Saturday, May 16, 2009

Put the boot in harder, and aim better

It is difficult to put the boot in, to demand prosecution of expenses fraudsters, when you are in a grey area vulnerable position yourself, and the whole house is being condemned for the normal use of expenses, as if that were the same kind of thing as fraud. It is bothering me now that the frauds - of whom there have been a handful - are getting lumped together with those who are merely making use of the allowances they have been given as part of their job.

However I am not in a grey place so I can spell it out.

Having an allowance for buying TVs, hiring cleaners, etc, and using it is not fraudulent or corrupt. Asking whether you can buy item X on expenses and doing so if you are told you can, is not fraudulent or corrupt. If the allowances cover moats, swimming pools and chandeliers, then they are stupid, but that does not make using them fraudulent or corrupt. Waiving your expenses is a superogatory act, not a moral duty.

However claiming for a mortgage you have already paid off is fraud. An MP couple claiming 2nd home allowance on both their homes is fraud. "Flipping" to maximise allowance spend is fraud. Telling the tax office something different to the fees office is fraud.

These MPs should be expelled from their parties, deselected, and prosecuted, in no particular order. So far Labour have "suspended" two, and the Tories merely kicked one off the front bench. Luckily no frauds in the Lib Dems, so far.

The rest of them are not frauds. But giving yourself an allowance system more generous than it ought to be is corrupt. So judge them not by what they claim, but whether they voted to reform it or not. Whether they voted for transparency - or for the exemption to the Freedom of Information Act. Large numbers have voted both ways on this, but even those who voted the wrong way, may honestly think the package is not too generous.

People of similar seniority in the private sector are on 6 or 7 figure salaries, with bonuses and expense accounts that will make your eyes water. MPs could vote through the same for themselves, but they don't. Because it would be corrupt.

So this is what I want to see from the party leaders. Rather than being caught between trying to defend what is reasonable and condemn what is wrong, let's throw the handful of fraudsters to the lions, condemn the system, and condemn those who have voted to keep it secret and unreformed. And three cheers to the Telegraph, and the Freedom of Information Act for making reform possible. And shame on Cameron and Brown for ignoring the big money spinner of property speculation on the back of subsidised mortgages.


ceedee said...

What could be more fraudulent than campaigning against a corrupt and secretive expense system while making inappropriate claims for personal gain?

Until a truly independent audit (that's one free of any HoC ties) publishes a breakdown of MPs' claims, we can only guess at the skeletons still to be revealed.

Joe Otten said...

ceedee, to answer your question, just about all the alternatives would be more fraudulent.

Supporting a corrupt and secretive system while milking it, is, for example, much worse than opposing the same system - whatever personal use of it you happen to make.

I am amazed you choose such a mild term as 'inappropriate'. It's like complaining about table manners while somebody is stealing the silver.

We can indeed only guess what skeletons are to come. The Telegraph has done us a great service. Maybe this is the tip of the iceberg or maybe it is the whole iceberg. Neither of us can tell.

ceedee said...

I think you're completely wrong (but defend to the death... etc.).

Anyone who consciously knows that something is wrong and actively campaigns against it, but then goes on to exploit that wrong, in my opinion is far worse than another person who disagrees that it's wrong in the first place.

It's not just hypocritical but deceitful too and destroys trust in the individual concerned.

(I used the term "inappropriate" in an attempt at politeness to include the lesser oversights that may not amount to criminal fraud.)

Joe Otten said...

No, surely hypocrisy is doing the opposite of what you're telling others to do. If you say "don't claim expenses" and claim yourself, that is hypocrisy. If you vote against expenses, that is not telling anybody not to claim them.

Suppose you and I were to campaign for a party advocating an increase of 1p in income tax - we think the rate is wrong, and should be 1p higher. Yet we both fail to donate an extra 1% of our incomes to the treasury. Does this make us hypocrites? No!! Are we "exploiting the wrong". Well yes, it would seem so.

How many people would turn down a pay rise because they think its too generous? Very few indeed. It is an act so far above and beyond the call of duty that I would be surprised at anybody, MP, saint or whatever, doing it.

So we should make a clear distinction between using expenses in the (absurdly generous) manner for which they were intended, and fiddling them. Claiming for money spent versus claiming for money not spent. Just we make a distinction between the criminal and the person who is merely not a paragon of virtue, but a regular human being.

There are grey areas, which I haven't discussed, and these are necessarily more problematic to judge. But it is hard to damn an individual for the fact that the rules are unclear, unless there was something dishonest or misleading in the details of their claim.