Mark Steel: Our MPs are out of touch and over-compensated

Sunday 23 October 2011 04:14

I doubt whether many people had Margaret Beckett down as one of the more imaginative politicians, but we were wrong. Because lots of MPs stuck in expense claims for unnecessary taxis or new kitchen units, but Margaret put some art into her claim and demanded £1,900 for plants and a pergola, which apparently is a frame for the plants to thrive on. And this was for her second home of course. Because obviously everyone has a pergola and a grand's worth of plants in their first home.

Gardening isn't really my thing, so every time I read this story I find myself shrieking "Nineteen hundred quid for sodding plants – what was she buying – triffids?" Or maybe she's got one like the thing in Little Shop of Horrors and every time she heads off for Prime Minister's Questions it grabs her by the ankle and yells: "Feed me Margaret, feeed me."

In a nod towards sanity, she was only granted one thousand three hundred, but how can she begin to justify this? When she submitted her claim, was there a covering letter that said: "When I was Foreign Secretary I entertained the President of Syria on our patio, and he was just about to sign a non-aggression treaty when he said 'I look forward to peace between our nations – hang on, your wisteria has prematurely withered due to an absence of adequate framing that would allow the foliage to flourish in the resulting spacious environment.

" 'I consider this a gross insult to my people. I pronounce a curse upon you, your nation and your disreputable horticulture. Rest assured I want this matter resolved within 24 hours or you may consider our nations at war, madam.' "

And we only know about this because a few MPs were ordered to reveal their expenses details, so who knows what the others have claimed for? There's probably a junior minister who's claimed for a snooker table in his second dolphinarium. I bet one's claimed for a milking shed, one for a canal, one for a pyramid and one for a ghost train, who will then defend himself by saying: "The sum of £50,000 is due to the global increase in the price of skeletons as a result of the worldwide plastic fibia shortage."

Barbara Follett, who is a millionaire, claimed £1,600 in one year for window cleaning. Maybe she'll explain this by pointing out her windows were cleaned by Damien Hirst, who polished them with squid ink, but one of the panes will shortly be exhibited in the Tate Modern providing an exciting boost to the nation's heritage.

But here is the best part. The "difficulties" raised by this complex and sensitive issue have been investigated by the politicians themselves, and one of the measures they've decided on is that all MPs should receive an automatic annual allowance of £23,000 for their second home. So no doubt some of them will now yell: "That's not fair, now the others get a bonus but we were swiping that much already."

And this is presented as a compromise. So maybe we should tackle other social problems in the same way. The complex issue of mugging can be dealt with by getting an all-purpose committee of muggers to investigate the problem, and they can come up with a compromise in which all old people have to empty their purses and hand over the contents to strangers in the street.

This way, the nation's muggers will be spared complex archaic procedures such as pretending to be from the gas board while rifling through a poor old dear's sideboard.

Why is the issue of MPs' expenses usually portrayed as complex? Most institutions manage an expenses system without too much trouble. But somehow an MP claims thousands for wages paid to a son who did nothing, or for a forest full of shrubs and a John Lewis proscenium walkway on which to exhibit the things and this is "complex".

And then they claim this is an inevitable result of their meagre pay, which is a fraction of what they'd earn "in the private sector", as if they've done us a huge philanthropic favour when they could all so easily be on the board of Unilever.

But if they'd not become politicians, they could be working in Costa coffee. Margaret Beckett might just as well say: "I consider my wages rather modest, when you consider if I hadn't entered politics I'd have been earning £100,000 a week playing central midfield for Barcelona."

But worst of all is that they're so out of touch with normal life, they can't see why so many are aghast at this practice. If Margaret Beckett is approached by a family in her constituency with five living in one room and their heating's been cut off, presumably she'll say: "I know – it's like when they only gave me one-thousand three hundred quid for my second home's plants – aren't these bureaucracies dreadful?"

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