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.

Why Caroline Spelman deserves a fairer hearing

BBC | How damaging is the Spelman saga?. The story in brief for those who haven’t been following it: with the Conservative party rocked by a series of scandals over expenses, beginning with Derek Conway and culminating (at least so far) in the resignation of the party leader in Europe, Caroline Spelman, the party chair who has been calling MPs to account, has herself come under the spotlight for (allegedly) paying her nanny out of constituency expenses.

On the surface of it, this sounds like the classic story of political hubris: public pressure forces a politician to champion a moral cause, only for them to be found out as a culprit. It’s the old story that dogged John Major’s ‘Back to Basics’ campaign, although Major himself wasn’t found out until years later, and, in any case, by ‘Back to Basics’, he really meant returning to Conservative economic basics, not basic moral values.

Far be it from me to defend the Conservatives, but on this occasion I need to come out and say that this story is not the simple one that it appears to be, and that Caroline Spelman deserves a fairer hearing, and a second chance.

We could talk about it being ten years ago, at a time when things were less clear cut, we could talk about the fact that it appears that the nanny genuinely did a bit of phone answering and message taking, and we could talk about the fact that Caroline Spelman was a new and inexperienced MP, who probably got some bad advice from someone. We could also point out that, if she hadn’t taken a stand to clean up the Tory party, nobody would even be talking about things that took place ten years ago.

I’m not convinced that any of those things stand up on their own, and I’m not convinced that, if they don’t stand up singly, that they have any value cumulatively.

However, there is one thing which puts this story in a completely different light from the Conway, Chichester and other scandals we have seen.

It is this: Caroline Spelman stopped what she was doing of her own accord. This is absolutely crucial, and none of the media commentators seem to have recognised its importance. Spelman was not threatened with blackmail to make her stop, she was not put under party discipline to make her stop, she did not receive angry letters from her constituents, or face tough questions from journalists, or a series of high profile media stories. She looked at what she was doing, decided that — whatever advice she had been given before, whatever anybody else was doing, and whatever the personal benefits of carrying on — it wasn’t right, and it wasn’t going to be part of her lifestyle as a politician.

Some would see this as an admission of guilt. In fact, it is an all too rare demonstration of moral purpose.

Whether Caroline Spelman knew what she was doing was wrong or not when she started doing it, she reached a point where she decided she should not be doing it, and stopped. Some people might say that this is all very well, and might let her off the hook technically, since it supports the claim that she was unaware she was breaching the rules, but still does not excuse her setting herself up to clean up the affairs of other Tory politicians. In fact, it is exactly the moral quality which someone needs who wishes to challenge others to follow her example: “if you become aware you are breaching the rules, stop”.

Have we learned nothing from 2000 years of the New Testament. Or, for those who bitterly oppose the moral teaching of Jesus Christ having any role in modern society, have we learned nothing from twelve years of Harry Potter? We cannot take the magic of Hogwarts into the real world, but Dumbledore and his second chances have a lot to teach us.

In an ideal world, all politicians would all be perfect all of the time. But in the real world, it’s not just that not all politicians will be perfect, but that all people will be imperfect. Again, that’s something we could have picked up from faith, or children’s literature, if we didn’t have the perspicacity to spot it ourselves. In the actual world we live in, it is far more important to have politicians with the integrity to change what they do when they realise they are doing it wrong, than to have politicians who have never yet been found out. It is exactly the quality of ‘carrying on until you are found out’ which is the essence of sleaze, although it is usually then followed by ‘denying it as much as possible’.

In this, Caroline Spelman has also shown that she is different from the sleaze brigade: she has voluntarily referred the matter to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

It may seem rather surprising that I am defending a Tory here. But my fear is that Caroline Spelman will go the way of Estelle Morris — someone who didn’t feel she was good enough at her job to stay in politics (despite some quite substantial evidence to the contrary), and left, making way for those who really were not good enough. If Caroline Spelman stands down as Tory Party Chair, and subsequently as an MP, she will not be replaced by a Tory who is more honourable, merely by a someone who is better at appearing honourable.

Do MPs cost too much?

BBC NEWS | Politics | Most expensive MP defends record

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.

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