In 2009 a big scandal broke in the UK concerning MPs’ expenses and, in particular, their widespread tendency to spend taxpayers’ money with a degree of freedom usually reserved for lottery winners. Some of the tales of excess were just ridiculous – one Tory MP claimed the cost of having his moat cleaned, David Cameron thought that we should pay for the removal of wisteria from his house (because that wisteria was clearly having a major impact on his abilities as Leader of the Opposition at the time), and all MPs were able to claim a huge amount of sundry expenses each day, without even submitting a receipt.
All this was bad enough, but the worst bit was the habit of many MPs to designate a certain property as their second home, claim expenses for it, and (usually) dodge any tax that they were due to pay if they later sold the house. Some of the MPs had barely even visited the houses in which they were claiming to live for some of the time. Other MPs would have their second house just a few minutes’ walk from their family house. It was all completely insane.
Anyway, we’re finally seeing some of the more dishonest and crooked MPs being tried and convicted, which is fantastic. Last week David Chaytor, a former Labour MP, was jailed for 18 months after deliberately continuing to claim expenses for a mortgage that had already been paid. And earlier this week Eric Illsley, MP for Barnsley Central, pleaded guilty to three charges of false accounting, and will also end up in jail.
I’m particularly pleased about Illsley and I wish that there was some way that he could be stung for the public costs of his case: he initially denied the charges and was due to stand trial, but he later changed his plea. Way to waste even more of the taxpayer’s money, Eric!
What’s really astonishing is the fact that, because he will be likely to sentenced to less than a year in jail, he didn’t automatically lose his job as an MP – despite being convicted of a crime of fraud and dishonesty. However, pressure from other MPs has forced him to resign. And I’m also pretty surprised that the good people of Barnsley Central re-elected him last year, despite the investigation being already underway. Those people take ‘innocent until proven guilty’ more seriously than I would have done, that’s for sure.
The whole question of MPs’ expenses really winds me up, actually. I don’t begrudge them the right to claim standard expenses incurred while doing their jobs, but the way that this is interpreted is totally mental and would never be accepted in the private sector. Apparently, being an MP means that the taxpayer should pay for all of the food consumed by your household – as if eating is an expense unique to life as an MP. And the habit of owning a second home in London, one of the world’s most expensive cities for real estate, is mad. MPs who live in electorates within commuting distance of London should be forced to join their constituents and catch the train every day. And for MPs who live further afield there should be serviced apartments, owned by the state and available to them while they’re in the city. I would buy or build a decent apartment block in an inner city suburb, furnish it, and tell them to keep the wild parties to a minimum.
(Coincidentally, while typing this I have been watching BBC Breakfast and they’ve just had a short piece about the likely sentencing options for Eric Illsley and, in particular, whether he should be jailed, or whether it’s a waste of taxypayer money to jail people for short periods for non-violent crimes. One woman has suggested that we get out the cat ‘o’ nine tails, or put him in the stocks.)