19 May 2009

Plenty of wiggle room

At the risk of boring everyone to tears, I would like to pontificate a little more on the subject of MPs' expenses.

All the political players seem to be agreed that the present system of rules is inadequate and needs to be replaced. There would not appear to be the same level of agreement on what the features of the new system should be. I may return to this in future posts.

The other aspect of the matter concerns what should be done about those who have 'abused' the existing or previous system. Having watched the Prime Minister's press conference earlier this evening, I remain confused. Mr Brown suggested that MPs who 'defied the rules' should be not be allowed to stand in the next general election. He pointed out that the Labour Party had suspended two MPs (because of imaginary mortgages) and that a minister had been asked to stand down (arguably not because of his expenses but for failing to declare a rental subsidy on his main home). On the other hand, despite suggesting that Ms Blears' behaviour had been 'unacceptable', he argued that she had not broken the law nor the rules of the House of Commons. So does Ms Blears escape further punishment?

And what about the Home Secretary? Listing the boxroom in her sister's house as her primary residence thus enabling her to claim thousands of pounds on her second home where her husband and family live may be within the rules technically but I doubt if anyone would cite it as exemplary practice. So is she OK as well then? And while we're on the subject of Ms Smith, she certainly broke the rules in claiming for her husband's porn films; but she has now repaid the money. Does that mean that it's all right to defy the rules provided you say sorry and repay the money? Or does that only apply to Cabinet Members?

Of course, a strict interpretation of the rules (even the old rules), particularly with the need for expenses to be justified with reference to parliamentary duties (see paragraph 2.1.1 here), might bring all sorts of sins into play. The Prime Minister ducked the issue at this evening's press conference, but was his claim for his Sky Sports subscription necessary for the performance of his parliamentary duties? Defying the rules?

It is too early to draw firm conclusions, but if Mr Brown thinks that he can get away with throwing half a dozen minnows to the wolves he may have to revise his thinking.

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