Alex Massie

A Parliament of Thieves

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Like any sensible person I've been thoroughly amused and appalled by the scandal of MPs expenses. Appalled because the extent of MPs' avarice is sufficient to shock even an iron-souled cynic; amused because watching MPs try to justify their gluttonous appetite for taxpayer-funded freebies affords a certain pleasure that one might consider vindictive if only it weren't so entirely merited. This isn't a tragedy, it's a stinking farce.

The dreary pretense - duly repeated by every sticky-fingered parliamentarian - that it is all ok because "no rules were broken" could hardly be more priceless. Nor could it do more to underline the essential fact that these people are fools who in turn treat the public as though they are fools themselves. Only the blindest dolt would think that boasting of obeying the rules might minimise the public's entirely-justified sense of outrage (a wrath that is, I suspect, under-appreciated at Westminster and in the media) when it is the laxness of the rules themselves that occasions so much incredulity and anger.

For it is now clear, if it weren't before, that we are governed by a parliament of thieves for whom no expense is too small or too trivial to be borne by the taxpayer. These knaves and charlatans are strangers to shame and decency. Astonishingly, they make journalists and estate agents seem paragons of probity by comparison. Who'd have thunk that possible?

In a startlingly complacent and tendentious editorial (thoughtfully brought to my attention by Mr Eugenides) the Times claimed that "only an idiot" would enter parliament "in order to get rich". Logically, then, parliament is stocked with even more idiots than you might have thought since, whatever else it is, life at Westminster seems a very good way of becoming pretty rich indeed.

MPs may be paid more poorly than many newspaper columnists but they still make rather more than rather more than 90% of the population. The poor house does not beckon. And that, of course, is before one considers their lavish expense arrangements and the potential for building a serious property portfolio at a serious discount, all subsided by the public purse.

So, yes, sympathy is as thin on the ground as it should be. Perhaps they are not all "at it" but it is clear that many of them are. It is not, whatever Kerry McCarthy (Lab, Bristol East) may say in an otherwise interesting post, an accident to claim for dogfood or biscuits or horse manure for your garden. Nor, evidently, can it be an accident to a) claim for the 5p cost of a carrier bag and b) keep the money. It is the relentless nature of the money-grabbing and its cheapness that grates. Every penny that may be milked from the system must be - and is - milked. And why not, it's all free money innit?

Who knows how many MPs have behaved in a fashion that renders them unfit for office? Dozens certainly, perhaps even hundreds. How is it possible to even think that paying for gardening can be a legitimate parliamentary expense? I cannot see how Alan Duncan can plausibly remain in the Shadow Cabinet, nor why the good voters of Rutland and Melton should return him to Westminster at the next election.

Not that Mr Duncan is alone. Francis Maude and Chris Grayling should, assuming the Telegraph's story is accurate, go too. And so, naturally, should the Chancellor of the Exchequer and all the others who have enriched themselves through their ingenious use of the second-home allowance. At the very least these MPs are guilty of ignoring the spirit of the regulations. You might very well go further and accuse them of fraud and theft but I, of course, could not possibly comment on that. What's also clear is that at the next election we're going to need an awful lot of independent candidates in White Suits.

In fact, some of the most telling details are the expense claims that the Fees Office actually rejected. Thus the Foreign Secretary tried to claim £199 for a child's pram while another Labour MP reportedly complained to the Fees Office in these gobsmacking terms:

"I object to your decision not to reimburse me for the costs of purchasing a baby's cot for use in my London home...Perhaps you might write to me explaining where my son should sleep next time he visits me in London?"

Let that sink in for a moment. Astonishing, isn't it? Your flabber should be well and truly gasted. As with Jacqui Smith's household, it seems that many MPs are of the view that the default presumption should be that all expenditure should be charged to the taxpayer unless there's an unfortunate reason for having to dip into one's pocket oneself. This may not count as corruption in the formal sense, but many MPs are clearly and quite literally on the take. I'm only surprised they haven't been trying to claim their childrens' school fees too...

In one sense, mind you, one can understand the anger MPs feel in these instances. After all, everything else seems to be ok, so why not a bay's cot too? Is that really so very much more outrageous than the expenses they can get away with? Perhaps not since we pay for MPs to eat too. Until April this year, MPs were able to claim £400 a month just for food. Fat cats bingeing on the public purse, indeed. The entire racket is organised as though MPs were a bunch of travelling salesmen, constantly on the road rather than, you know, parliamentarians who live and work in London.

And yet to hear the poor buggers talk you'd think being an MP the most miserable, soul-destroying job in the world. And of course much of the time it must be. To begin with, you're surrounded by crooks and liars. If being a parliamentarian is less satisfying than perhaps it once was, MPs largely have themselves to blame. After all, it is they who have happily tolerated the sidelining of parliament. Then again, the opportunities for lining your pockets are considerable and the severance payments - of which one trusts there will be several hundred next year - startlingly generous too.

As I say, I rather suspect that, if anything, the Westminster Village underestimates the fury this scandal has caused. There's going to be a nationwide shortage of torches and pitchforks for there's a mob building and there's going to be a riot.

As there should be. The extent of the graft is remarkable and, as the Americans say, it's time to throw the bums out.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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