Leading article: Revelations that underline the need for reform

MPs should stop grumbling and accept the Kelly recommendations
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The Independent Online

The House of Commons' agony over allowances continues. Quentin Davies's bell tower looks destined to join Peter Viggers's ornamental duck house, Douglas Hogg's moat and Jacqui Smith's blue movies in the pantheon of expenses shame.

The hundreds of thousands of receipts published by Parliament yesterday are less heavily "redacted" than the last batch released in June, which were censored to an almost farcical degree. But this welcome enhancement of openness is unlikely to elevate the esteem in which our MPs are held by the general public.

For these claims, many of which predate this year's popular uproar on the subject of MPs allowances, seem to provide still more evidence of politicians milking the system. Receipts for garlic-peelers and hamburger- makers reinforce the perception of petty grasping from our political representatives. And yet more MPs are revealed to have engaged in the dubious practice of "flipping" their designated second home for personal gain.

But all this fresh detail does not actually take us any further in the long-running expenses saga. In terms of what needs to be done, the prescription remains the same. Where fraud appears to have taken place, the police must investigate. And reform of the wider system is another imperative. We all know that the old system was outrageously lax, with the Commons Fees Office positively encouraging MPs to maximise their allowances.

Yet the general public could usefully discover some perspective too. There remains an unwillingness in the wider country to recognise that MPs with constituencies outside the capital need some form of allowance if they are to do their jobs properly. If we want decent political representation, we will need to pay for it.

And some of the rhetoric that has been bandied around has gone overboard too. The idea that Britain has elected the most grasping and corrupt set of legislators in its history, as some seem to suggest, does not bear scrutiny.

What we must hope is that these latest revelations demonstrate to our MPs the folly of attempting to water down the reforms proposed recently by Sir Christopher Kelly's Committee on Standards in Public Life. There has been talk of the Commons rejecting some elements of the Kelly package, which includes a ban on home flipping and MPs' employment of spouses. That would be a grave error.

Some MPs are also making noises about fighting the recommendations of Sir Thomas Legg, the civil servant whose recent report has recommended that some MPs should make repayments on past claims that, in his judgement, should never have been authorised. That too would be a serious mistake.

It's true that both Kelly and Legg might be dishing out rough justice in some cases, but MPs collectively only have themselves to blame for their predicament. Their historic failure to agree on reforms to the expenses system, and their repeated attempts to evade the searchlight of public scrutiny on allowances, means that they have surely forfeited the right to self-regulation.

There is only one way for MPs to escape the agony of expenses opprobrium and that is wholesale reform and independent scrutiny of their allowances system. They should take this latest dose of embarrassment as an invitation to stop grumbling and to get on with it.