Leading article: Crimes, punishment and responding to public anger

The response to the MPs' expenses scandal has been perilously uneven

The expenses scandal continues to cut a bloody swathe through Parliament. Margaret Moran, the Labour MP for Luton South, and Julie Kirkbride, the Conservative MP for Bromsgrove, both announced yesterday they will stand down at the next election. Their political careers have been drowned in the rising tide of public discontent over expenses.

Ms Kirkbride was due to face an angry meeting of her local constituency members. Ms Moran was facing a challenge from the television personality Esther Rantzen at the next election. Both decided that resignation was preferable.

Did they deserve this treatment? Both MPs certainly behaved in ways which it is hard to defend. Ms Moran claimed £22,500 for treating dry rot in her designated second home. Compared with moat cleaning, that might sound a legitimate expense. The problem is that Ms Moran's second home is in Southampton, 100 miles from her constituency. How can this be acceptable when the purpose of the second home allowance is to help MPs maintain a property in either London or their constituency?

As for Ms Kirkbride, she re-mortgaged her second home in Redditch by £50,000 to build an extra bedroom and claimed the interest payments on expenses. But this was a second home in which her brother was living, at least some of the time, rent-free. And the bedroom was for him, not her.

Both MPs pointed to special circumstances justifying what they did. Ms Moran claims that her partner lived in Southampton and that having a second home there was essential for her to maintain a tolerable family life. Ms Kirkbride claims that her brother provided child-care for her son, something which enabled her to perform her parliamentary duties.

But while one might have sympathy with the difficulty some MPs have in balancing their professional and family lives, it does not follow that the taxpayer should pick up the bill for the arrangements they come up with to make their lives easier. And Ms Kirkbride's attempt to use her son to deflect criticism certainly comes across as rather distasteful. In the end the only question that really matters is this: would either of these MPs have made these expense claims if they knew their constituents would find out about them? The answer is surely not.

Yet there is a broader context to this scandal that ought to be recognised. Although Ms Moran and Ms Kirkbride - and many other MPs - have acted foolishly the hysterical tone in which this debate is being conducted has become unhealthy for our democracy.

Furthermore, the manner in which MPs are being treated by the party leaderships has been wildly inconsistent. The severity of punishment seems to depend on the priority The Daily Telegraph gives to each revelation it publishes. And ministers and shadow frontbenchers have generally been spared, despite the fact that several have been engaged in practices very similar to those of the unfortunate backbenchers who have been told to fall on their swords. Labour has established a panel to adjudicate on wrongdoing, but the criteria by which MPs are referred to this "star chamber" is unclear. The verdicts of the Tory scrutiny committee seem arbitrary too.

The Labour and Conservative leaderships seem less interested in seeing justice done than placating public anger. But public anger is unfocused and - in some instances - unreasonable. No one would deny that Parliament needs to get its house in order. But arbitrary punishment and panic measures are not the tools to achieve this.