A sorry tale that reveals a deeper malaise

Smith’s husband sorry over films
In parliamentary embarrassment terms, it doesn’t get worse than this:
You are the Home Secretary…
In a government whose Prime Minister has recently called for a complete review of use of expenses, but…
While you are under investigation by the parliamentary standards commissioner for possibly inappropriately claiming for a second home…
It comes to public attention that you are paying your husband to be your parliamentary aide…
And that he has wrongfully claimed on your parliamentary expenses for a personal matter…
Which turns out to be adult videos on your cable subscription service.

There are several things which the general public struggle to understand about this story:
It seems wrong that you can simply employ a member of your family to do a public job. Was this job advertised? Was there a full and fair interview process? Were all equality policies adhered to? If so, how is it that so many MPs seem to be able to employ family members?
It seems more wrong that you can claim for expenses on internet and TV subscriptions. Lots of us use our home internet connections to the benefit of our employers. Very few people who are not MPs get any of the money back for this. Of course, the MP rules state that it must be entirely used for parliamentary business. But, we the public would like to know, who is actually checking this?
It seems even more wrong that the employed family member can simply add on stuff for himself on this, without anyone checking, or it being signed off by a third party (outside the family, of course). People in business and the public sector don’t get to sign off their own expenses. Why should MPs and their spouses?
And, of course, the matter of the adult videos is the kind of thing the tabloids love.

Trust in MPs in this country is at an all time low. Half of me wants to berate the media and our own national cynicism for this. Most of the people active in politics in this country do so as unpaid volunteers, with no benefit to themselves, and scant chance of ever being elected to anything. But the other half of me is furious with the (one would hope) minority of MPs and councillors who play the system for all it’s worth.

I have no grip against Ms Smith personally. I’m sure that, within the policy confinements of her party, she does her best. But, as Home Secretary, she needs to be above reproach.

I vividly remember talking to a rowdy youth group at Scott Arms before the 2001 General Election. They had been shut out of the youth centre because, the previous week, someone had paid their entry money with a forged ten pound note. When I say forged, what I really mean is, a ten pound note which had been photocopied in colour on one side only. I asked them what they thought of politics. Unanimously (including, one must presume, the one who had created the high quality replica of the bank note), they said that one couldn’t trust politicians. Then I asked them why they thought that. One immediately pulled out the example of John Prescott thumping someone. I don’t think they were the kind of people who paid a lot of attention to politics. But they’d all seen that video clip. As far as they were concerned, the example set by politicians was clear cut.

The constant round of stories about MPs and expenses has a steady, corrosive effect. We can argue the toss about how MPs are paid, and how the greater costs of MPs in Glasgow should be met compared to the costs of MPs from Chelsea. But, as things stand, MP expenses need to be sorted out, and quickly. Else, there is little hope for trust in public life: we face a death of the body politic not by a single huge scandal, but by a thousand stabs.

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