The sheer inanity of the rules on parliamentary expenses guaranteed they would be open to misinterpretation and abuse. The incomprehensibility of ad hoc, uncodified rules that confuse “reimbursable expenses” with “allowances” has led to a pot-pourri of reactions, devoid of sense or judgment, in which extravagance, genuine error, sly acquisitiveness and fraud are jumbled in the public mind as though there is no difference.
No wonder that some of the bizarrely inventive details came across as farcical.
How much simpler if the Fees Office had treated the Additional Cost Allowance as an entitlement for all MPs who, due to the location of their constituencies, are obliged to maintain second homes. They could then have spent it on anything they pleased. Instead, the Fees Office has for years been treating this reasonable living allowance as an “expense account” in which every outlay must be justified and supported by receipts. No wonder that some of the bizarrely inventive details came across as farcical.
The absurdity was compounded by the “wholly, necessarily and exclusively” criterion. TV sets on which you are permitted to watch only the News or “Question Time”? A telephone not to be used for the odd personal call? This flawed system, which to date not one MP seems to understand, has for years been pressuring MPs to contrive claims that in a sane world they would be entitled to anyway. And if the additional living allowance is taxable, so what?
The Fees Office should instead have been scrutinizing claims that had nothing to do with second homes, such as travel and staff. Any competent audit would have rejected payments to family members on full-time education, or claims for first class travel when flying economy. The moral outrage is appropriate when MPs nominate different “principal” residences to the Revenue and Fees Office respectively; or build up a property empire by systematically refurbishing successive “second homes” at taxpayers’ expense and pocket the gains when each is sold.
What’s sauce for the goose…..
As Parliament creates our laws, it is worth considering how the law on, for example, disqualification of directors might work if applied to MPs as directors of UK plc. One of the Companies Act tests for disqualification on grounds of incompetence is the failure of directors to distinguish between their own personal interests and those of the company. What a gem! And they passed these laws for the rest of us to obey.
On delegation, the Act makes it clear that directors cannot shirk their duties by leaving things to others. While reliance on others is permissible, directors have “an inescapable obligation to keep themselves informed” and, if necessary, to challenge and demand relevant accounts and documentation, failing which an unfitness disqualification will follow. But they, the characters who made these laws, are pleading ignorance while fudging their claims.
Sections on whether to publicize sentences imposed on unfit directors cite the “public interest” test. Would the threat of publicity of the offence act as a deterrent? Would the director act in the same way if he knew it was going to be publicized? And would the publicised sanctions appear to be just and reasonable to the ordinary person? Say no more.
The European role model
Just in case you think our MPs have lost the plot, please read “Brussels Laid Bare” * by the intrepid Marta Andreasen, former Chief Accountant of the EU, hounded out of office for not submitting to the culture of incompetence and cover-up, to the lies, deceit, financial impropriety and fraud by means of which that squalid, power-crazed fiefdom parasitically engorges itself on money extracted from the earnings of taxpayers in 27 countries.
No, I’m not overstating it. Ask yourself – where else would a convicted fraudster be appointed (in May 2008) “Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security”? Do me a favour, just read it. And by the way, I’m writing this before the June 4th elections!
*St Edwards Press £12, 128 pages, firstname.lastname@example.org