Here’s an arena that needs stepping into either lightly with fairy feet so no-one takes offence, or with hobnail boots on and a baseball bat for protection.
I’ve met a few politicians – some very high ranking – in my working life, most recently, around six weeks ago, it was David Cameron at the other end of a handshake. I can’t say I’ve warmed to every single one I’ve met, some are more engaging than others, some treat all journalists as if they were best kept at the end of a very long bargepole – unless there’s an election coming up, in which case they want their good deeds reported on – and large, please. Some quite clearly are career politicians with a watchful eye on self-promotion, others obviously take their role as public servants very seriously indeed. There are many shades of grey in between.
The so-called MPs’ expenses row is rumbling on and on and showing no sign of dying down – today Jacqui Smith announced she would step down at the next cabinet re-shuffle, and Alistair Darling is increasingly under pressure to resign before being replaced. Embarrassing? Yes. Newsworthy? Er – yes, obviously. Though The Telegraph is making the news, it isn’t making up the expenses claims.
Some of the expenses claimed seem just plain bonkers, no need for me to highlight them, they’ve been splashed across every newspaper and media site in the country. Others are completely understandable – anyone whose constituency is more than 60 minutes away from Westminster needs somewhere to rest their head for the night – a second home of some description or Commons halls of residence perhaps? Take your pick over which you believe in, but the days of the Gentlemen’s Club are long gone for most people and many a politician would prefer his or her family to be in London during the working week.
Some claimants will not extract a shred of sympathy from me, others I’m saddened to see caught in a mesh of Parliament’s own weaving. Dr Ian Gibson, MP for Norwich, has been made an example of over his second home expenses. Yet he’s an MP with a strong social conscience, who does sterling work, not only for his constituents, but in the field of cancer healthcare, for example. Having a London flat that you spend four nights a week in can’t be seen as unjustifiable, though selling it on to your daughter at an allegedly knock-down price and staying in it, and, more to the point, continuing to claim for it, as though it were still your own, does make for a tarnished halo. Seeing a decent man being hauled before a star chamber and effectively de-selected by his party is like watching a small nut being bashed by a fairground-sized sledgehammer. It does leave you wondering what other agenda is being served, especially when there are bigger, sleeker, slimier fish to fry, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphors. The constituency party ought to have been given the discretion to assess Dr Gibson’s track record for themselves, and to weigh up his good deeds against his alleged misdemeanours before deciding on balance if he could pass muster in front of the electorate.
It used to be an office joke that the most creative writing in a newsroom took place on the days when expenses forms were filled in. But certainly in my working lifetime, all claims have had to be accompanied by receipts – and, label me paranoid, I always felt I had an imaginary company accountant sitting at my shoulder, questioning every entry – even though I’ve never made a spurious claim in my life and quite often ended up out of pocket after a job, either because I completely forgot to claim for a journey made on company business, or because I’d lost the relevant receipt for a client lunch or item of office equipment by the time I got around to filling the form in. There are honest and dishonest people in every profession, of course, yet I can’t help but wonder how many of those currently baying for politicians’ blood, whether writer or editor, man in the street or opposition MP, have ever refused a tradesman’s request for cash-in-hand for a job. Even if it feels uncomfortable counting the notes into an outstretched palm because it seems unlikely it will ever be mentioned on a tax return, how many of us would take the view that it’s the tradesman’s job to disclose the information and not the client’s job to cast aspersions about his honesty and risk having a monkey-wrench taken to the bracket.
So, that brings about two questions. Why didn’t the Parliamentary Fees Office give MPs who claimed freely and creatively the feeling they would be called to account? Surely no monkey-wrenches were being brandished?
And secondly, why didn’t those MPs who made daft, dodgy or devious claims ever wonder – how would I feel if this claim were published in my local newspaper for my constituents to read just before the next election? Many MPs clearly did feel that way and kept their claims to a bare minimum. Given that it’s our money they are asking for as well as our votes, the honest and scrupulously fair among them have a better chance of election this time next year. I just wish those who are a whiter shade of grey were also being allowed to stand as well.