Friday, May 15, 2009

Heads roll as Westminster reels from MPs' expenses row.

This is an extraordinary scandal. It has rumbled on for days and, with each day that passes, it seems to gather pace. Now it is actually starting to claim some scalps.

Elliot Morley, a Labour former environ­ment minister, was suspended from the parliamentary Labour party after he admitted claiming £16,800 in mortgage payments on his constituency home 20 months after repaying the loan. Morley referred himself to John Lyon, the parliamentary standards commissioner.

• Justice minister Shahid Malik was revealed to have claimed thousands of pounds in taxpayer allowances on his ­second home while renting his main home. Malik had run up the highest expenses claim of any MP, claiming second home allowances – £66,827 over three years – on his house in London. He rented his main home in his Dewsbury constituency at a discounted rate of less than £100 a week.

• The veteran Conservative MP Andrew MacKay resigned as senior parliamentary adviser to Cameron after jointly claiming £170,000 over four years on properties with his wife, fellow Tory MP Julie Kirkbride. Cameron described his behaviour as completely unacceptable after it was revealed that MacKay designated Kirkbride's constituency flat in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, as his main residence, allowing him to claim the annual £24,006 additional costs allowance on their joint London home. Kirkbride designated this property as her main residence, allowing her to make claims on her constituency flat.

• Two Labour peers were facing suspension from the House of Lords – the first since 1642 – after a report found them guilty of offering to amend legislation in exchange for payments. The Lords privileges committee found that Lord Truscott and Lord Taylor of Blackburn had "failed to act on their personal honour" after they offered their services to undercover reporters from the Sunday Times posing as lobbyists who wanted to amend government legislation.

• Michael Martin, the Commons Speaker, was on course to become a high-profile casualty, amid growing anger at his response. Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader, is expected next week to become the first party leader to call for Martin to resign after his frontbenchers said he no longer commands their confidence.

It really has been extraordinary to watch MP's come to terms with the public reaction to a system which they had come to regard as perfectly normal. It appears that, for years, they had accustomed themselves to flipping the status of their main and secondary homes so that they could decorate either at our expense. And, because the majority of them were at it, they all came to see these practices as somehow acceptable.

And, now that these practices have been made public, they are simply astonished at the level of public anger which they have generated.

Talk radio in this country have simply been talking about nothing else for days on end. And, what started out as an attack on New Labour - because they were the MP's that the Daily Torygraph initially focused upon - has widened into a general disgust at the way the entire political system operates.
And a YouGov poll for the Sun tonight showed the effect of the crisis on the major parties. When asked about voting intentions in the European elections, the Conservatives were on 28% (down from 37% last week) and Labour down to 19%, the same as the UK Independence party.
I have found myself sitting in line waiting to see a doctor and had complete strangers start a conversation with me on this subject. People are genuinely outraged by what has been going on.

I even read someone recently suggesting that the unemployed are paid too little whilst MP's are claiming these obscene amounts to repair, in one glorious instance, a moat! It really says how outraged people are becoming when it is fashionable to argue that the rate of unemployment benefit is far too low. I think our unemployment benefit is a national disgrace, but I am usually amongst a tiny minority prepared to make that argument.

There were further signs tonight of a backlash against MPs of all parties. A ­senior shadow minister, who has not been named by the Telegraph in its exposé of MPs' expenses, was yesterday asked by county councillors not to campaign for next month's local elections.

The shadow minister said: "The whole political class is in trouble. There are now no rules. We don't know where this is going to end. It has the ring of the 'clean hands' affair in Italy."

I disagree with the notion that "there are now no rules". The problem is that the rules were so lax that MP's regularly disabused them in way that would result in prosecution were an ordinary member of the public to attempt such a ruse on their tax returns.

That's what's behind the outrage. The notion that the rules the rest if us live by somehow don't apply to the political class. People, unsurprisingly, do not find that acceptable.

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