There seems to be a remarkably warped sense of priorities in the British media when the Home Secretary's ignorance of whether her broadband package included TV or was just for internet and phone services has taken higher priority in the headlines for days than a G20 summit on rescuing the global economy.
We've had lots of prurient public laughter about the embarrassment of Jacqui Smith and her husband when given they paid back the tiny sums involved there is no public interest in the details being made known at all. Morally there is no difference between an expenses claim for watching C-Beebies or the more adult channels Richard Timney tuned into - the issue was that it was a wrongly claimed for expense, not what he watched (I assume there could be quite a few MPs and their spouses watching Television X and not sending the bill into the fees office).
On the wider question of MPs' pay and expenses some observations:
- The vast bulk of the headline "expenses" figures quoted in the press are not expenses at all - they are staff pay. When non-MPs fill in expenses claims at work we don't add a section for the pay of the staff that work for us.
- Most of the rest is legitimate - is anyone seriously saying MPs should pay for travel on parliamentary business, their office IT equipment or postage costs for casework letters out of their personal salaries?
- The basic salary MPs get is a good one compared to the vast majority of the population but derisory -even taking into account discounting it for an aspect of voluntarism/public service - compared to jobs of equivalent seniority (and in the case of Ministers scary levels of responsibility) - including the salaries of the newspaper editors getting sniffy about them.
- MPs need a second home because we expect them to live half the week in their constituency and half in London. If a non-MP had an employer who expected us to live away from home half the week we'd expect to be able to claim the accommodation and subsistence on expenses.
The legitimate debate is about:
- do we pay MPs enough to get the best people, assuming we want the best people?
- which aspects, if any, of the fittings and furnishings of a second home should be claimable?
- what should count as the "second" home - the London one or the constituency one?
- for seats within what travel time/distance of Westminster does a second home become unnecessary because you can commute?
I would suggest that a quick solution is to find a "public sector comparator" - the Civil Service is an obvious one - and put MPs onto exactly the same expenses regime as the equivalent public servants, and allocate them to one of the civil service pay scales so their annual increments, pensions etc. are transparently linked to it, with Cabinet Ministers earning the same as the Permanent Secretary who reports to them.
MPs need to grow up and stop pretending they can live the lifestyle of someone far better paid whilst publicly appearing to have a salary of only £64k. If they want the better lifestyle they need to accept the scrutiny that will come from having a salary proportionately bigger. Otherwise they should learn to live on £64k, which after all sounds like megabucks to over 90% of the population.
They also need to take a good long look at their consciences and ask if the tax payer really ought to be paying for 88p bath plugs or £700 stereos. Whatever the rules say, I'd feel queasy and morally sullied if I claimed for either. The question they should ask themselves is "this will end up in the public domain by one means or another, how would a reasonable elector in my constituency view this use of their tax money?"
The media needs to decide whether outing the late-night TV viewing of an MP's spouse, and labelling all MPs as chiseling crooks on the basis that they employ staff, send out mailings and travel to and live part of the week in their seats is really going to enhance British democracy.