Sir Thomas Legg’s response to the MP expenses crisis is an honest answer to the wrong question. But it is still the wrong answer, and does little to assuage public anger, or to distinguish between the good, the bad, and the merely ugly.
Legg’s recommendations, which will form the basis of the deliberations of the Commons Members Estimate Committee, publishing on 4 November, have already resulted in MPs receiving letters telling them how much they should repay. Some MPs have paid up, others have complained, others are submitting additional paperwork. Some are, undoubtedly, breathing sighs of relief, since the Legg has not applied limits to mortgage interest payments.
The heart of this particular controversy is that Legg has applied retrospective limits which he has made up himself, based on what he thinks MPs should have been allowed to claim, and is asking MPs to pay back anything above this limit.
It doesn’t take long to see why that really doesn’t answer the original question. The public was not outraged because it thought that MP expense limits were too high (or, indeed, too low), but because MPs were apparently abusing these expenses. Some of this was just ugly — moats, duck houses, and light bulbs. But some of it was really very bad indeed. The man who this week admitted paying £100,000 into his own company is the most recent, but we heard widespread accounts of improper use of public funds, gaming the system (the famous ‘flipping homes’) to make a profit, and outright fraud against the taxpayer.
Therefore, suggesting that this can be solved by setting a limit is, to say the least, eccentric.
Are we really saying that you can commit fraud up to a certain level? Or are we saying that if you honestly played by the rules and only claimed for legitimate expenses, but you happened to claim for more than Thomas Legg has since decided should be the universal rule, you should pay it back?
If you walk out of a supermarket carrying goods you have stolen from the aisle, and they catch you, then simply saying you’ll take them back is unlikely to keep you out of court. On the other hand, how angry would you be if you paid for your goods, got them home, and then had a visit from the police who said that the prices at the supermarket had since gone up, and you were now required to pay the difference between what you first paid and the new price?
And this is the nub. Legg’s solution punishes the innocent — the, we believe, majority of MPs who committed no intentional fault with their expenses — by making them pay back money that they disbursed honestly in accordance with the rules. MPs vary enormously in their wealth. Some have moats, Balmoral style houses and, indeed, separate houses for their ducks. Others substantially and sacrificially support charities and good causes, and are left with little over. But all the innocent are punished along with the guilty.
At the same time, Legg’s report acquits the guilty. The only thing which could have saved the reputation of parliament would have been a string of by-elections caused by MPs resigning from the house. MPs promising to step down at the next election is nowhere near enough. It would be like being caught committing fraud at work, and then being kept on because you were retiring in a couple of years anyway.
Instead, all are treated as if they were equally innocent, and equally guilty. And that offends natural justice. Thus far, we have had no action by parliament against its erring members, and no exoneration of those who have lived up to their calling. Every MP is tainted with the same stain, whether they were guilty or not.
Finally, Legg’s is the answer to the wrong question for another reason. Of all bodies in the UK, parliament must be self-regulating. Calling in civil servants, former judges, lawyers and all those others is simply dodging the fact that parliament ought to censure itself.
We return to the age old question: quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who guards the guards? The answer, in this case if in no other, is — the guards must guard themselves. No one else can. And, if the guards cannot, the electorate lies waiting for them. Parliament can run amok, but it can only run amok for five years, and then it must face us, the voters.