Snouts In The Trough

Over the last ten day’s or so there has been only one story in UK politics – MP’s and their expenses. A media storm has built up around the amount that MP’s have been claiming for. In fact it’s not just the amount that have annoyed people – it’s the content of these claims. Paying for moat cleaning, gardens, second homes farther away than your primary home to parliament, some outrageously high food bills – it just smacks of taking the system for a ride at the taxpayers expense. It’s not limited to one party either – Labour, Conservative, Liberals and the Others all have been exposed primarily by the Telegraph. The full list of their investigations make for sobering reading. The Telegraph have spun this story for all it’s worth, drip feeding a couple of new MP revelations each day to maximise the publicity and also to keep the pressure on MP’s and in particular the government.

Ultimately it’s the Labour government that is and will come out of this the worst. The first week of bad press was all reserved for the government and those MP’s that abused the system. Gordon Brown refusing to apologise was a critical error. With the Telegraph switching to the Conservatives, David Cameron, and it doesn’t fill me with glee writing this, played a master stroke by apologizing before anyone had really seen just how damaging some of the tory expense claims were. Moats, tennis courts and more examples of flipping. The whole flipping tag really winds me up as it’s a playful little tag for a disgraceful abuse of position. The whole point of the second home payments was to allow anyone to stand as an MP and ensure they weren’t disadvantaged by a lack of money. Instead many MP’s put expense claims in for one home, then flipped what they called their second home allowing them to put claims in for another property. Outrageous – how could this be allowable in the rules? Why did nobody until now think this wasn’t an issue?

But MP’s did think there was something wrong with this. Heather Brooke first asked for expenses to be made public in 2004. If it wasn’t for her fight to have the information made public we wouldn’t be seeing MP’s being brought to task today. If the expenses system was fair and the majority of MP’s weren’t abusing the system as the story is trying to be spun now, why did the house of commons try so hard to block moves to have expenses be made public, trying to overturn decisions that were made against them. Even recently we’ve seen Harriet Harman trying to defend MP’s and also say the problem with publishing receipts is that MP addresses are revealed. Tosh – you can publish expenses without revealing an address.

Another reason that Labour will suffer the most is that they could have made changes. They were in power. If it was such a serious issue they could have made changes within 24-48 hours. It’s been done before – why not now? They’ve also got the old guard still plugging away at these outrageous leaks. Michael Martin really isn’t fit to be speaker of the house. It’s nothing to do with snobbery as his cronies will spin to anyone who listens. He’s so out of touch with public feeling on this. They don’t want to see him get annoyed about the leaks – he should be taking the matter in hand and reacting to how the country feels. His reaction in parliament this week was of a man who’s had his dirty little secret revealed and he wasn’t about to go down without fighting it. Idiot. Then you have George Foulkes turning on a BBC presenter for daring to interrupt and question MP’s. The video is below.

Foulkes came across as a bully. I guess everyone’s reaction is that his time will come. The electorate will take care of him. Of course not. He’s now a Lord so quite easy for him to come out and say what he really thinks, not what the public want to hear. Another idiot. Going back to the claims itself it’s easy to see why there are shouts for police investigations. Flipping is bad enough. Claiming for a mortgage already paid off doesn’t sound like a simple error when it was £16,000 claimed for. Labour’s David Chaytor is also accused of claiming £13,000 for a mortgage on a house already paid for. Worse, it’s also claimed he flipped houses six times. Ridiculous. How could this ever be seen as being fair and reasonable? There’s other strange claims as well – Alex Salmond claiming £400 every month for food expenses yet he’s made just over 16% of the votes. A man with three jobs claiming the maximum amount for food each month. It stinks. It really sticks in the throat that so many MP’s stepped forward last week to hand back money. Reminds me of series one of The Wire – politicians happy to take money until found out all the while trying to influence the investigation. I wonder if the team at the Telegraph feel like McNulty and Co chasing the money.

The fear out of all of this is that democracy, in the short term at least, is under threat. All mainstream parties, in particular Labour will take a hit in the upcoming Euro elections. What I can’t figure out is whether people won’t bother to vote as a protest or will instead switch their vote. If they don’t vote then it’s a chance for smaller parties to gain power. In the Euro’s that means parties like the Greens, UKIP and the BNP. Worrying times.

So what next? Well out of all this reform that been talked about the one thing I want to see is a clear and open process in which all data is published and freely obtainable for all to see. For me that means RSS, XML or a web service so that MP expense claims can be used by anyone as they see fit. How many of these claims would have been made if they were to be made public within one month of being claimed? We certainly wouldn’t see the shit storm that we see now. The Conservatives are making a step in the right direction by publishing the expense claims of the shadow cabinet here, also available as an XML feed. Not ideal as it should really come from an independent body but it sets the tone and shows that action is being taken eventually.

There are more sources of data that prove very useful available now. The Guardian have an up to date spreadsheet of all the claims currently known made by our MP’s. Using this you can see clearly how there are some strange claims being made – this map shows claims made against MP’s constituencies. Couple that data with sites like The Public Whip and TheyWorkForYou and it’s clear who the hard working MP’s are.

One wonders though if all this could have been avoided while still providing access for everyone to stand as an MP. Build a hotel. One that could comfortably house all the MP’s and make sure it’s in walking distance of the Houses of Parliament. Food would be provided and an MP wouldn’t have to pay for anything. Wi-fi and those all essential TV services for Jacqui Smith would be provided – not a claim in sight! No need for expensive second home claims or all those costs to furnish a second home. Sounds all too sensible, no?

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