Yesterday it was David Blunkett and his privately funded trip to South Africa, which he forgot to own up to. Today it is Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and her £116,000 expenses claim. According to the BBC: ‘Ms Smith reportedly claimed £116,000 in expenses for her home in Redditch, Worcestershire, after telling the Commons that her sister’s home – where she stays while in London – was her main residence.’ The tax-free Additional Cost Allowance is worth up to £24,006 a year at present.
In response, the parliamentary standards watchdog John Lyon has rushed into inaction and declared that he will not be taking this matter any further – evidently “there is not sufficient evidence for an inquiry.” Ms Smith claims that she has ”abided by the rules. Everything I have done is above board.” All this may be technically true but consider this – when people who are living on benefit make claims which are technically ‘above board’ but nevertheless are deemed (usually by people who are on vastly higher incomes) as being excessive, they are attacked as being scroungers on the take, abusing the system and so on. The most vocal of these protectors of the public purse are often MPs, yet these very same people are more than a little queasy about dealing with abuses among their own ranks. The reason is simple. As one observer put it, they are all pushing what they can get away with to the very limit.
It was only last year that we had the scandal over MPs paying various relatives huge state funded salaries for doing often very little work. Older readers will of course remember the scandals that engulfed the Tory party during the last years of the Major government. Three MPs were accused of taking money to ask questions in the House and one, Neil Hamilton, managed in a blaze of publicity to lose both his seat in 1997 and later a series of libel actions as jury after jury confirmed his quilt.
But is all this just confined to the House of Commons? Evidently not. Only a few weeks ago, we had the Sunday Times story about four Labour members of the Lords being caught in a sting operation. Undercover reporters approached ten peers pretending to be business-backed lobbyists looking for friendly Lords able to help get a planning bill changed. Four responded saying, ‘OK, but they would need some financial inducement to do so’. Not little money either. One demanded £120,000 a year to ‘whet his appetite,’ another £2,000 a day. Buy one, get one free is not the rule here. Since all this was recorded there seemed little point in denying this. However what has happened as a result? Once again very little. Again the guilty men are using the get-out that no actual money changed hands and no ‘work’ was done, therefore no crime has been committed. However it may come as a shock to discover that 145 peers do paid consultancy work and 20 earn money from various firms for ‘political advice.’ Needless to say, none of the requirements to register interests exist for those in the Lords.
What we see here is a huge web of links between various business lobbying influences and those who sit in the Houses of Parliament. Why waste time trying to get people elected to defend your views when you can just buy one over the counter – often quite legally it appears. What is even more shocking is how often the people involved turn out to be Labour members. When they talk about a Labour MP or minister being ‘business friendly’ you cannot help but wonder what that really means.
It is time to raise again the demand that all Labour MPs should be totally open on their finances and work on a worker’s wage. Being an MP is, or should be, a fulltime job. Parliamentarians should neither have the time to take up consultancies and other outside financial interests nor should they expose themselves to the inevitable conflict of interests that entails. Living on a worker’s wage may teach them that they should think more about the interests of working people and less about the interests of big business. The sleazy culture of ‘get what you can’ which seems to be the norm for many MPs must be cleared away if we are to have representative worthy of representing our class. As for the House of Lords, abolition is now long overdue!
This article first appeared on Socialist Appeal.
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This post was written by Steve Jones