British Democracy in the Gutter
UK Government in Shambles
The government of the UK has been rocked by a scandal that may well constitute the worst peace-time constitutional crisis ever to have afflicted the nation since the days of Oliver Cromwell and his “Rump Parliament”. The reputation of the House of Commons lies in tatters, and the public has expressed – and continues to express – a degree of contempt, outrage, and anger, directed towards the current government and its ministers, that questions the legitimacy of both Houses of Parliament and of the current Cabinet as lawful governmental entities. The prestige of the House of Commons has been dragged into the sewer. Where and when all this will end is uncertain; what is not uncertain, however, is the fury of the taxpayers, stoked by a press that is all too willing to expose the sordid details of this self-inflicted injury. This fury has already led to the almost unprecedented sacking of the Speaker of the House, Michael Martin, following an uprising on the floor of the House on Monday 18 May, in which his authority as Speaker was directly challenged by several of his fellow Members of Parliament, and during which he was literally entreated by those members to step aside, ostensibly in the interests of the reputation of the House. Martin was forced to resign on Tuesday 19 May, becoming the first Speaker to be sacked in more than 300 years as a result of a formal challenge to his authority, joining Sir John Trevor, who was sacked in 1695 for taking bribes. To what extent the pleas for his resignation were motivated by genuine concerns about the legitimacy and reputation of the House, and to what extent these pleas reflected desperate attempts to scapegoat the Speaker and to divert public attention away from those who made them, is something that will never, truly, be known.
What is known, definitively – and what led to these howls of outrage – are the details of the expense claims made by all members of the Houses of Commons and Lords for the years 2004 through 2008. The government fought tooth and nail to prevent even a redacted, edited version of these expense claims from reaching the public domain; however, the High Court handed down a ruling last year that resulted in all MPs being required, under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), to publish their expense claims on demand. In January of this year, in what many people saw as a ham-fisted attempt to skirt this ruling, Harriet Harman – leader of the House of Commons, and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party – introduced a proposed new rule that would have exempted expenditure information held by either House of Parliament from the scope of the FOIA; had this rule change taken place, it would have had the effect of overturning the High Court ruling. Campaigners for more openness and transparency in government succeeded in blocking this rule change, flooding the offices of their MPs with emails and telephone calls urging their MPs to oppose the proposed rule change. Notwithstanding this defeat, House Speaker Michael Martin spent in excess of £100,000.00 – of taxpayer money – in yet another failed legal effort to prevent the release of these details in compliance with the FOIA.
The government had planned on releasing the expense reimbursement information in July 2009. Although the government would not have been able to prevent some of the more embarrassing revelations from eventually reaching the light of day, a carefully timed release, issued together with a blueprint for the creation of a more rigorous and better controlled method of reimbursing MPs for their expenses, may have gone a long way towards assuaging the taxpayers’ fury. Holding back on the publication of this information until July would also have enabled Prime Minister Gordon Brown to punish (by demotion) those MPs in positions of extra prestige and responsibility (e.g. Cabinet-level MPs) guilty of the most egregious abuses of the expense reimbursement system.
However, what would have happened in July is academic. The details of the expenses claimed by MPs were leaked to one of the nation’s largest circulation newspapers, “The Daily Telegraph”, about three weeks ago; this newspaper responded by printing the details of the most outrageous abuses of the expense reimbursement system starting on Monday 11 May. This development prevented MPs from spinning the facts and releasing the figures on their own terms. The Telegraph started with Labour (which is currently in power) by releasing the most egregious examples of Labour MPs claiming ludicrous expenses, but made it clear that similar revelations pertaining to Tory and Liberal Democrat MPs would follow in the days ahead, which indeed they did. Within two weeks, Parliament was brought to its knees, crippled by this scandal; taxpayers have called for criminal prosecution of the worst offenders; Michael Martin has resigned; numerous MPs (from all three parties) have resigned; and the leader of the Tories (David Cameron) has proposed a new expense reimbursement system to replace, completely, the old system and to slash the opportunities for fraudulent and extravagant claims.
The following details should give the reader some sense of the abuses that were perpetrated under the current system:
One MP (appropriately named Douglas Hogg) claimed £2,200.00 in expenses for cleaning his moat. Another MP claimed £9,000.00 over a four year period in gardening expenses (including getting rid of garden moles). Another MP claimed for 550 bags of horse manure for his garden. Another MP claimed £1,600.00 for a duck house (shelter) to be put in the middle of his pond. One MP claimed £22,000.00 to pay for dry-rot treatment at her partner’s home. Then there were claims for “tree surgery”, toilet seats, and even porno movies.
The Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith – whose remit includes control of the police forces, the customs, border, and immigration services, and national security – submitted a claim that included a reimbursement request for two porno movies (her husband had allegedly ordered these movies, and she alleged that she had submitted her monthly expense claim form without checking the details).
Another systemic abuse highlighted by the Telegraph occurred in the form of MPs claiming interest on mortgages that had been repaid or that simply never existed – to the tune of up to £850.00 per month.
Every MP who lives outside of London is entitled, as a matter of policy, to maintain a second residence (for example, an MP in Bristol is entitled to his home in Bristol as well as a second home in London, so that he can vote and attend sessions of the House of Commons), and receives an allowance of up to £24,000.00 per second home, per year. This allowance is supposed to be tapped for such necessities as mortgage interest, hotel expenses, rent, furniture, utilities, etc. All expense claims are submitted to, and reimbursed by, the Commons Fees Office. Numerous MPs have been caught claiming for mortgage interest on mortgages that have already been repaid, that never existed, or that have been paid by third parties; and other MPs grossly inflated their mortgage interest charges.
Another widespread abuse has been named “flipping”. This involves an MP declaring a particular house as his or her primary home and another house as his or her secondary home, and then moving his or her secondary home from place to place so as to maximize the amount that the MP can claim against the second home allowance. Every move entitles the MP to draw against the second home allowance of up to £24,000.00 per year. By doing this over and over again, one can net a tidy sum in pure profit, up to the £24,000.00 annual ceiling. Hazel Blears – the Communities Secretary (yes, she is a member of the Cabinet) is alleged to have flipped three times in one year. With each move she was entitled to draw against the £24,000.00 annual allowance, and she used this money generously. It is possible to buy a really good plasma TV for about £400.00 to £500.00 – but Blears spent in excess of £900.00 on each of the two “second home” TVs that she purchased. To put icing and a cherry on the cake, Blears was able to sell each of the secondary homes for more than the purchase price. In and of itself, there is nothing criminal or immoral about making a profit when selling a house – but the MPs caught up in this scandal (including Blears) failed to pay Capital Gains Tax (CGT) on the profits from each sale. She purchased a flat in Kennington, London and sold this flat in August 2004 for £200,000.00, making a profit of £45,000.00. Normally, the profits on the sale of any property which is a second home are liable for CGT of up to 40% (in this case, up to £18,000.00). However, she did not pay CGT on the sale of this home because she designated it her primary home for tax purposes, despite telling the Commons Fees Office in April of that year that the flat was her second residence – allowing her to claim £850.00 per month for the mortgage. The bottom line is that Blears told the Commons Fees Office one story, and told HM Revenue and Customs the reverse of that story. On Friday, May 22, Blears made a payment to HM Revenue and Customs of £13,332.00 in CGT on this profit, insisting that this was not an admission of guilt but was, instead, intended to “rebuild the relationship” that she had supposedly enjoyed with her constituents.
Blears also claimed for stays in luxury hotels, £4,874.00 on furniture, £899.00 on a new bed, and £913.00 on a new TV (the second such TV in under a year), and the maximum £400.00 a month in household groceries.
Blears is certainly not the only MP to have engaged in flipping. Michael Gove – one of David Cameron’s most staunch allies – is alleged to have spent thousands on furnishing his London home before flipping the designation of his second home to a new home in Surrey. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling – the equivalent to the Secretary of the Treasury in the US – flipped four times in four years. Yesterday (21 May 2009), Standard and Poors (S&P) announced that it would review the UK’s triple-A credit rating – a move that has caused consternation in the already reeling financial sector, because it could be the harbinger of a downgrade of the UK’s excellent credit rating. It would be extremely difficult for Prime Minister Gordon Brown to sack Darling in the wake of this announcement, because such a move could be interpreted as a declaration of no confidence in his own Chancellor. The repercussions of such a perception (in terms of increasing the cost of government borrowing) would be dire indeed for an economy that is already prostrated and on life-support (resorting to measures such as “quantitative easing”).
The Justice Secretary, Jack Straw – who is supposed to be absolutely beyond reproach in all matters – finagled and managed to get away with paying only half of the council tax that he should have paid in 2004. When it became clear that all details pertaining to expense reimbursement claims of all MPs would soon be released to the media, he “corrected” this “error” by sending in a cheque to cover the council tax that he had “mistakenly” not paid.
MPs have been able to claim any item worth up to £250.00 without producing a receipt to the Commons Fees Office. This means that MPs have been able to buy items such as iPods, computer equipment, and printers without having to account for them at all. It also means that they have been able to claim reimbursements for items that were never purchased.
