Cheating, cheating, cheating. Using public funds to buy expensive furnishings for the flat owned by your mistress. Claiming money out of the public purse to buy an extra house you claim is your “main home”, while you actually live elsewhere. Sending in bills for your family's food and household goods, to be paid by the taxpayer, on the grounds that you are a public servant and it's “within the rules”. The scandal of Britain's government ministers isn't just dominating the headlines and echoing in angry outbursts across the land – it's international news.
How could they be so greedy? Members of parliament are paid quite generous salaries, and extra money for secretaries and other staff. They get free travel between their constituencies and Westminster, and in Parliament have free offices and postage and telephones, plus subsidised meals and a range of other facilities. In addition, they are able to claim large sums of money for getting accommodation in London, because it is recognised that they need to live there during the week.
All this plus all sorts of other pleasant perks – MPs get invited to all sorts of dinners and receptions and events involving generous amounts of free food and wine, they have minimal costs for office equipment and none of the worries and obligations of some one running an independent business. While at work – which admittedly can sometimes be until late at night – they have access to bars and food and comfortable rooms in which to talk and work and snooze and booze, all funded from the public purse and all in the very agreeable surroundings of one of the most famous buildings in the world.
Have they completely lost the plot? What do they think parliament is for? Why are they officially and formally described as “honourable members”? What do they see as the reason for the facilities they are given, the funds that are made available to them?
When the Daily Telegraph first revealed the scandal of the cheating parliamentarians – page after page of detailed revelations showing how they were taking money from the public purse for private benefit – the overwhelming reaction from most of those named was “it's all within the current rules”, followed by, in some cases, a grudging “maybe the rules ought to be changed”. This latter mantra is now being chanted – with increasing desperation – by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who knows that the public mood is an angry one and can smell electoral defeat coming, so wants to spread a bit of perfume around before he goes to the polls.
But it isn't “the rules” that are at fault. Essentially, the regulations allow for members of Parliament to claim money for accommodation in London as well as a main home, usually in the constituency they represent. No real problem there. The problem lies entirely in the moral orbit in which these men and women operate. They discovered that they could claim vast sums by pretending that their “main home” was whichever accommodation was the more expensive – and so claims went in for all sorts of properties, and all sorts of lies were told. And, it seems a “home” can be somewhere owned by a girlfriend or mistress, as we aren't allowed to assume that only matrimony creates a family bond.
It's not the rules that need changing. It's the people: they should apologise, and resign. Some could face prosecution. Why isn't this happening?
A general election has to take place within a year – unless, they change the rules to re-arrange that, too! – and we must hope that at the very least this government and its cheating ministers will go down to an ignominious and well-merited defeat. But that isn't really the point. It's the moral squalor of their actions that lingers – and will linger long in the memory after they have been forced to vacate their offices and leave some of their perks behind. (Only some, of course – the houses and furniture they have bought will presumably be retained, the meals for which they have claimed have already been enjoyed, and the money acquired through all the cheating has already been usefully invested).
Oh, and it's certainly a fact that the Conservative opposition, notably silent on certain aspects of all this cheating, doesn't have much to say because Conservative MPs have been on the bandwagon too, using that “London housing” excuse to acquire expensive property in the capital, claiming all sorts of household bills on the grounds of need.
But the main outrage is over those actually in government. Gordon Brown, on his appointment, spoke of his “moral compass”, and he likes to refer to his religious upbringing. Why, on discovering the dreadful amount of dishonesty among several of his government ministers, has he not done anything except say a few words about the need to rewrite the rules?
The current cliché is that “all politicians are cheats and liars anyway”. Well, maybe. But on balance probably not. The PM has not himself so far been discovered in any cheating – when his expenses were revealed the most interesting item seemed to be that he shared a cleaner with his brother — so he could act. He could sack the relevant ministers. He could apologise, and he could announce a general election right away and go to the country so that we can give our opinion of his competence and see if we want to give him another chance. That is the right, the decent, the moral way ahead. The other option, which he seems to be favouring, is to linger in office as long as possible, and hope things will die down.
It won't die down. It will be the main issue whenever the election comes. The only worry is that by then most people will be so cynical about politicians in general that a certain kind of ghastly inertia will have settled in. So, for the record, here's the main issue: in government, the money you handle, even that allocated for some of your personal needs, is not yours. You are using it on trust, for the public good.
All expenses will be published. The rules will be tightened up. But the real message is a moral one: members of parliament are there to represent people and to serve the nation, not to dictate policy and live grandly. Government means service. Cheating is wrong.
Joanna Bogle writes from London.