is probably already having a beneficial effect and I predict huge under-claims in future years regardless of whatever system Sir Christopher Kelly's Committee on Standards in Public Life recommends. All he now needs to recommend is simply that claims should be restricted to mortgage interest and utility bills – which was all the allowance would stretch to in years gone by.
But the public has a duty to recognise that the refusal, over several decades, to pay politicians a decent salary commensurate with other professions has contributed to this shambles. If every prime minister from Margaret Thatcher to Gordon Brown had allowed the recommendations of independent pay review bodies to be implemented in full, the salary would probably by now be in excess of £100,000. This would discourage successive governments from allowing the expenses system to be regarded by some as a way of "topping up" what, by comparison to other legislatures, is only a modest salary for full-time MPs.
The final arbiters will be the voters in 362 days' time. Ms Blears, Ms Smith and all other MPs with dubious claims will now have to account to their constituents and, at the margin, this may be more than sufficient to impose a new discipline upon the 2010 intake of MPs in the next Parliament.