YOU must be wondering what on earth is going on with Parliament at the moment.
What with getting rid of the Speaker for the first time in 400 years, revelations on members’ expenses prompting further resignations, stories of moats, floating duck islands and chandeliers – you must think we’re all living in cloud cuckoo land!
The truth is that most MPs designate their modest London flats as their second home and don’t ‘flip’ their designation for the convenience of buying tons of manure, having their swimming pools cleaned or avoiding capital gains tax.
As a 2005 entrant to Parliament, much of this has passed me by. But a look into the history of members’ expenses may give us some insight into how all this arose.
I think the root of it has been the fact that MPs have had to vote for their own salary increases. Obviously this is never a popular move with the electorate, so despite outside commissions ruling that salaries have been very low for the job we do for many years, we’ve been reluctant to grasp the nettle.
My understanding is that sometime in the Thatcher years, the government came up with a plan whereby Members could claim expenses. Salary was about £14,000, and the expenses – tax free – were £12,000.
Apparently Members were told ‘just divide it by 12 and submit your invoice: no need for receipts, old boy.’
Well, after tax had been taken off the salary, this nearly doubled the income of back benchers. And I think that started a culture whereby expenses were considered by some as part of the remuneration package instead of something one needed in order to live in two places at the same time.
I’m not defending any of this, but I think it helps us understand the incomprehensible to most people outside the Westminster bubble.
Time for an end to navel gazing: time to focus on our constituents and their needs.
Then perhaps politicians will begin to command a bit of respect again.