According to the prime minister of the United Kingdom, it is both professionally and ethically acceptable for a Member of Parliament to use taxpayer money to house their parents and contribute toward the purchase of a property which is later sold having appreciated in value, the profits accruing to the lucky politician.
Furthermore, when questioned by the parliamentary expenses authority and by the media it is appropriate for an MP – in this case Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary – to obstuct, bully and harass those investigating the questionable expenses claims at every turn. There is nothing more to see here, the issue is closed and we should all stop fussing and just move on.
We know this because David Cameron tells us so.
The Telegraph summarises the tawdry scandal briefly enough to inform without entirely sapping the will to live:
[Culture Secretary Maria Miller] had to repay £5,800 in mortgage interest payments and also apologise for failing to cooperate with the parliamentary inquiry into her expenses. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Hudson, had recommended that she pay back £44,000, an amount reduced by the MP-dominated Commons Committee on Standards.
But having housed her parents at the taxpayers’ expense, and made a capital gain in the process, Mrs Miller could be presented by the Tories’ opponents ahead of May’s European elections as the personification of alleged Westminster sleaze which so infuriates voters.
If any one image will come to symbolise this latest expenses scandal in British politics, it will be this – the picture of a haughty, self-entitled, unrepentant Maria Miller making her perfunctory, insincere and lightning-fast pseudo-apology to Parliament after having successfully reduced the amount which she was ordered to repay from the original £45,000 to an astonishingly low £4,500:
Here, Maria Miller is flanked by a number of faces not commonly seen sitting on the back benches by virtue of their position – Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Chief Whip Sir George Young. This is no accident. They were ordered to sit with Miller to show the leadership’s determination to stand by the scandal-plagued politician no matter the public outcry.
The picture (from The Times) is essentially a freeze-frame image of Parliament once again conspiring to do right for themselves and act in the interests of the Old Boys (or, in this case, Girls) Club and against the interests of every single voter in the United Kingdom.
Iain Martin correctly surmises that the biggest beneficiary of this tawdry, self-inflicted crisis will be Nigel Farage and the UK Independence Party:
In such circumstances, the survival of the Culture Secretary is a dream for Ukip, as those Tory MPs observed. Having exploited the expenses system and made a sum most voters can only dream about, Miller then had her punishment watered down by a committee of MPs stuffed with the representatives of the mainstream parties. Farage can present Miller as a totem of all that he claims is wrong with the ruling elite.
Martin goes on to suggest that any benefit felt by UKIP would be the result of “scary populist politics”, which rather make one wonder whose side he is on – that of corrupt politicians or that of the people. But tactically speaking, he is quite right – the Maria Miller scandal can only redound to UKIP’s advantage because all of the other major British political parties are represented at Westminster and are consequently tainted by association.
Polly Toynbee, writing in The Guardian and no ideological soulmate of this blog, agrees that Cameron’s refusal to sack Miller – a case of misapplied loyalty at the worst possible time – will come back to haunt MPs from each and every political party and re-open the wounds from a parliamentary expenses scandal that had scarely been given time to heal since the original revelations:
The harm done to politics by the expenses scandal is felt by every MP in the blowback on the doorstep. Even the cleanest get the blame. Miller’s behaviour confirms the worst people think of politicians. How a £1.2m London property housing her husband, children and parents could be called a “second home” defeats most reasonable people. All those “second” bedrooms strike a wicked contrast with the bedroom tax. If her MP colleagues cutting a £45,000 payback to £5,800 was astounding, her 32-second stroppy teenager non-apology took the biscuit. Cameron should have sacked her that day, not for his government’s sake but to salvage a crumb of respect for the politician’s trade.
This really sums up the problem, a rather glaring one left conspicuously untackled since the expenses scandal blew up under the premiership of Gordon Brown – namely, the fact that the spirit of the rules governing expenses continue to be repeatedly violated and mocked, even if they are followed to the literal letter.
In the public mind, expenses exist to cover the necessary costs of performing a job, costs that can or should not be reasonably borne out of the employee’s own pocket. People tend to be reasonable and do not object to the idea of MPs being compensated for expenses incurred while conducting parliamentary or constituency business, just as they would never begrudge a business person legitimately claiming travel and accommodation costs when sent to visit a faraway client.
This blog advocates the introduction of a monitored charge card as the sole method of allowing MPs to pay for purchases to be expensed. Such a system – successfully deployed by many companies with vastly more employees than Westminster’s 650 serving MPs – would provide instant transparency and ease of auditing. In the twenty-first century, there is really no excuse for anything less.
Whenever talk of cracking down on expenses reaches a certain point, the counter-claim is often made that for our politics to work we must continue to attract the “brightest and best” talent to Westminster, and that frozen parliamentary salaries and stricter expenses policies will act as a grave disincentive. This is a self-serving and overblown threat, reliant on the assumption that the best statesmen and policymakers are motivated by cold hard cash. And while the 2015 general election will be the first to take place now that the new rules on expenses have bedded down, there seems little cause to worry that the next intake of MPs will be vastly different in composition to the bland automaton freshmen from 2010.
It is a popular conceit among MPs to believe that they are precious and irreplaceable altruists, but in reality there are many capable people willing and able to serve their country in parliament without also expecting the taxpayer to pick up the tab for their mortgage or second home as some kind of sick golden handshake deal-sweetener. Maria Miller belongs to a political generation that stubbornly refuses to acknowledge this new reality.
The longer that Miller’s petulant non-apology and the image of stony-faced Tory ministers supporting and flanking her on the backbenches remains forefront in the general consciousness, the more damage is done to what remains of public trust and engagement in the British political process.
It may be too late to claim any moral high ground for doing the right thing, but David Cameron needs to end the damage and guide the spirit of Maria Miller’s dying, unmourned political career towards the light.