Tuesday, 13 October 2009

In defence of MPs... no really

This is probably against the grain of public opinion, but I have a degree of sympathy with some MPs. Not those who spent our money on duck houses and moats you understand, but those who have genuine expense-related claims but have found, through Sir Thomas Legg's audit that the rules have been retrospectively changed.

It is hard, obviously, to have sympathy for those who look like they've been fiddling the system but for those who have abided by the rules, consulted the Parliamentary authorities throughout and then claimed within (what they thought were) the limits before being saddled with a bill of over 12 grand when an outsider decides that the rules need changing.

Imagine you work for a company who allows you to claim fairly generous expenses. You work hard for them, for a relatively decent but not spectacular salary. You fill out form after form to claim back what you think is a fair amount, reflective of what you have shelled out. It is nowhere near the upper limit, and you feel comfortable that you haven't been screwing them out of money.

You then turn up for work one day where a letter awaits, demanding repayment of some of those expenses - to the tune of £12,000. The letter apologies for the misunderstanding that you undertook to claim your expenses within the rules, notes that you did so but that they've decided to change the rules - and want their money back. Can you imagine trying to explain that to your spouse when you return home in the evening?!

"Sorry, can't afford dinner tonight dear - have to pay back 12 grand in expenses."

"What?!! Didn't you claim it right? Provide receipts etc?"

"Oh yes. Everything was above board. I haven't even done anything wrong. They've just changed the rules now, and want the cash back. Apparently its all about public perception."

Which, in fairness, is entirely what this is about. Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg have either had to repay expenses and are being asked to provide more information on several items. Each have told their MPs that they should pay back what they've been asked for and shut the hell up. David Cameron has gone as far as saying that if his MPs don't pay up, then they won't be standing for the Tories again.

Which is all a bit ludicrous. You've stuck to the rules - both spirit and law - and yet you are being asked to return money for legitimate expenses. And if you don't (which you are under no legal obligation to do) then you're booted out of Parliament by your party.

I know MPs are not seen in a good light at the moment, and when the expenses scandal broke people thought less of them than, well, than they did before. But really, isn't there a sense that this might have taken a rather strange turn? Surely there is a case for being indignant - if you have abided by the rules, why should you pay back money just because some auditor guy thinks the rules should have been different?

Yes, those that have claimed ridiculously - the moats, duck houses, flipping homes and porn movies etc - should have to pay back these claims. And, potentially, consider their position as worthy to return to the House of Commons in the next Parliament. But for those who haven't remotely broken rules... well, aren't they just being tarred with the same brush?

PS - always nice when my views are directly opposite those of the Daily Mail.


Jeff 13 October 2009 at 17:58  

As much as I don't like siding with the Daily Mail, the crucial difference is the MPs don't work for a company and they set their own rules. Indeed, in many instances where a claim was rejected the fees clerk was leant on to let it go through.

I think the SNP have taken a sensible line on this: If you call in a referee then you abide by the referee's rules.

I agree it's all a bit of a mess though and if indeed, as you suggest, the "spirit and law" of the rules was met then it's difficult to work out how someone of Sir Thomas' stature has come to the conclusions he has (not sure how you know about the 'spirit' with so much confidence by the way, or even the "law" for that matter)

At the end of the day, it looks terrible to challenge the referee's decision and get another one in to do the job again, dragging the whole sorry expenses scandal out for another half a year, simply because the first guy asked for too much money to be paid back.

The MPs should take it on the chin and move on. And they should publish their Legg letters too.

Malc 13 October 2009 at 18:02  

Aye, Jeff. I'm with you to a point. When you appoint a referee, you abide by his decisions.

Problem is though (to continue your sporting metaphor) they've brought a football referee to a rugby match, and now the rules are different - halfway through the game. And that's where I start to feel a bit of sympathy for them.

Incidentally, I don't have any more knowledge of the claims than you do. I just reckon that if they were okay when they claimed them, how can they suddenly be fishy now?

Jeff 13 October 2009 at 18:16  

"they've brought a football referee to a rugby match"

haha, nice one.

However, as a QC, former Permananet Secretary, former clerk of the Crown and member of the Audit Commissions, then rugby or football and he should be just fine. It's a bit much, given the man's credentials, to suggest that Sir Thomas doesn't have the capacity to conduct this review and conduct it well.

And I don't understand rugby so I'm with Legg even more so in light of your analogy... ;)

Malc 13 October 2009 at 18:41  

I'm not questioning the guy's credentials. All I'm saying is that its not really that fair to change the rules retrospectively.

Sophia Pangloss 14 October 2009 at 00:02  

Malc this is exactly what disturbs me tonight. If the MPs accept these retrospective changes, will it set an unhappy precedent? Once the depression starts biting, will we hear "Nothing wrong with retrospective legislation on expenses, allowances (even taxes?), well we had to take it on the chin!"

And I do feel we're losing perspective. We have discovered that, all in, MPs can be taking in £200k (£250k if you live in Falkirk) from which they pay for 2 residences, a working office, legislative research etc. So over the (past) 5 years we can be talking about near on £1million of financial paperwork. Then, on an arbitrary if proportionate basis, Legg has found a small quantity to be questionable.

Questionable today, not questionable when they were being properly signed off by some Officer of the Crown.

I don't set out to defend MPs, not by a long shot. But it worries me what we might be letting them get away with under cover.

Bucket of Tongues 14 October 2009 at 00:38  

But then, you have to wonder what Legg was appointed to do - he must have been requested to give rules and guidelines which would apply retrospectively. In that case, no-one can really complain.

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