A few additional examples of abuses of taxpayer money should round out the picture:
Ian Gibson claimed almost £80,000.00 in four years for mortgage interest and bills on a London flat which was the main home of his daughter. John Bercow flipped his second home from his constituency to a £540,000.00 flat in London and claimed the maximum possible allowances for it. Alan Beith claimed £117,000.00 in second home allowances while his wife, Baroness Maddock, claimed £60,000.00 in House of Lords expenses for staying at the same address. David Lidington charged the taxpayer nearly £1,300.00 for his dry cleaning, and claimed for toothpaste, shower gel, body spray and vitamin supplements on his second home allowance (claims for toiletries are expressly not permitted). Sir Paul Beresford, who works up to three days a week as a dentist, designated his west London property, which includes his surgery, as his second home on his parliamentary allowances. David Miliband claimed £199.00 for a pram and £80.00 for “baby essentials”. Phil Willis spent thousands of pounds of public funds on mortgage interest payments, redecoration and furnishings for a flat where his daughter now lives. Ian Austin split a claim for stamp duty on buying his second home in London into two payments and tried to claim it back over two financial years…
The list goes on and on and on. The above examples were plucked from the Telegraph’s reporting on days 12, 13, 14, and 15.
This catalogue of theft, fraud, and chicanery represents the mere tip of the iceberg.
In what parallel moral universe do these men and women live?
Cameron now faces a serious dilemma. Numerous Tory MPs have proved themselves to be as avaricious, greedy, and morally incompetent as those Labour MPs who have abused the system, taking the taxpayer for a ride whilst living high on the hog. The rot is not limited to, or even concentrated in, any one particular political party. Of the three parties, the Liberal Democrats appear to have been the most decent and the most in compliance with both the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Some of the Tories who have emerged from this imbroglio with their snouts deep in the public fisc have been instrumental in shaping and executing opposition policy, so it is not easy for Cameron to fire them or to insist that they resign or take demotions. Cameron is frantically trying to put together a proposed new system that would limit expenses, prevent flipping, and curtail these abuses – but the damage that this fiasco has done to the reputation of the House of Commons is beyond repair. Members of the public are absolutely furious (with good reason). One of the big problems is that most of these MPs have not broken any law. Much as the writer would like to see justice done, the writer is not in favour of the passage of legislation that would work retroactively to punish them (as is being suggested by some). Such legislation would be unconstitutional in the US (the US Constitution expressly prohibits the passage of ex post facto legislation), but such legislation could be passed in the UK, in theory at least.
To make matters even worse, Michael Martin and other MPs had the audacity to call in the police to investigate the leak of expense claims information to the Telegraph. It is difficult to imagine a more arrogant and audacious act than calling the police to investigate the leak, when the information that has been leaked reveals those who called the police to be little more than thieves, fraud artists, and whores. It is also difficult to imagine a more politically tone-deaf note than this; the public is already furious, and calling in Scotland Yard to investigate the source of the leak – that is, to reveal the identity of the person who gave truthful and accurate information to the Telegraph – is correctly perceived to be an act of appalling moral depravity; a shocking attempt to divert attention from the real villains in this sordid drama. On Tuesday May 19, Scotland Yard confirmed that the police will not investigate this leak; prosecutors concluded that such an investigation would not be in the public interest.
As if this weren’t bad enough, MPs compounded their error by blaming everybody and anybody except themselves. They spoke, and continue to speak, about “the system” permitting such abuses, forgetting something important: the fact that an act is permitted by a system seldom bears on whether or not that act is moral, decent, or constitutes the right thing to do under the circumstances. Even now, as I write this, many MPs who have been caught abusing the second home allowance are blaming “the system” for these lapses in judgment. A few brave souls have taken a stand and have declared their own behaviour, or that of their colleagues, to be morally indefensible. But these are very much exceptions to the general rule, which is summed up by the attitude of “Take whatever you can get away with.” The two fallback excuses that have become a mantra in the House are “The system is broken” and “I stayed within the law”. Yes, the system is indeed broken – and yes, an MP may indeed have stayed within the letter of the law – but nobody forces an MP to claim for a mortgage that no longer exists, or to buy a Selfridges TV and video set for £850.00. Nobody forces an MP to check into a five-star hotel when a perfectly good three-star hotel next door would be just as convenient and much, much cheaper.
Relatively few MPs face the prospect of criminal prosecution, notwithstanding the widespread corruption documented by the Telegraph. Most of the avaricious, bloated, and morally challenged MPs have structured their wheeling and dealing so as to remain in compliance with the letter of the law, whilst making a mockery of its spirit. It should be remembered that many of these men and women are themselves attorneys, skilled in the art of parsing criminal statutes, and even more skilled in dissembling.
