Simon Carr: Can we forget expenses and talk about something else?

Rules are a rotten way to regulate MPs' behaviour

Haven't we had enough of MPs' expenses scandals? There are several answers to that question, most of them negative. When the story gets stale and starts to fade some refreshment pops up.

The police announce an investigation into phantom mortgage claims. The outgoing Speaker attacks the party leaders. The authorities heap ignominy on their heads by publishing blacked out claims. Now we have the Speaker candidates on the front pages with their gardening, accountancy, home office costs. The sums have been aggregated over some years to increase the impact. Legitimate claims mingle with the potentially illegitimate.

It's not always clear from the papers which is which. You hear private defences no one dares make publicly for fear of rotten eggs. For instance, I've heard an MP defending Peter Viggers: "He didn't actually claim for the duck island. He sent all his expenses to the Fees Office and asked them to pay what they could. They rejected the duck island, and he accepted that."

When I ran into Andrew Tyrie in the corridors, he showed me the Revenue advice to MPs and Ministers. It is absolutely unambiguous in its approval of "flipping". What Hazel Blears and Kitty Ussher did was not just legal, or tolerated. It was recommended.

If Her Majesty's Revenue instructs you how to reduce your tax bill in an officially approved way, even the Archbishop of Canterbury would designate his second home his main home "for tax purposes". The Revenue is saying that "for tax purposes" is a technical construction that needn't bear any real relation to the material world.

And who is such a socialist that he offers to pay double the rate of stamp duty on their house purchase? As an MP said, "MPs are now the only people in Britain who can't do this".

The difference with them and us, admittedly, is that the public purse paid for the second home in the first place. The cost was nationalised and the profit was privatised. It was a rotten system yes, but that's what the system was.

There is a lesson at the heart of it. Legislators can make language mean what they want it to mean. As an aside, this suggests that Adam Price's Bill – The Prohibition of Deception Bill which makes it illegal for MPs to make false or misleading statements – is unlikely to make a great deal of difference to the practice of making false or misleading statements. Because, in short, rules are a rotten way to regulate MPs' behaviour.

For instance: It is impossible to be clearer in the black letter statement that begins the MPs' rule book. Expenses can only be claimed for items that are wholly and necessarily incurred by the job. But that rule was modulated, moderated and modified by the officials who administered it. When the rule had evolved out of recognition, officials were saying that garden plants were an allowable expense.

So we can be certain that a statutory code won't do what they want it to do. It will either be so vague as to be meaningless ("Letters from constituents shall be answered in a timely fashion.") Or so prescriptive as to bring the MPs' life to a halt ("Letters from constituents shall be answered within 20 working days.") There'll be constituents comparing response times and the losers will have the option of taking their MPs to court for non-compliance with the code.

The answer to expenses – and there is a simple answer to it – is a wiki-site on the internet. Everything an MP claims for goes up on the site. It will be interrogated by the public, of that we can be sure. Every one of 5 million receipts will be seen by someone or other, and interesting examples will be forwarded to party leaders and newspapers.

This removes the need for legislation, for another quango, for a complex bureaucratic structure, for summonses and appeals and interminable consultations. It puts scrutiny in the hands of "the people". It devolves power in the way they are always saying they want to do. It involves the public. And the primary deterrent to extravagant or doubtful claims will be cultural, not procedural.

Because when it comes to MPs, the final fact is: for every rule, there is a way round the rule.

simoncarr@sketch.sc

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