Rod Liddle is appalled that, after knowingly swindling the taxpayer, the former home secretary faced no punishment at all. It seems unbelievable after all their grandstanding — but MPs really don’t think they have done anything wrong
‘We have got to clean up politics, we have got to consign the old, discredited system to the dustbin of history.’ — Gordon Brown
That’s the problem with the dustbins of history these days — you just don’t know how often the collections are. And whether or not you have to separate out the organic matter and put it in a special green dustbin-of-history receptacle. One supposes that the former home secretary Jacqui Smith counts as organic matter, although it’s a close call. That quote above comes from the Prime Minister, talking all those months back in the early summer, about the MPs’ expenses furore. In fairness to Gordon Brown, it was the sort of sentiment offered up by every single MP placed in front of a radio or television microphone at the time — it really is appalling, something must be done, how we have shamed you, the voters, how on earth can we live with ourselves?
In the Commons tearoom it was different, however; the predominant mood was one of intense annoyance and indignation, a mood not for public consumption. But even if you were not privy to these private consultations, you might have suspected nothing would change. A day or two after Gordon Brown made that statement, also pledging politicians to transparency, scrutiny and openness, he ordained that the inquiry into the Iraq war should be held in private. Ah, that sort of openness and transparency. And now we have the House of Commons Standards and Privileges Select Committee report into the Jacqui Smith business: now we know just how seriously they took the matter, how resolved they were, how they took on board the public fury.
Jacqui Smith designated her home in Redditch, where she lived with her husband, as her secondary accommodation and the room in which she lodged in her sister’s home in south London as her primary home. Whatever way you look at it, this is, as the parliamentary commissioner for Standards and Privilege decided, ‘unnatural’ and ‘not consistent with normal understanding’. I would argue that there is only one possible reason that she did this — in order to screw more money, your money, out of the fees office. She was successful in doing this — she pocketed more than £20,000 per year for the upkeep of this ‘second’ home, whereas if she’d designated her sister’s pad her second home — which is what it was, remember — she’d have trousered only £8,000 per year. And yet the House of Commons Standards and Privilege Committee report into Jacqui Smith does not so much as mention the financial gain she received; the motive for Ms Smith lying about where she really lived, incredibly, does not crop up anywhere. It is cheerfully assumed that the whole thing was a consequence of Ms Smith misinterpreting the rules, rather than deliberately and knowingly transgressing them. She ‘knowingly’ breached the rules but, the report suggests, did so because she just got the wrong end of the stick. And so the committee, watering down even the generous assessment of her conduct made by the commissioner, decided she should repay nothing and face no further punishment than utter a pointless ‘sorry’ to the House of Commons — not a ‘sorry’ to you or me, but to the other MPs. The committee claimed to have applied the ‘normal civil standard of proof — the balance of probabilities’. But even the possibility that Smith breached the rules knowingly, for financial gain, was not so much as considered.
One aspect of the report was a discrepancy between how often Smith said she stayed in London and how often the old bill, who were detailed to protect her, said she stayed in London. The commissioner was fairly generous to Smith, allowing her the benefit of the doubt whenever the police record was not entirely clear about where she was. There was still a huge discrepancy, though: one which was, according to the report, subject in the end to a happy ‘reconciliation’ — i.e., Ms Smith fessed up and said the old bill were probably right most of the time, and accepted their record.
Can you imagine for a single second some poor sap from Smith’s constituency, up in court on a charge of fraudulently claiming benefits, telling the court that it was nothing to do with financial gain, just a misunderstanding, and getting away with it? Or, better still, a felon in the dock finding disparity between the writings in his own private diary and the official police record and being believed?
Then there’s the committee which drew up the report, or what remains of it. The MPs who adjudicated upon Jacqui Smith were barely quorate and those who were present were — with one exception — members of the Labour party. The old chairman, Sir George Young, had been co-opted to the shadow front bench team before the report was drawn up: he played no part in it. The chairmanship thus fell to Kevin Barron, the Labour member for the Rother Valley and a decent enough parliamentarian but one who nonetheless voted against changes to MPs’ expenses when the matter was discussed in the house in July last year. Barron may well not have been happy to assume the chair, preferring it to reside with a member of an opposition party, but he nonetheless did so. Other members of the committee were away — at the Liberal Democrat party conference; Nicholas Soames on official business in Washington; the Plaid Cymru representative doing whatever it is that Welsh nationalists get up to in September. That’s the measure of the importance with which MPs considered the case of Jacqui Smith: most of them not present at all, the final report drawn up by her political friends (no matter how unpartisan Barron has been during his years on the committees).
Here, then, was the first opportunity to ‘clean up politics’, to consign all that awful expenses chicanery to the ‘dustbin of history’. And what did the MPs do? Decided that a woman who knowingly described her main home as being a bedroom in a house owned by her sister while the home where her family lived was merely secondary accommodation, and did all this in order to gain larger payments from the taxpayer, was technically in breach of the rules but should not pay back a single penny nor face any further punishment. Ignore them when they appear before you on tv, or on the radio. Because still, in the tea bars and on the terrace, they seethe at our impertinence: they do not think they have done anything wrong, they think that all the while they have been within their rights.