Hard on the heels of Sir Thomas Legg's final report on MPs' expenses came the announcement from the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, that three MPs and one member of the House of Lords were to be charged under the Theft Act. Cue, fierce objections from the Parliamentarians concerned and – we suspect – a rather unseemly sense of disappointment among the public at large.
There is a shocking aspect to yesterday's announcement and one considerably less shocking. Despite all the detail, colourful and sordid, that has emerged about MPs' expenses claims in recent months, and despite the large amounts that some MPs have agreed, with varying degrees of willingness, to repay, it still comes as a shock to hear the DPP list the charges the Parliamentarians are to face. The very name, the Theft Act, communicates something brutally simple, the wrong side of a clear line between crime and mistake.
The far less shocking aspect is this. It is only in these four cases, with one still being investigated, that the DPP has found sufficient evidence even to bring charges. Guilt is now for the courts to decide, and the MPs say they will mount a robust defence. But the fact is that, out of more than 600 MPs and more than 700 members of the House of Lords, charges are to be brought against four, or at most, five. For all the unsavoury rule-bending and maximising of benefits unearthed during the expenses scandal, there are many countries in the world that would regard the small number facing criminal charges as a badge of considerable national honour.
Not only this, but in many of those same countries there would be no prospect of a trial at all until the MPs had been either shamed into resigning or forced out of Parliament by a vote of their peers. Such is the breadth of immunity that elected office can confer. So it is regrettable that the MPs may try to claim that they are protected by parliamentary privilege. To mount such a defence would reinforce the impression given by the expenses scandal of MPs as a caste apart. Like anyone else facing criminal charges, they are innocent until found guilty. Like anyone else, they should defend themselves in court.