So Paul White, otherwise known as Lord Hanningfield, has become the latest political figure to be found guilty of false accounting relating to expenses claims. In all, he was found to have defrauded the taxpayer for around £14,000 by falsely taking a London overnight stay allowance while actually sleeping soundly in his Essex home. He joing Labour MPs Jim Devine, Eric Ilsley, Elliot Morley and David Chaytor, along with fellow Tory peer Lord Taylor of Warwick on the roll of expenses shame. Lord Taylor (real name John David Beckett Taylor) is due to be sentenced on Tuesday and both he and Mr White will be staring down the barrel at the distinct possibility of a custodial sentence if the cases of Morley, Chaytor, Ilsley and Devine are anything to go by.
For a moment, a trace of sympathy towards the guilty men enters my head. They do have the look of fall-guys in the William Calley mould after all. Of course, none of them stood of an earthly of being acquitted given the popular rage on the subject. All of them are male, well past any career peak they may have had and none of their downfalls will represent irreparable damage to their respective political party. Besides which, are there exploits really any worse than those of the mass of MPs who 'flipped' their homes to evade the taxman? However, White then opens his mouth, insisting, "I have no regrets. I did nothing wrong", before producing the sort of statement that should go on every poster promoting Lords reform, "It's an allowance scheme, not a reimbursement scheme. Quite honestly, people see this as a way of recouping what we spend." Brilliant!!
Having let Mr White hang himself, it makes sense to move onto the more serious point of how to restore trust in the system of remunerating our members of parliament. One of the most stupid areas in which MPs have historically been able to claim expenses is that of food - up to £400 a month no less. Now besides the point that of current MPs, only Eric Pickles could realistically be seen eating that much food, there is a greater principle at stake as to how and why that type of allowance was granted to MPs in the first place. Like everyone else, you and I need to eat something from time to time whilst we also have a job to do.
However, I've never once thought that my employer should pay for the chicken (or, god forbid, that bottle of wine) I bought the other day. Isn't that why I'm paid a salary? Ok like most people I think it should be considerably higher than it is, but us mere plebs understand that unless we're staying in a hotel on business, what we eat and drink is paid for out of our own pocket. As the Torygraph's leaks gradually came out in the spring of 2009, the continued re-appearance of maximum claims for food stood out like a sore thumb. Ok, so the food and drink allowance has now gone, but its presence in claim after claim illuminated in my mind what the real problem was.
Amid all the complications of the individual claims and the laughter about duck moats, the root cause is pretty simple. Most MPs appear to believe that they are worth considerably more than the £65,738 to which the bog standard House of Commons member is entitled. This of course doubles for ministers and there is that bit extra for the Prime Minister (David Cameron currently claims £142,000, which it should be said is less in real terms than the salary taken by his two predecessors). The expenses system, which gradually increased in size and scope over several decades, was seen by many MPs merely as a vehicle to extract what they thought they were worth from the system.
However, theres is also something else to consider. MPs are among a very small group in the Uk who enjoy the benefits of a final salary pension scheme, while the rest of us look ominously at the prospect of plodding on into our seventies. In real terms, this equates to a pension pot worth pushing £2 million for the average MP. Though the scheme is is said to be under review (not before time), it is worth noting as it currently remains a rather large slice of the remuneration package in their favour.
Now, having never followed an MP for a typical week, I have no idea about the varying degrees of difficulty in their work, the length of the working day or the sacrifices on family life required to be a half-decent Member of Parliament. So I would make no claim to be capable of putting a value on the work they do. However, a group of qualified people must be able to carry out this task, so here's a potential solution. Scrap the final salary pension completely, and retain only the office costs allowance (no nepotism please), second home expenses for those well out of London and reimbursement for the cost of long distance travel. Then have a completely independent body assess the value of the work of a typical backbench MP, while also asking if the perk of a 100% pay rise is absolutely necessary for a minister.
They would assess the workload, mental and physical strain incurred by that labour and the 'on call' nature of the job along with the current climate in the employment market before making a decision that was seen to be fair, but not 'generous' in any way. It may turn out that they find in favour of those members who believe themselves to be chronically underpaid. That would put an end to the madness of the expenses scandal at least once the initial upset amongst the general population died down. However, the independent body should also have the power to advise a reduction in the pay of MPs too.
One of the false arguments pursued by some MPs is the notion that public service is competing with the city for the talents of our 'best and brightest'. This is of course disingenuous nonsense, which takes no account of the reality that the jobs of stockbroker and parliamentarian are likely (or at least should be) to attract an entirely different set of candidates, driven and motivated by different aspirations and seeking entirely unique rewards from their career. It is just possible that a clinical view from the outside would conclude that if anything, our members of parliament are slightly overpaid. That would re-enforce the folly of the expenses scandal more than any newspaper headline or verdict from a jury ever could.