Leading article: There can be no justification for this abuse of expenses

MPs should put up their hands and throw their efforts behind reform
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The Independent Online

There are several spurious arguments that have been bandied about in the debate about parliamentary expenses that need not detain the fair-minded for very long. The first is the accusation from certain MPs that The Daily Telegraph acted improperly in acquiring and publishing the latest details on payments. There have been mutterings of legal action over the invasion of MPs' privacy, insinuations of partisan bias by the newspaper and complaints about the supposedly corrosive influence of "chequebook journalism" on public life.

This all amounts to a crude attempt to shoot the messenger for delivering embarrassing news. It also disregards the fact that all the information on expenses for the past four years was due to be made public, in any event, in July following a High Court ruling.

Equally spurious is the argument that the generous Commons expenses system should be seen as a form of compensation for modest salaries. But Westminster MPs receive a £63,291 basic pay, more than twice the average wage, while cabinet ministers earn well into six figures. Pleas of poverty hardly carry credibility.

The final red herring is the argument that, since all claims were signed off by the Commons authorities, no MP can reasonably be criticised. But if this were true, why the desperate attempt to prevent the details becoming public? MPs well knew these claims would embarrass them, perhaps even jeopardise their re-election, if they got out. They might not have broken the letter of the law, but they grossly violated its spirit.

It is important to remember, too, that there are MPs who have not abused the expenses system. Those who now find themselves shamed by their conduct have only themselves to blame. They were not forced to make claims for everything from wide-screen televisions to packets of Maltesers. They were not forced to switch their designated "second home" in order to maximise their claimable allowances. They chose to do these things. Now they must answer for those choices.

An unfortunate consequence of this affair is that public confidence in our democratic system will be eroded even further. This is not a problem for any party in particular. MPs from the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats benches have all been engaged in this sort of grasping behaviour. And there is a distinction between those who have merely milked the system and those who might have committed fraud. Any MP shown to have misappropriated public money for personal gain (as opposed to simply maximising their permitted claims) should resign – and face the possibility of legal proceedings.

Such distinctions, though, will probably escape many voters. There is a growing feeling in the country that an entire political class has been caught with its hands in the till. And the timing of the revelations could not be more explosive. Most people would have found such abuses distasteful at the best of times. In a year when so many families are experiencing economic pain and uncertainty, the effect threatens to be doubly alienating.

In next month's European elections, fringe parties will doubtless find a receptive audience for their standard campaign pitch that the established political parties are concerned only with feathering their own nests. Sadly, it is extremist groups, such as the British National Party, that stand to benefit in this way.

If MPs have any sense, they will drop their abject attempts to excuse, or even justify, what they have been doing. They will, instead, hold up their hands and throw their full support behind a more rational and less lavish system. The cynical obstructionism that has hitherto characterised the approach of the Commons to expenses needs to be ended forthwith.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this sorry saga is that the broad outlines of a fair and reasonable parliamentary allowance have long been clear. It is only fair that those MPs who represent constituencies outside the capital should be entitled to some support from the public purse for their travel and living costs. MPs must, after all, divide their working week between constituency and Westminster. A system of overnight expenses, modelled on those routinely used in the business world, needs to replace the farcically lax "additional costs allowance". Such a reform would instantly end the scandal that allows some MPs to be gifted a furnished second house by taxpayers, while others effectively receive a public subsidy to build up small property empires.

More than anything, the new system needs to be thoroughly transparent. The public must have a right to see every receipt for which MPs claim reimbursement. These revelations have made it plain that the Commons expenses system needs to be thoroughly cleaned out. And in public life, as has often been noted, there is no disinfectant as effective as daylight.