What happened to the new politics?
January 7, 2011
Mark posted this article on the Daily Telegraph’s website following the announcement that former MP, David Chaytor, will be imprisoned for his breaches of the system of MPs’ expenses. Click here to read the Telegraph version.
It was optimistically assumed that last year’s General Election would draw a line under the expenses scandal. The conviction and sentence meted out on Friday to former Bury North MP, David Chaytor, is clear evidence, if such was required, that this sordid affair is not going away any time soon.
Five other present or past parliamentarians face their own day in court in the months ahead; a total of ten Honourable Members of the Commons or Lords have, to date, had their files passed on from the Crown Prosecution Service to the Metropolitan Police. It all seems a far cry from the promises made by all political parties at the hustings last May. “A new politics” was going to restore the public’s trust – or so in the aftermath of the Daily Telegraph’s groundbreaking revelations in May 2009 the British public was faithfully assured.
Yet eight months on there is an unsettling sense that the political class still “doesn’t get it”. Pre-election pledges made by all party leaders to “reduce the cost of politics” and “democratise the House of Lords” have been honoured only in their breach. Instead a record-breaking roster of 117 new peers were created in 2010, all of whom will now be entitled (as a part of the 830 plus Lords’ cohort) to a tax-free £300 daily attendance allowance – no receipts, no questions asked. So much for cutting the cost of politics and promoting transparency and accountability!
Meanwhile, the succession of expenses trials will provoke a further high profile media circus through much of the year ahead. This may not seem the time to express too much sympathy for David Chaytor’s plight. However, I have long been uneasy that there might be considerably worse expenses offenders who have got off scot-free in the past at a (what now seems distant) time when there was no public scrutiny of MPs’ expenses.
Remember it was only the receipts from the period 2004-2008 that were made public and published in full by the Daily Telegraph. I am fairly convinced that the cynical conduct of many MPs, bordering on the corrupt, over second home and staffing budgets (both bolstered over the years as a substitute for independently awarded salary rises foregone) may have been even more widespread in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Since the scandal became public the universal refrain from parliament’s ‘great and good’ has been that the expenses system had been rotten for decades. Yet these were the very same MPs who almost until the very day that the Daily Telegraph first published unredacted receipts, did their utmost to block any meaningful reform of the now maligned expenses regime. To the Speaker’s Commission and the Standards & Privileges Committee all of the systematically suspect claims were defended resolutely as being ‘within the rules’. Small wonder they waged such a calamitous and protracted campaign in the High Court to prevent publication of expenses receipts – they must have known full well the public reaction that would follow full disclosure.
At a time when strong political leadership is crucial to steer the UK through the economic gloom, the public rightly despairs at parliament’s repeated failure to put its own house in order. I am now convinced a line will only be drawn under this sorry expenses saga with an independent public inquiry charged with lifting the lid on all that has happened.