What is very alarming – much more alarming than the corruption itself – is the potential impact that such corruption has on the integrity of the democratic process itself. Imagine that you are the party whip, and you are determined to secure the votes necessary to pass a piece of legislation that is truly odious, draconian, and that violates core civil liberties. Imagine that, as whip, you are responsible for securing the votes of a sufficient number of MPs to ensure passage of this measure. Numerous MPs correctly denounce this act and declare their intention to vote against passage of the proposed legislation. However, you know that the MP from X has been claiming interest against a mortgage that does not exist, and that the MP from Y has been paying only half of his council tax bill, and that the MP from Z recently fitted out a lavish second home despite the fact that, when in London, she sleeps in her brother’s spare bedroom. You have the goods on these MPs. You can threaten them with exposure. (“John, isn’t your son Michael planning on going to Cambridge next year? It would be a real shame if something happened to jeopardize his chances of such an education, wouldn’t it? What? Good God no, I’m not threatening you! – I’m looking out for your best interests! I’m trying to make sure that nothing embarrassing comes to light and ruins Michael’s chances, don’t you know that?”) If you are in a leadership position, you can effectively shape public policy by relying on the votes of a number of MPs who will vote not as they deem right and proper, but as they are instructed to vote.
Furthermore, the existence of a system which is known to be corrupt virtually guarantees that a number of new MPs will become corrupt (and will hence be compromised in terms of being able to vote independently, in such scenarios as the example outlined above). Human nature is what it is. If a person is presented with the opportunity to avoid paying CGT that is perfectly legal (but grossly unethical), there is an excellent chance that the person concerned will eventually succumb to the temptation, particularly after having served in the House and having acculturated in its atmosphere for several years.
Another grim consequence of this ghastly mess is the possibility that the fascist British National Party (BNP) will tap into the resentment and bitterness felt by so many voters who have been betrayed by their political parties, and that the BNP could win seats in Parliament. Perhaps such a development will serve as a salutary warning, forcing the three major parties to clean up their acts...
Part of the problem lies in the nature of the Commons Fees Office itself. In theory, civil servants who spend public money answer for their expenditures to their departmental boss, the accounting officer. But the accounting officer of the House of Commons is the clerk, Malcolm Jack – and the clerk is a “servant of the house”. This is an institutionally incestuous relationship. The House of Commons is very different from other civil service institutions; the staff members of the Commons Fees Office work in an environment in which the MPs are titular bosses and where their own managers identify with the institution of the House and its dignities. It is inevitable, under such a structural abnormality, that control of MP expenses will be “light-touch” in nature. David Walker, of “The Guardian”, concludes that “the club servants are as deep in the mire as the committees who are in charge”.
A great sadness is that mere membership in the House of Commons has now become something of which many members are ashamed. This includes those members who have been honest, sincere, and true to both the letter and the spirit of the rules. Public rage has reached such proportions that few people differentiate between those MPs who have driven the House into the sewer and those MPs who have remained clean, true, and upright.
The state of the government – and the House of Commons specifically – is in such shambles that a psychiatrist has been called in, to provide counselling services to those MPs who have been rocked by the scandal and its fallout. Three backbench Labour MPs have been placed on suicide watch by the Labour whips; two of these MPs are terrified that the release of detailed expense claims information will reveal them to be adulterers who shared hotel rooms during annual conference get-togethers and party away days, and who may also have double-claimed for the rooms on their expenses. If both MPs have claimed for the bills, they will be branded frauds as well as adulterers when journalists and freedom of information campaigners sift through their receipts and put the pieces together. The third backbench Labour MP is said to have made “grotesque” financial claims (members of the House grimly anticipate clarification of these claims).
Tory backbench MP Nadine Dorries says that colleagues were “constantly checking to see if others are OK” and that the “atmosphere in Westminster is unbearable”. According to Dorries, “everyone fears a suicide. If someone isn’t seen, offices are called and checked”.
Where all this will end is uncertain. What is certain, however, is that this mess represents history in the making. A bloodless rebellion is in progress, with the taxpayers no longer prepared to accept the rampant corruption that has finally been uncovered. This imbroglio has already claimed one Speaker; numerous MPs have announced that they will not stand for re-election; other MPs have resigned; and several MPs face criminal prosecution. The existing expense reimbursement system has been destroyed, and both David Cameron and Gordon Brown are drafting new systems in the hope that tighter control, combined with a clearing away of the worst offenders, will slake the thirst of the taxpayers for the blood of both Houses. The possibility of drafting a written national constitution is now being taken seriously (up until now, the government of the UK has managed to operate without a written constitution, relying instead on common law, a vast body of precedent (case law), and two functional Houses of Parliament). The three major political parties now have an opportunity, forced on them by this descent into the sewer, to cleanse themselves of the worst offenders and to instil in those who remain a true spirit of service and concern for good government.
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