And another for the rest of us.
On one view, enough and more has been revealed in the press and the media about MPs expenses over the past few weeks. They have been examined and picked over in minute detail. Some claims like duck houses and moat clearing border on the theatre of the absurd.
But more serious “troughing” has come to light, and some MPs, faced with deselection, have fallen on their swords. They are comforted in the knowledge that they will receive a ‘departure’ severance payment to ease the pain and a generous pension for life to reflect their selfless devotion to public service.
But what worries me, and I am not alone, is the recent decision that no MP will face a criminal prosecution. The reason, such as it is, is specious in the extreme, and seems to focus on the problem of proving the necessary intent to defraud the taxpayer. We are told that where MPs can “trough” at will, so long as it’s within the rules, then the Nuremburg defence is available to them, namely that they were only following orders, so to speak.
Comparisons between benefit fraud and fraud whilst in a public office have been made. Benefit fraudsters usually start off within the law, claiming their proper entitlement, but when their circumstances change, such as finding a job or a partner, or both, they ‘forget’ to tell the benefits office, and keep claiming as if nothing has happened. These fraudulent claims can sometimes amount to thousands of pounds over a period of time. Once caught, almost without exception they face a criminal prosecution, and their defence that it was a regrettable oversight receives short shrift, and they are required to repay their ill gotten gains.
Contrast this with the MP, and there are several, who claimed interest on a mortgage that had been paid off eighteen months earlier. His defence? It was a regrettable oversight, and now that it has been brought to his attention by the disclosures in the Daily Telegraph, he will of course repay his ill gotten gains. Call me simple if you will, but wherein lies the difference?
The problem with squaring this particular circle is the advice that the prosecuting authorities received when deciding not to prosecute even the most egregious examples of fraud on the public purse. Their starting point would have been the law officers of the Crown, in the shape of the Attorney General and the Solicitor General. They are respectively Baroness Scotland of Asthal, who sits in the House of Lords and whose claims for expenses are not yet the subject of public scrutiny, and the utterly anonymous Vera Baird MP, who recently claimed £286 for Christmas decorations. Both are political appointees, as is the Director of Public Prosecutions, who will have been told upon appointment that if he cleans his nose clean, nudge nudge wink wink, there’s a place waiting for him on the High Court Bench, and guess who makes the decision? The Secretary of State for Justice! So yesterday it was DPP David Calvert-Smith, today it’s the Honourable Mr. Justice Calvert-Smith, and now a knight of the realm.
There are clarion calls for a new broom to sweep clean the corridors of power, and a ‘root and branch’ reform of the expenses scandal now plaguing the body politic. But those who know and love me also know that I like a bet from time to time, and I’m on a roll. So here’s the bet. I bet that after the Daily Telegraph has exhausted its ‘misappropriated’ CD Rom, and there are no more rabbits to be pulled out of the hat, it will be business as usual, and the new broom will be used to sweep this particular scandal under the carpet. Any takers?