All At Our Expense
The UK public have been asked to swallow an awful lot of hardship recently. And quite frankly it is none of their doing. We seemed powerless to stop obscene bonuses being paid to city workers who took greater and greater risks with investor’s money, only to witness the collapse of the banking system. Then we could do nothing but stand by while the Government took taxpayers money to keep the same banks alive.
Now, and as a result of the worst example of target driven consequences, we experience a steep rise in repossession of homes, loss of jobs, a plummeting bank interest rate pushing fixed income savers into hardship and more expensive food and services. My sympathies are expressed to those who have been so severely affected by the consequences of greed and immoral business practice. One would have thought that our Government, in fact any of our MPs, might have had the intelligence and vision to see it coming. Oh, well done Vince Cable (Lib Dem), you were the closest. Pity it wasn’t in anyone’s political interest at the time to listen.
Is it any wonder that the members of Parliament did not want their expenses to become public knowledge? First, when the information was requested through the Freedom of Information Act, the Speaker of the House of Commons used tax payer’s money to go to the High Court in an attempt to stop it. Then, when that failed, there was going to be a delay until July 2009 before expenses would be published.
Credit must be given to the ‘Daily Telegraph’ for publishing the leaked information; most possibly one of those rare times when the information given is not only non-partisan but well within the right of the people to know. And it also demonstrated why politicians did not want the people to know.
The people now hear how MPs claimed for things like cleaning a moat, maintenance to a chandelier, the purchase of horse manure and even for a few tins of dog food. But whilst that in itself might be considered a scandal, the worst abuse had to be the within the claiming of second homes allowances and its contents.
Today the political leaders of each of the main parties are falling over themselves to say how sorry they are. They all say that the system is wrong and needs to be changed. They all say that they recognise that the public is angry and that something needs to be done quickly to win back the public trust.
The question now remains as to whether the public is as gullible as the politicians hope they are.
Let me roll back the carpet of history that I feel sure all MPs would like the contents to remain firmly swept under. A BBC news article for 4 July 2008 – almost a year ago – reads:
“MPs have voted to keep their £24,000 second home allowances… …They rejected tougher auditing and an alternative expenses regime proposed by a commons review”
Where was ‘needs to be done quickly’ then I wonder? Now it must be said that not all MPs agreed with keeping the second homes allowance but this must be tempered with the knowledge that MPs from all parties have been found guilty of expenses abuse. So whilst those who voted to keep the second home allowance felt justified in raking in as much tax payers money as possible (The Speaker said he was claiming his due), it cannot be conceivable that those who disagreed did not feel compelled to take full advantage as well. No political party is innocent and any amount of apology for this outrage will not do. The whole political system must be restructured.
Because whilst the politicians seek to justify their expense claims – including new kitchens, refurbishments, big flat screen TVs and other exorbitant items, people are losing jobs their personal goods and the only home they had and could no longer afford. Can we dwell on this a moment? These are supposed to be the people that matter. Perhaps politicians should be donating their second home to those who no longer have one.
But it goes further than this. Some MPs bought a second home and claimed the second home allowance. Then, when it came to sell the second home, they flipped it so that the second home became their main residence so they could avoid paying capital gains tax. There are numerous other examples of abuse but suffice it to say that the MPs claimed as much as they could, not to cover the cost of their expenses for sitting in Parliament at Westminster, but quite simply to profit from a lucrative trough, frequently perceived as an addition to their salary. As one member of the public put it, ‘if we tried to defraud the system like that we would be sacked for gross misconduct or even sent to prison’.
And it is only right that any Member of Parliament is as accountable to the law as the rest of us. For example, the Government believes that it is reasonable for people who are looking for work to travel up to one and a half hours to get to work. This is a condition they impose upon individuals claiming the Welfare Benefit Jobseeker’s Allowance of £60.50 a week. Why then should MPs be allowed to claim expenses equalling nearly eight times as much, if they too can return home within the same time?
No, sorry is not good enough. Excuses will not work and no amount of placatory noises about how hard one will try to make things better in the future can detract from what is already historical evidence of past wilful abuse. No MP from any party tried as hard to change the system of expenses until it suddenly burst into the public domain. Doesn’t that make you question what would have happened if the information remained buried, as many MPs would have wished? Doesn’t it also make you wonder what else there is that we know nothing about that MPs may be terrified we might discover.
Of course we may be forgiven for thinking that much of the scrambling to take the moral high ground has anything to do with the forthcoming European and local elections next month. Heaven forbid that we might vote with our hearts and dismiss all major political parties of the UK as corrupt and greedy. I mean, if we can’t contain their appetite for expenses in the UK, how on earth could we hope they would contain themselves in the terribly corrupt expenses system that exists in the EU Parliament?
But dismiss them we must if we are to show our so-called political elite that we can only accept an honest and credible voice to speak for the people – and not just in Europe but at home as well. Of course there is a danger that people may opt to vote for extreme parties but one must hope that the majority of the British people are sensible enough to leave far right and far left wing parties on the fringe where they belong. Don’t believe for one minute though that those same fringe parties will not rub their hands with glee at the opportunity to make mischief.
Perhaps the one thing we must not lose sight of is that we, the little people, are the driving force behind our democracy. As Tony Benn, a former labour MP, said today, the people are the power of democracy and we lend our power to a politician by voting for him/her to speak on our behalf. Is it possible that the big political parties are no longer mindful of this fact and may never be unless we give them reason to remember whose mandate they are supposed to deliver?
In my opinion, this is not happening and that is why the political system has to change (See my article ‘A New Voting System’). The first past the post system appears only to work for the benefit of the Government in power – just like the expenses they fought so hard to keep.
Like many people I regard my vote as important. If I had my way, there would be a voting box for ‘None of the above’, just to demonstrate to politicians how many people would actually vote if they had but a chance their voice would be represented. But in June 2009 I believe we have an opportunity to make our vote count in a way that could change the way in which politicians will behave in future. Today we have an unprecedented opportunity to use our vote to force politicians to think more seriously about how they should represent the people and what resources they rightfully need.
I believe that we should vote for representatives who are not Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat. They do not represent the people – they have proved it by wallowing in our money while the country has the largest economic deficit in history. They prove it by blaming each other while those who suffer, the taxpayer, is the same no matter what. It doesn’t matter if the claims were ‘within the rules’ as many MPs claimed. As they themselves now admit, the rules were wrong and each political party has had umpteen years to correct them. It is only now that they have been found out that, like naughty school children, they seek to justify their wrong-doing and wriggle out of being caught. We need to get rid of them and in June put into Europe and local Government the kind of politicians who will enforce the will of ‘we the people’.
I am not going to tell you who to vote for, that is your democratic right to choose. But to those people who would usually not vote I would say please make the effort and make your voice count because if everyone disclaims the big parties, the politicians might finally realise that we are not happy with the way any of them have abused our mandate to govern. We need a better system where everyone feels that their vote counts. This will not happen unless we the people stand up for our democracy as a united people.