Journalists have rushed out stories on what MPs cost with some glee. After all, the basic salary for a regional newspaper journalist is a fraction of the basic salary for the local MP. Now that the full expenses have been declared, the media feels it has landed on a very firm piece of moral high ground.
But is this fair? Anyone who has been in business, or who has managed anything substantial in the public or voluntary sector, knows that what it costs to employ someone is a great deal more than their straight salary.
Even if we compared the MP figures with salary + expense account costs, we would not be comparing like with like. The ‘expense’ figures announced this week include the employment of staff, office expenses, and mandatory residence in one of Europe’s most expensive cities. Equally – as John Thurso pointed out on Radio 4’s PM programme – MPs are not issued with a wodge of used bank notes and told to go off and spend it. Money is only handed over after receipts are produced – the MP foots the bill in the meantime.
The public does not stand to gain from a clamp-down on MP expenses – though increased transparency is in all our interests. But a clamp-down would benefit just two groups – the party in power, which has access to the trillions of pounds government expenditure, and professional lobbyists. As we see in other parts of the world, where the state does not pay for its politicians, others are only too willing to step into the funding gap.