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Letters From London

Photograph by Giles Turnbull

When the Going Was Good

British elites have been caught using public money to clean their moats, and a nation seethes. A primer on Parliament and the latest controversy sweeping Great Britain.

If you have any British acquaintances, you may have heard them grumbling about something other than the weather this week. Ousting swine flu, dead reality TV stars, and economic disaster from the headlines are expenses claimed by Members of Parliament (MPs). To everyone’s shock, it turns out some MPs were claiming compensation for things that perhaps—on reflection, given the nature of current circumstances, if there’s a “y” in the day of the week—they shouldn’t have submitted. Like your husband’s pornography.

Parliament (full title: “The Honourable the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled”) is a deeply strange place. An ancient building that shrouds archaic traditions, it is a place (rather like the traditional public schools—in American terms, “private”—that many MPs attended) where a binding agreement can be made simply with an exchange of words. A place where Members are addressed as “Honourable Gentleman” because that’s the view of someone who’s elected to office—honorable. Gentlemanly.

The United Kingdom does not have a constitution. There are no rules, as such, that govern the way the nation is ruled. Instead there are hundreds of years worth of agreements, of traditions, of things-that-are-done because that’s the way things are done. Our Poet Laureate, for example, holds the post for 10 years and is paid a very modest annual stipend, plus a gigantic barrel of sherry.

MPs, too, have to contend with an extremely weird and complicated set of rules that govern how they are paid. The basic salary for a sitting MP is £64,766 (about $98,000 at the time of writing). This is the money they get in their pocket, but they also receive compensation for various expenses—maintaining an office, for example, in their constituency and another at Westminster, where Parliament sits. Our isles are small, but large enough to make daily commuting from Parliament to constituency impossible for the majority of Members. So on top of the salary, MPs can claim back various costs they incur while doing their job.

When the Green Book says you can buy “electrical goods,” does that mean a basic TV? How about a top-of-the-range Bang & Olufsen?Notice the precise wording of that sentence: they “can” “claim back” costs they incur “while doing their job.”

An MP has to shell out for an office from her own money. Staff it, supply it with equipment, keep it running day-to-day. And then, if she wishes, she can claim back those costs under a variety of headings, up to certain pre-assigned limits.

One of these headings is called Personal Additional Accommodation Expenditure (snappily known around Westminster as PAAE). This says MPs can claim back certain costs associated with finding somewhere to stay in London during the week. Most MPs end up buying a home in central London, near to Westminster—not a cheap thing to do, even in times of economic crisis. According to The Green Book (the official guidebook to expenses issued to all MPs), they can claim things like:

  • Mortgage interest (but not the capital part of a mortgage)
  • Service bills
  • Electrical goods
  • Decoration
  • Maintenance of the property

Clear-cut, right? No room for any confusion. For years now, probably for many decades, MPs have happily followed these vague guidelines and as a result, have got by very nicely on their basic salary. There’s just one small problem: vague guidelines are open to interpretation. When the Green Book says you can buy “electrical goods,” does that mean a basic TV? How about a top-of-the-range Bang & Olufsen? When the Freedom of Information Act was passed into law, it gave the public unprecedented rights to ask questions. As a result, the public started asking how much MPs were spending on themselves and their televisions. Embarrassing items began to emerge. Sensing a public relations disaster, moves were made to publish a full list of MPs expenses later this year—but that list, in full and unedited, was obtained and published last week by the Daily Telegraph newspaper.

The Green Book also says that claims should not “damage the reputation of Parliament or its Members.” Really?

  • The Prime Minister claimed the cost of a cleaning contract he paid for jointly with his brother
  • Douglas Hogg claimed over £2000 for the clearing of the moat around his country estate
  • Hazel Blears said her London flat was her primary home, thereby avoiding taxes when she sold it; but she told Parliament that the same property was her official “second home”, which meant she could claim expenses for running and furnishing it
  • David Davies claimed £400 for overhauling a tractor mower, and £5,700 for installing a portico over the front door of his home
  • Sir Michael Spicer claimed £620 for installing a chandelier, and hundreds more pounds for cutting the hedge around his helipad (he later said the “helipad” isn’t an actual helipad, but a family joke; even so…)

National treasure Stephen Fry couldn’t hold back from reminding everyone that journalists have a reputation of their own when it comes to fiddling expenses. Everyone does it, said Fry, it’s really not that important. There are far more important things to worry about, like unnecessary war and climate change.

In words used in pubs up and down the land this past week, they’ve been taking the piss.He’s absolutely right, of course, but MPs are public servants, and these expenses are paid by taxpayers. If there’s one thing that annoys the British, it’s cheating them out of their own cash. Fiddle your private employer’s expenses and no one minds in the slightest—after all, you’re doing your bit to stand up to The Man. You might even get some nods of approval from around the pub. But fiddle the public purse, and it’s as good as stealing directly from sick children in National Health Service hospitals.

The Daily Telegraph’s coverage has, of course, picked out the very juiciest of claims. The paper’s editors decided to tease out the data that was leaked to them, so there’s still a lot we don’t know.

But it’s clear that the culture of Parliament has been encouraging this kind of behavior for a long time. It’s arguable that our nation’s representatives are poorly paid, so perhaps we can’t blame them for wanting to top up their salary with whatever little extras they can lay their hands on.

More annoying, though, is how MPs themselves were, just a few weeks ago, attacking the “greed culture” of London’s highest earning international bankers. Banks that had gone bust or suffered record-breaking losses were still paying bonuses to their senior executives, and government ministers joined the media in howling with protest in public. It simply shouldn’t be allowed, they blustered. The banks said, This is how banking works. The media, the politicians, pretty much everyone, replied, Perhaps so, but it just feels wrong.

What burns us up isn’t that our elected representatives broke any rules—in most cases, they didn’t—but that their interpretation of the rules was so blatantly self-serving. Britain is a class-dominated society, and here we see the ruling class behaving like greedy children, snatching as much candy from the jar as they can grab.

In short, and in the words used in pubs up and down the land this past week, they’ve been taking the piss.

Parliamentary rules may be vague and arcane, but electoral ones are crystal clear: the candidate with the most votes wins.Almost all of them have offered to repay what they’re accused of wrongly claiming in the first place, but it’s too late now. The simple fact that they thought they could get away with it is enough to damage their chances of re-election.

The rules will change. Expenses will be harder to come by in years to come. As Parliamentary tradition dictates, it is MPs who decide how much MPs are paid, so perhaps in a year or so, when the economy looks better, they might up their annual salaries to adjust for lost expenses.

Before that happens there’ll be a General Election, and a lot of sitting Members may lose their seats, even some of the ones who have magnanimously offered to repay what they claimed. Parliamentary rules may be vague and arcane, but electoral ones are crystal clear: the candidate with the most votes wins. Some of the departing Members might want to ask themselves if the price of losing their seat was worth the few thousand quid they couldn’t resist claiming, just because the Green Book said they could.