A Very British Scandal


Politics is the noblest profession.
-- Robert F. Kennedy

There's a great row going on in the UK. Members of Parliament (MPs) have been outed. The Daily Telegraph has published a series of exclusives stories on reimbursements sought by MPs for various expenses, ranging from, in American dollars, .56 cents for fuses to $193,558 for repairs and maintenance of a London flat.

The public anger over these disclosures is, properly, very great, and if the Labour Party wasn't finished before, it soon will be.

While the expense reimbursement scandal is party neutral, almost everyone was doing it, including the leaders of the three main Parliamentary parties, but the party in power will pay the greatest price - and Prime Minister Gordon Brown will be out and the leader of the Conservatives David Cameron will be in.

I began by quoting Bobby Kennedy, for whom I had the privilege of serving in the presidential campaign of '68. I often heard him say during the campaign, "politics is the noblest profession." I believed it, and have spent 41-years defending those in public office, not those guilty of misdeeds - weighed against the whole a small number - but the great majority who serve the public interest.

But I've never encountered anything like the scandal now shaking the very foundation of the "Mother of Parliaments." A scandal so sweeping in its reach the mind is boggled. That much of it appears allowable under the "rules" of the House of Commons doesn't change the equation; allowable or not it is indefensible.

That said, what constitutes a justifiable "expense" is explained in the Green Book, a guide to members' allowances: "overnight stays away from home whilst on parliamentary duties (Personal Additional Accommodation Expenditure)." Which basically means MPs may be reimbursed for expenses, unspecified, related to having a second residence (even if their constituency is within London proper).

What mystifies me is how so many MPs could have thought it was okay to seek reimbursements for everything from horse manure to toilet seats, from Kenyan carpets to flat screen TVs, from chauffer driven cars to piano tuning.

At issue is not what's permissible under the rules of the Commons, but what constitutes proper behavior for a person in public office? It appears that most of the 646 MPs underwent an ethical bypass operation, and, in consequence, lost their sense of public duty.

Look, I am neither hopelessly idealistic nor naive. I have a fairly good grasp of politics and the doctrine of Original Sin, but in reading The Daily Telegraph's list of serial offenders I was shocked. It's a very long list; but so you can relate to the magnitude of the scandal, here's a partial accounting from The Telegraph's comprehensive coverage (and a bow to The Telegraph for its extraordinary reportage, even if they had to pay a source to get it):

John Austin claimed more than $15,485 for redecorating his London flat, a mere 11 miles from Westminster, before selling it for a profit.

Greg Barker made a $495,509 profit selling a flat the taxpayer had helped pay for.

Margaret Beckett made a $929 claim for hanging baskets.

Tony Blair, the former prime minister, re-mortgaged his constituency home and claimed almost a third of the interest around the time he was buying another property in London

Gordon Brown's house swap let the prime minister claim thousands.

Stephen Byers claimed more than $193,558 for repairs and maintenance at a London flat owned outright by his partner, where he lives rent-free.

David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, limited his claims to mortgage interest payments and utility bills. After the story broke he said he would repay the maintenance bill he claimed - $929 for the removal of wisteria.

Ronnie Campbell claimed a total of $135,845 for furniture for his London flat.

James Clappison owns 24 houses (which is his "second home?") but billed more than $154,846, including thousands for gardening and redecoration.

Nicholas Clegg, the Liberal-Democratic Party leader, claimed the maximum allowed under his parliamentary second home allowance.

Barbara Follett, the wife of Ken Follett, the famous and wealthy novelist, was reimbursed $38,000 for a security detail she hired after being mugged.

Julian Lewis, the Conservative Party's shadow defence secretary, received $7,446 in reimbursement for "upgrading" his property, while the $9,166 he sought for an acoustic underlay for his wooden floor, was denied. But he was successful in being reimbursed $69 for a shower curtain, $3,622 for kitchen appliances, and another $987 for new bathroom "taps."

Oliver Litwin was reimbursed $3,000 for the cost of replacing a broken water pipe under his tennis court.

Martin McGuinness and four other Sinn Fein MPs claimed more than $744,233 over five years even though Sinn Fein MPs refuse to attend Parliament.

Paul Murphy had a new plumbing system installed at taxpayers' expense because the water in the old one was "too hot."

Anthony Steen claimed $134,716 on country mansion with 500 trees.

Keith Vaz claimed $116,909 for a second flat near Parliament even though he already lived just 12 miles from Westminster.

Sir Nicholas Winterton and his wife Ann claimed more than $123,877 for a London flat owned by a trust controlled by their children.

Derek Wyatt billed $1.16 for scotch eggs.

Among other expenses claimed were: $1.62 for Winolene (window cleaner); $1.36 for pedal bin liners; $2.26 for Cif Oxy Wipes (a spray gel for cleaning surfaces); and $4.55 for Cillit Bleach.

But my favorite, if that applies to so sordid a mess, was the Conservative MP who billed the Commons $120. Why? That's what it cost one weekend to have an electrician change his light bulbs.

The Telegraph listed 30 MPs as "Saints", those who neither submitted nor received expense reimbursements. The list included MPs from the three major political parties. I'll take the 30 but what does that say about the other 616 members?

Nicholas Clegg, in the midst of this huge political storm, called upon Michael Martin, the speaker of the House of Commons, to resign. At first Mr. Martin politely refused, since no speaker had resigned since 1695. But that was Monday; on Tuesday Speaker Martin resigned, the first major casualty of this unbelievable debacle, but surely not the last. (And, indeed he wasn't, as Douglas Hogg, a Conservative Party member and aristocratic grandee said Wednesday he would not stand for reelection, the results of the outcry for his having been reimbursed $3,400 for the clearing of his country house moat.)

Scotland Yard is now investigating, but to what end? Their jurisdiction is questionable; it's a Parliamentary not a police matter.

In the meanwhile, the prime minister has called for a commission to investigate MP reimbursements for the past four-years. But that seems dumb, since the very rules by which the Commons theoretically operates are so malleable, and it's difficult to say you're guilty of a criminal act when no rule says it's a criminal act.

Is there no recourse? I recommend two:

First, since is clearly qualifies as a no-brainer, change the rules, and, secondly, equally a no-brainer, vote the offenders sorry butts out of office!

George Mitrovich is a San Diego civic leader. He can be reached at gmitro35@gmail.com.