Leading article: The pursuit of MPs is becoming a witch-hunt

The abuse of expenses is serious, but we need a sense of perspective

Share
Related Topics

Another week of revelations of MPs' expenses, another seven days of humiliation for the mother of parliaments. A welter of juicy details involving ornamental duck houses and tree consultants has tumbled forth to join what we already know about massage chairs, moats and bathplugs. The scandal has claimed the scalp of Michael Martin, who becomes the first House of Commons Speaker in three centuries to be ejected from office.

Yet, after a fortnight of bloodshed on the green benches of Westminster, the public reaction to this matter is in danger of getting out of hand. The tone of the debate has become hysterical. What began as a justified critique of MPs' behaviour has degenerated into crude bullying. And the row is now in danger of eroding the democratic health of the nation.

No one disputes that The Daily Telegraph had a marvellous story on its hands when it acquired details of every expense claim made by MPs going back four years. And the newspaper had every right to expose questionable conduct from our parliamentarians. Our democracy functions best when our politicians are kept under close scrutiny by the media. Yet the manner in which this newspaper has been delivering these revelations, day after day, is in danger of doing more harm than good to our body politic.



A drawn-out scandal



The damage the drawn-out nature of the scandal is inflicting in Westminster should not be underestimated. It is right that Mr Martin announced his resignation this week. The Speaker had been at the forefront of efforts to prevent the disclosure of MPs' expenses and was far too compromised a figure to preside over the reforms the Commons so evidently needs.

But elsewhere the impact of the scandal has been far from just. Party leaders have been panicked into imposing summary justice on those MPs fingered by The Daily Telegraph. Worse, as Lord Tebbit pointed out yesterday, there is a perception that the Labour and Tory leaderships are protecting their allies, while throwing the rest to the wolves.

The result is that some of the guilty appear to have been let off the hook, while others have been unfairly punished. The events of recent weeks have left many decent MPs disillusioned with politics. In our rush to shame those MPs who have raided the public purse, we risk demoralising the majority who have done nothing wrong. Let us be clear. Where fraud has been committed it should be met with the full force of the law. And the expenses padding practised by many other MPs have, without a doubt, been deplorable. A number of MPs have treated expenses as allowances, to be claimed in any way possible, rather than funds to help them to carry out their parliamentary duties. But there is a big difference between fraud and the milking of a laxly policed expenses system. Claiming for a mortgage that does not exist cannot reasonably be put in the same category of offence as kitting out a second home with furniture from John Lewis.



Not only unjust, but corrosive



The problem is that the public – along with many in the media – is reacting as if all expense claims are indicative of dishonesty. This is not only unjust, but corrosive. If we expect MPs to divide their work between two distant parts of the country, we have to pay for them to do it. Two reasonable people might disagree about how it should be constituted, but some residential allowance system is necessary. Equally, if we expect MPs to do their job of representing their constituents and holding the Government to account, they need to be given public resources to employ researchers and staff. This costs money. Without these allowances only the independently wealthy will be able to afford to enter Parliament. Those who howl about the corruption of the present system should consider the desirability of returning to the days when politics was the exclusive preserve of the wealthy.

Some have identified a silver lining in this affair: at least the public is now "engaged" in politics. This is naive. The public is engaged with the pillorying of MPs. A public flogging will always attract an audience. But this is not the same as being engaged with politics. MPs' gardening arrangements have certainly fired the public's imagination, but who is debating the issues that are the substance of politics? In fact, the expenses row is squeezing out any debate about serious and pressing issues such as the Government's policies to combat the recession and efforts to curtail runaway climate change.

The hysteria we are witnessing is, in fact, a symptom of the disconnection many feel from the political process. The plans announced by the various party leaders for cleaning up the MPs expenses system – such as preventing second home "flipping" and limiting the range of expenses that can be claimed for – are generally sensible. But the public has regarded this as an exercise in shutting the stable door after the horse's departure. It carries little credibility among those who feel that the political classes will always be a law unto themselves.

Clearly, there remains a considerable job of rebuilding trust in Parliament and our political system. Proponents of constitutional reform have been pressing their case in recent days, urging reform of the House of Lords, a new Bill of Rights and, somewhat counterintuitively, more powers for MPs. Other ideas also worth exploring are fixed-term Parliaments and two term limits for Prime Ministers. But we need to think carefully about the roots of this crisis when considering what reforms are needed. One of the lessons of the past decade is that large majorities tend to encourage a feeling of entitlement among MPs. Electoral reform would help to dispel this mentality; a more proportional voting system would tend to result in tighter Parliaments.

Furthermore, one of the striking features of the public response to this crisis is the vocal support for those who have indicated their willingness to stand as independent candidates at the next election. There is a palpable sense of dissatisfaction with the present choice on offer, a feeling from the public that its ability to register its voice is impeded. A more proportional voting system would relieve some of this pressure. Interestingly, the Health Secretary, Alan Johnson, mentioned the 1998 Jenkins review on electoral reform in an interview with this newspaper earlier this week as something that could reconnect politics with the public.

The attraction of the Jenkins proposals is that they would retain the constituency link for MPs while also making the composition of the Commons more representative of how the public votes. With the backing of thoughtful politicians such as Mr Johnson, the Jenkins plan might yet have its day.



The reckoning we need



But we have to realistic. An overhaul of the voting system is not going to be implemented in the coming months, however desirable that would be. And in the absence of such a reform, a general election, in which the public can vote out those MPs who it feels have betrayed its trust, is the next best thing.

While we wait for that reckoning, we ought, collectively, to take a deep breath and rediscover a sense of perspective on recent revelations. Those MPs that have milked the expenses system have, without question, behaved appallingly. But by overreacting to what has taken place, we risk doing our democratic system a double disservice.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The economy expanded by 0.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2014  

British economy: Government hails the latest GDP figures, but there is still room for skepticism over this 'glorious recovery'

Ben Chu
Comedy queen: Miranda Hart has said that she is excited about working on the new film  

There is no such thing as a middle-class laugh

David Lister
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little