Not So Honourable Members
Amid the uproar over the MPs’ expense claims, we should not lose sight of an important fact. Unlike applying to be reimbursed for the cost of dog food or a swimming pool, much of what our representatives in Parliament do is a waste of time. Claiming to make us all more secure by controlling the economy they endlessly debate their Budgets, financial statements and regulations but when there bursts onto the scene something like a credit crunch – a recession, a slump – they are revealed as powerless to do more than mouth baseless analyses or predictions while capitalism grinds on its barbarous way.
It is much the same about crime as one government after another, on a promise to reduce the problem almost to elimination, churns out a legislative flood providing for more stringent penalties and to re-define some behaviour from legal to criminal. For example the Fraud Act of 2006 was designed to make it easier for the prosecution to get convictions for offences of fraud and increased the maximum sentence from seven to ten years. There is a certain irony about this reform, as it would have an effect on those Honourable Members who passed it into law but may find themselves in court for so profitably exploiting the loopholes in Parliament’s system of allowances to claim for a non-existent mortgage or for making false declarations to the Customs and Revenue. Meanwhile crime continues to be a disfiguring problem, of an intensity which shows no significant evidence of being influenced by Parliament’s professed attempts to control it; its origins lie outside the scope of such delusions.
But of course the MPs have to believe that what they do is vitally important; otherwise their self-esteem would suffer such serious damage as to make it very difficult for them to discuss their own wages, extra allowances and working conditions – or rather their improvement. When, during the recent storm of protests over their finances they were being questioned by nosey journalists, a common response was to blame the whole problem onto something they called “the system” which everyone knows to be sadly defective and in need of immediate re-ordering. This breathtakingly implausible argument ignored the fact that “the system” was itself the creation of MPs who, while often denouncing workers as irresponsible wreckers when they try to improve, or even defend, their living standards are allowed to better their own wages and the like. It also took no account that the discredited claims for the extra allowances breached the requirement – which was intended to give the impression of adequate safeguards – to be for “additional costs wholly, exclusively and necessarily “ incurred in their work – which did not mean cleaning a moat or installing a home cinema.
In July 2001 Chris Mullin, the Labour MP for Sunderland, made himself unpopular by opposing a Commons motion to increase MP’s wages by £4000, tabling an amendment to align rises with those for nurses, teachers and the like. Mullin thought the opposition to his amendment was meant to approve the original motion on the nod, avoiding any debate and implicating all the MPs. Unsurprisingly he lost his amendment, the MPs awarded themselves the rise and an increase in the accrual rate of their pension from 50ths to 40ths – which Mullin furiously described as “shameless”. It is not known whether he felt some grisly justification when, in the following year, the Tory MP for Windsor, Michael Trend, was suspended for two weeks after the Mail On Sunday revealed that he had claimed almost £90,000 in accommodation allowances although he lived in his constituency. Trend did not stand in the 2005 election and his successor in the seat, Adam Afriyie, is reported in the Daily Telegraph as not making any claim.
Another example of what might be moderately called double standards is Tony McNulty, Labour MP for Harrow. McNulty is known as a bruiser, someone to be relied on in the TV studios to dismiss any critic of the New Labour method of running capitalism as mad or malicious or both, hardly worth any attention from a Minister in the Department of Work and Pensions, with responsibility to crack down on anyone caught making false claims for state benefit. He recently declared that such people are “benefit thieves” who will be ruthlessly hunted down by use of developed technology and “face imprisonment, fines and other penalties. We will also make sure they pay back the money they have stolen…and seek to ensure any proceeds from their crime are confiscated too”. However McNulty has also been caught out – not through any technological device but by simple journalistic trawling through Parliamentary records – in behaviour which some of his constituents might regard as a kind of theft, claiming almost £60,000 allowance for a house in Harrow which he owns but which he should not claim on because it is where his parents live. His home, which he shares with his wife, is in Hammersmith. All of this was in spite of the rule that all claims for the Additional Costs Allowances must be “above reproach” and not encourage any speculation that the object is “…benefiting from public funds”.
McNulty conceded that his claim may be “a bit odd” but justified it on the grounds that “everyone does it” – by which he presumably meant every MP, but not every benefit claimant. He was at first resistant to even paying back the money – although if he ever comes into court in the matter, as many people outside his constituency as well as inside it hope – to try to buy his way out of trouble in that way is unlikely to significantly affect the outcome. In any case he would surely be the last to suggest that he should be treated any more leniently than the benefit fraudsters he so zealously persecutes. That the scandal of parliamentary allowances has revealed so many MPs as devoted, persistent practitioners of the art of double standards should surprise nobody. For the reality is that the capitalist system which governments profess to be able to control is itself a massive, universal fraud on the majority of its people.