David Blackburn

The Commons closes ranks

The Commons closes ranks
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They are all in it together. This morning’s papers lead with the story that Members’ Estimate Committee will challenge Sir Thomas Legg’s demands that MPs repay excessive expense claims, on the grounds that Sir Thomas’ has applied retrospective rules on maintenance grants. Many MPs will take legal action to avoid repayment. The pro-transparency MP John Mann told the Guardian:

“The Legg team have clearly got problems, because [MPs] don't have the receipts for a lot of this stuff. Clearly, if someone has managed to get [a claim] signed off by the fees office then they have a case when asked to repay.

"There could be as many as 200 MPs who refuse to pay anything. If he is going to say to an MP, 'You have to pay back £200,000' and that MP is standing down, they are simply going to say 'No way'. I think there's a chance that a good number of MPs will not pay up – the repair of a moat may have been bad but it was approved by the fees office."

There is the sense that ‘they just don’t get it’ and the prospect of widespread legal action will not edify Parliament. Certainly, the expenses system needs reform and public ire at those who abused the taxpayer is justified. However, Sir Thomas Legg was appointed as an auditor, not a judge and the application of retrospective rules exceeds his remit. Establishing the facts on this matter is crucial. Those who exploited guidelines by misleading the fees office should repay in full, if not face prosecution for what amounts to fraud; then a new, transparent system can be introduced. But setting arbitrary limits, as a financial expression of moral outrage, after the event is unfair and undermines the process of reinvigorating our democracy. The rebels do get it.

UPDATE: The Tories and Speaker Bercow have advised MPs to co-operate with Sir Tomas Legg's requests, which is admirable. But I do think that as Sir Thomas has exceeded his remit and imposed retrospective repayment, MPs should resist his potentially counter-productive demands.