It is the details that do the damage. To be blunt, none of the MPs whose expenses were exposed last week has benefited unfairly from the public purse to anything like the extent of Sir Fred Goodwin, the former boss of RBS. His pension fund, paid for by the taxpayers that now own the bank, is worth £17m.
And some of the details are unfair. Phil Woolas, the Immigration minister, is pilloried for claiming for nappies and women's clothes. He says he did not claim for them – they were on receipts that he submitted, although he did not need to, in order to claim up to £400 a month on groceries.
Like many of the trivial items for which MPs have claimed, however, they expose a system that is unsustainable. Jacqui Smith's 88p bath plug had already become an object of national ridicule and television satire. To it can now be added the 26p wooden spoon, the £599 bill for servicing a ride-on lawnmower, the £2.50 KitKat and the £10 bag of horse manure, among others.
No one doubts that most MPs and nearly all ministers work long and antisocial hours, but any temptation to sympathy is dissipated by the culture of entitlement that has been revealed by some of the correspondence that now sees the light of day. Such as the temporarily anonymous Labour MP who said that "natural justice" required that he be reimbursed £3,100 for a 40-inch TV because he had not realised there was a price limit.
Such presumption on the part of MPs was matched, it would seem, by the culture of deference on the part of the Fees Office. Michael Brown, the former Tory MP, said yesterday that it was always "anxious to err on the side of the MP".
It was one of the best arguments for freedom of information law that such a culture would not survive the sterilising sunlight of openness. One by one, the indefensible elements of the expenses regime have been destroyed as they are held up to the light of public scrutiny.
The employment of family members and nannies is now checked, and MPs now have to submit receipts for groceries (although there is still the question of why they should claim for them at all).
But the outstanding issue is that of second homes. This is the real story forced into the open by Heather Brooke, the journalist and author of Your Right to Know whose freedom of information request led to the publication of detailed expenses. The most important revelation last week was the scale and extent of "flipping". MPs, from Alistair Darling, Geoff Hoon and Hazel Blears downwards, have arbitrarily designated their homes as "main" and "second", in a way that maximises the refurbishment for which they can claim. The bath plugs and wooden spoons are only details from shopping sprees on the "John Lewis list" for furnishing these second homes that add up to thousands of pounds. Large claims have been made for building work, which helped to pay for properties that could then be sold for a personal profit of thousands more.
Of course, the cost of Sir Fred's pension is greater than that of the Additional Costs Allowance for all MPs added together, which comes to £11m a year. But the system is rotten and needs a complete overhaul.
The Prime Minister almost got it right last month – too late, needless to say – when he announced a reform on YouTube. It would be fair to replace second-homes expenses with a modest flat rate allowance for MPs representing out-of-London seats: a sort of anti-London weighting. MPs who wanted to live in an expensive home, lavishly furnished, could pay the extra themselves. Gordon Brown's mistake was to try to gain party advantage. Because he failed to consult other party leaders, who might have warned him, he also unwisely tied the flat-rate allowance to attendance at the Commons, thus making it look as if MPs would be paid extra simply for turning up for work.
The Daily Telegraph's decision to devote its first two days of reports to the Government gave the unfair impression that Labour MPs are more guilty than Conservatives. But Mr Brown has not helped the governing party's case.
It ought not to be beyond the wit of reasonable people – in this case, Sir Christopher Kelly, parliamentary standards commissioner – to devise a system that a majority of MPs, their minds focused by open accountability to voters, will accept. But to leave it so late is, for the health of democracy, the worst of all worlds. MPs, who may not be really corrupt and whose greed may be modest by the standards of the Sir Freds of the City, have been dragged, kicking and screaming, towards simple decency by the unforeseen and long-delayed consequences of their own Freedom of Information law. What a moral fable for our times.Reuse content