Alex Hilton: Time for straight talk on expenses

Politicians cannot help trying to spin their way out of the expenses scandal.

Alex Hilton
Alex Hilton

Sir Thomas Legg has completed his report and demanded hundreds of MPs repay their expenses. And while the respective party leaders insist that their MPs should pay back the cash, there is brewing rebellion among backbenchers who insist they were ‘within the rules'.

It was within the rules to claim £250 per month in ‘petty cash' without receipts and £400 per month in ‘food', regardless of whether the MP was at his or her main or second home. That's £7,800 a year tax free without receipts and within the rules.

MPs don't understand that they made the rules and if they didn't like them they could have changed them, so the lack of integrity reflects their own failure. They accepted rules that obfuscated their income where it should have been transparent.

But the party leaders are not helping. Their attitude is that the more MPs pay back their excessive claims, the fewer MPs will remain to attract the public ire.

The Times on Tuesday had a throwaway line on its front page that was enlightening: ‘Last year 460 MPs claimed more than the Prime Minister in expenses.'

Given that the people at Number 10 would be the only ones to benefit from the line, this smacks of the story being briefed to The Times from someone in that direction, and it is typical of a confrontational approach with backbenchers.

Gordon Brown told a meeting of Labour MPs on Monday night just to pay up, and there is a tacit threat of deselection of those MPs who refuse to do so.

What that means for the MPs who have already been forced to retire is less clear, although there is some consideration being given to docking the sums from the £100k pay-off each MP gets on retirement.

Brown is saying ‘pay up for the good of the party', but MPs are hearing ‘pay up to save Gordon'.

Unless they start speaking in the same language, this scandal will roll on until polling day.

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