It is a rare thing in this day in age to see two knights fighting it out. But that is, nonetheless, what happened yesterday. And, still more bizarrely, they were trading blows over the honour of lowly members of parliament.
Sir Thomas Legg, the former Whitehall mandarin called in by the Prime Minister to audit the expenses of MPs going back four years, released his final report. He lambasted the "culture of deference" within the Commons Fees Office and the "deeply flawed" system of second home expenses. 390 current and former MPs were ordered to repay £1.3m in total.
But Sir Paul Kennedy, a former judge appointed by House of Commons Estimates Committee to rule on appeals against Sir Thomas' judgements, decided to fight back on behalf of MPs. Sir Paul accused Sir Thomas of exceeding his remit, criticising the retrospective limits imposed on certain claims. Sir Paul also argued that it was "damaging, unfair and wrong" for Sir Thomas to suggest that MPs were guilty of "impropriety" when the rules on expenses were so hazy. He ruled that 44 MPs (out of 75 who appealed) did not need to repay the full sums demanded by Sir Thomas. One MP even had his entire repayments wiped out.
The Legg report really ought to have marked the end of this tortuous saga. But this knightly squabble has opened up old wounds on expenses. And some MPs seem keen to exploit the idea, apparently supported by Sir Paul, that they have been treated unfairly. The danger now is that this mood of defiance will grow, making the necessary process of expenses reform more difficult.
New rules for MPs' expenses are in the process of being drawn up by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), headed by yet another establishment knight, Sir Ian Kennedy. Yet Sir Ian has signalled that not all the tough recommendations for reform in last year's report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life will be adopted. And IPSA's proposals themselves will need to be approved by the Commons before they come into force. In the end, MPs themselves will have the final say on their new allowances system. So signs that some among them still do not grasp the egregiousness of the former expenses system is alarming.
They should bear in mind that the majority of voters would agree with the Legg report's strict interpretation of the original rules governing on expenses, as well as Sir Thomas' conclusions regarding the propriety of MPs' behaviour. There were more juicy revelations yesterday involving grapefruit bowls and flagpole ropes charged to the public purse. The public anger over the way that some MPs have abused the system still smoulders – and could easily flare up once again.
The expenses scandal has already prompted the largest exodus of MPs from the Commons since the Second World War. And the affair is still likely to be a serious weakness for scores of incumbent MPs in the coming general election. Many politicians are yet to experience the raw wrath of the public on this issue.
The allowances affair has gravely damaged public trust in our political leaders. And some of the criticism of MPs' behaviour has gone too far. For the good of our democracy, a line needs to be drawn and a new, wholly transparent and equitable, system of parliamentary expenses established. MPs would be fools indeed to attempt to obstruct that cleansing process.Reuse content