Freesteel Blog » MPs expenses at the battleground

MPs expenses at the battleground

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009 at 4:03 pm Written by:

Following on from my earlier rant, the momentum is increasing in time for a vote this Thursday.

You’d think that MPs were experienced enough political operatives to know a fragmenting land-mine issue when they see it. No one cares about their so-called “compromise” position. I noticed that the earlier changes to the FOI Act to exempt expenses for MPs’ personal security equipment (eg CCTV cameras, stockpiled atomic weapons for deterring intruders) bought for their spare houses (claimed on expense) whose addresses are could not be disclosed, was probably the hard work of the nuclear bomb lover Julian Lewis MP.

Although politician’s home addresses are declared on the ballot during an election and so must be in the public domain, ready to be gathered together in a fashion that winds them up, they’ve decided that this information is going to have to be redacted from any FOI disclosure of housing expenses, because, as the paranoid Lewis explained:

[T]he fact that we have to [disclose] some of our addresses, some of the time, is no reason whatever for our having to do it with all our addresses, all the time, in an easily accessible form. Of course, if someone who is targeting a particular MP and means to track him or her down in order to do him or her harm puts in enough effort, it will be possible to do so. However, that does not cater for a situation in which someone with a grudge, someone with an obsession, a follower of a political cause or a self-taught follower of al-Qaeda, at home or abroad — who will not even have heard of most of the Members of this House — goes on the internet, conveniently finds 646 addresses and sends 646 packages containing something explosive, horrible or, at the very least, abusive to 646 unprotected mail boxes. The proposal is absolutely insane.

You have been told.

Our politicians make a virtue out of deciding matters on gut instinct, rather than considering them scientifically, rationally and transparently, so it’s no surprise when their attitudes in personal life extend to their style and prejudices in public administration. What other input are they going to use?

Trivial though the question of MPs’ expenses are in the grand scheme of things, the political fight over their disclosure is crucial for two reasons.

The first is that this is one of the very few instances of there ever being an on-the-record decision in favour or against the conditions that allow for political and financial corruption at any level. Normally these matters are safely kept out of the public decision-making process, be they top executive’s pay-packages that are answerable only to non-executive boards staffed by other top executives, or doomed-to-fail government contracts overseen by private advisors from the same industry, or non-returnable bonuses to bankers whose banks get bailed out only a few months later. This is one of the only times the public gets a voice. And the message has got to be made absolutely clear that we really don’t approve of this shit.

The second reason is that if MPs’ are going round deciding things on their personal prejudices and experiences, and not really paying attention to the evidence, then this provides a personal lesson about the power of public disclosure of financial details for clearing up questionable practices. Maybe they’ll see the value of extending the principle to other areas of the economy where things aren’t working too well, such as the railways, and in fact all government contracts. Perhaps on the day that Barack Obama becomes the President, they’ll have time to take a look at a law in the United States which he passed when he was in the Senate called the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act.

The MPs’ expenses issue centres on the second house in London whose mortgages and furnishings are paid for on expense, but which then wind up belonging to the MP rather than to the State. This is an irregular practice, because in business things bought on expense belong to the Company unless they are consumed eaten; if you want to keep them you have to buy them back.

It’s this buying back of used Company property (the stuff that was bought with the Company’s money that still exists) that is often hazardous. For example, Conrad Black got busted when he bought a flat in Manhattan on expenses in 1994 as proprietor of his newspaper company, and then wanted to keep it in when it time to sell it in 2000. He decided he only needed to pay the 1994 price rather than the greatly inflated 2000 market price. (Obviously, if the price had gone down, he’d have chosen to buy it at the market price.)

But MPs don’t even need to go through that. The furniture and houses they buy on expenses are theirs to keep — under the rules they made.

We need these slack standards, which are even worse than in business, tightened up for the people at the top, so they are able to enforce better results on everyone lower down. Corruption is not just about the money that was opportunistically taken; the real damage is the abuse of policy done to create the opportunities for corruption. For example, we could have had an efficiently computerized NHS years ago if the business community wasn’t so corrupt that it recommended, supported and covered up for iSoft who, for four lost years, blocked anyone competant from doing the work as they took the money and produced nothing at all. If all Government IT software was provided live and open source, this could not have happened because anyone like me could have logged onto their servers on any day of the week and seen exactly how much work they had or hadn’t done, not just the amount it was costing.

No, the place for corruption is the House of Lords, home of Lord Conrad Black (mentioned earlier), Lord Smallpox, beneficial funder of the New Labour Party and Her Majesty’s official arms dealer, Lord Mandelson of the undeclared interest-free loan because Parliamentary expenses are not enough for the lifestyle, Sir Digby Jones who helped business to make money out of iSoft’s failure and
said that being a junior minister was “one of the most dehumanising and depersonalising experiences” anyone could ever have, and his replacement Mervyn Davies, an established banker from the banking industry appointed as a Lord and a Minister on the same day last week to look after the government rescue of the banking industry and who will no doubt be sympathetic to the immense hardships our wealthy bankers are having to suffer in this crisis of their own making as he drafts government policy on the Prime Minister’s behalf.

We don’t get any say regarding this business-as-usual at the rotting economic heart of the British political economy, built as it is from a vast interlocking conflict of interest. This MPs’ expenses business is but one tiny chink in the ediface of unaccountable maladministration. Our one opportunity to say No to something, anything.

Which way is it going to go on Thursday? Will we be able to do anything about it when they do what they have threatened?


  • 1. Matt Wardman replies at 20th January 2009, 8:14 pm :

    Excellent and analytical post. Thanks.

    I think the only thing I would add is that disclosure by Welsh Assembly Members is so much greater, that I can see no reason why Westminster MPs should at least equal that degree of “best practice” openness.

    Instead Harriet Harman attempted to persuade the Welsh AMs to become more secretive, and was (rightly) sent packing.

  • 2. Freesteel&hellip replies at 6th March 2009, 5:07 am :

    […] connects to the MPs’ expenses debate which I posted about earlier in the year, drawing attention to the paranoid Julian Lewis MP and his concerns over […]

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