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Sunday 17 May 2009

Democracy sullied in a world of grasping politicians 

Britain's mainstream parties are likely to pay a high price for the expenses debacle, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

LAST week a three-foot pound-sign-shaped flo-wer bed was dug into the lawn of Alan Duncan's Rutland home (the British shadow cabinet member had claimed £598 for repairs to a ride-on lawnmower); a brick was thrown through the windows of Julie Kirkbride's constituency office near Birmingham (she and her husband, Andrew McKay, now fired as David Cameron's eyes and ears at Westminster, were each claiming a different house as second homes to maximise expenses); Margaret Beckett, minister of state, was jeered and heckled by the normally sedate audience on BBC's Question Time (she had claimed £600 for pot plants) as was former Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell, who had charged the taxpayer for a £1,024 king-size bed; Justice Minister Shahid Malik, who had complained when refused more than half the cost of a £2,600 home cinema system, has lost his job.

These were just some of the millions of items they and hundreds of MPs have claimed in secret that are now public. The electorate have learned a new term -- 'flipping'.

You buy a house in London, class it as your second home, furnish it generously at public expense, and then flip by giving second-home status to your constituency home, which you furnish generously, etc, etc. The newspapers are full of embarrassing facts, excoriating comment and cartoons about pigs, troughs, snouts and mire. MPs have become terrified of their constituents. Some are scribbling cheques to the fees office (which deals with expenses) and the taxman in the hope of saving their jobs -- and, in some cases, keeping out of jail. The great cartoonist Matt has an MP in prison uniform shouting through his cell window: "Can you tell the fees office I'm designating this as my main residence."

Some of the detail is intrinsically funny. Of the £36,000 claimed for gardening expenses over four years by Tory ex-minister John Selwyn Gummer, £100 was for the eradication of moles (animals, not body). His ex-cabinet colleague Douglas Hogg requested £2,000 for moat-cleaning. How could uber-macho John Reid, one-time Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and now chairman of Celtic, bring himself to put in for £29.99 for a glitter lavatory seat? Perhaps the most memorable, because of how it's been used as a metaphor, was the £389 Sir David Heathcote Amery claimed for horse manure.

There was nothing funny about the backbench Tory James Gray, who requested £60 for three Remembrance Day wreaths and, when refused, whined that he 'had got away with it before'. He is, said Iain Dale, a highly respected Conservative blogger, "a class one copper-bottomed shit" who should be chucked out of the party.

TDs had the brass neck to award themselves massive salaries -- their basic is €100,191 and they automatically receive €139.67 for an overnight stay in Dublin and a daily rate of €61.53 if they live within 15 miles of the Dail. MPs feared being accused of greed so they funked wage increases -- they're on €72,717 with no set daily rates -- and devised an elaborate expenses set-up instead that degenerated into a gravy train.

The Freedom of Information Act exempted parliament, but in the end persistent campaigners and a leaker have exposed every shabby and squalid receipt. The British public doesn't know whether to get more worked up about MPs who claimed for a chocolate bar or those that built up a property portfolio.

Nor have the Irish been backward in milking the system. Peter and Iris Robinson, who both double-job in Westminster and the Northern Ireland Assembly, together legally received £571,939 in salaries and expenses in one year and around £30,000 for food over four years. Sinn Fein were at it too. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness claimed £3,600 a month to rent a shared flat in North London, which sounds less reasonable when you consider that (a) they don't attend parliament and (b) the going rate for such a flat is £1,400. The other three Sinn Fein MPs claim monthly rent of £5,400 for a house where rent is worth £1,800. Oh yes, and both properties have the same landlord. Like so many other MPs they recite the mantra that they stayed within the rules. For all the erring MPs, compliance replaced conscience.

At a time of financial catastrophe, when politicians are perceived as incompetents, they are now also classed as cheats. Britain is historically much less forgiving of corruption than Ireland. Local and European elections are coming up in a few weeks, and the big parties fear humiliation. It is truly a terrible time for democracy. In the Daily Telegraph Matt showed two men leaving the Home Office with the caption: "We're scrapping ID cards. We don't want anyone to know we're MPs."

It used to be a badge of honour to call yourself a Member of Parliament. Suddenly, it is a mark of shame.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards