The revelation that another Labour minister has been claiming tens of thousand of pounds for a second home in London comes as an unwelcome reminder that the issue of MPs' expenses has not gone away. In this, the latest episode of a sordid drama that engulfs both sides of the political divide and shows no sign of concluding, we learn that the employment minister, Tony McNulty, has been claiming up to £14,000 a year – more than £50,000 over five years – for the house his parents own in his Harrow constituency.
This episode comes just weeks after we discovered that the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, was claiming £20,000 a year for the "expense" of staying in her sister's London home.
At least the bluff Mr McNulty had the humility to apologise for what he rightly described as a technically legitimate but "odd" use of taxpayers' money, as well as to pledge not to seek similar remuneration in future. His reaction contrasts with that of some of his more brazen colleagues such as Ms Smith who have refused to concede how sleazy their behaviour looks to the public, especially at a time when many people are struggling in a recession. Mr McNulty has even come up with a solution of sorts to the second-home expenses racket – for that is what it is – by suggesting that MPs living within reasonable commuting distance of London, should not be allowed to claim the money at all.
This is not a bad idea. The reform would bring Westminster into line with existing practice in the Scottish Parliament, and impact on 133 MPs in the Commons. Interestingly, if somewhat depressingly, more than 100 of this number claim all or part of the Additional Costs Allowance, as it is called, although many live in seats a short commute from Parliament.
What the McNulty and Smith affairs go to show is that a gravy train culture still flourishes luxuriantly at Westminster. No party seems immune to the temptation of enrichment at taxpayers' expense. Nor, indeed, do the ermine-clad members of the Lords, where a culture of sleaze seems just as embedded. Moreover, this leeching of money from the public purse continues irrespective of the drip-drip of hostile media revelations and in spite of Parliament's repeated claims that it is putting its house in order.
If MPs want to retain any respect, they must grapple with this issue, rather than withdraw into their shells like startled tortoises. They need to reform the "Green Book" which lists MPs' various expenses, starting with the £24,000-a-year allowance they are entitled to claim for a second home in the capital if they declare it their primary address. And there needs to be total transparency for all claims – which should not be an issue if everything is above board, of course.
Some MPs mutter privately that they are grossly underpaid, suggesting that higher salaries are the only way to curb such excesses. Fine. Let them initiate a debate on this point – although we are doubtful they will find much support among voters. What we cannot continue with is the muddle in which MPs publicly profess to earn a certain salary, while claiming as much as or more again in the form of expenses and the employment of family members.
We are constantly told of the growing disconnect between the public and the work of Parliament – often with an implicit suggestion that the public is at fault for not taking MPs more seriously. Perhaps MPs would be treated with more respect if they behaved with greater integrity and transparency over their expenses.