Wednesday, 17 June 2009

It's not a new Speaker we need it's a whole new Parliament

Listening to the praise being laid on lavishly by MP's to Micheal Martin this afternoon in the commons you would be forgiven for not knowing that the same bunch who now rise to commend him on his loyal service were the very same hypocrites who a few weeks ago called for his head on a silver platter in order to save their own skins over the MP's expenses row.

"Gorbel's Mick" as we called him with affection, was in deep trouble from the very day he put on his speakers robes simply because Parliament is still living in the dark ages and Mick was seen not to be of the right class or stock to be in such a high office. And so the Toffs hated him for being working class and some of the working class disliked him because he had taken the Queens shilling and put himself above them. Personally I always found him to be good company and someone who hadn't totally forgotten his roots but I also felt that he tried too hard to fit in and to live the role as was expected of him, rather than being himself and ploughing his own furrow. Let us also not forget that he tried last year to modernise the MP's expenses system only to find half of the commons couldn't be bothered to vote and the rest formed a majority against him.

So has his departure cleansed our Parliament? not one bit, and even as the house deliberates on their next victim for the Speakers chair the stories of expenses abuse continue to hit the front pages. Today's latest exposure regarding Brian Binley saddened me not simply because of the impact it has on the reputation of Parliament, but also because I felt he didn't need to have over complicated his affairs in the way he has and that it was all so unnecessary.

I have said elsewhere on this blog that in my view MP's staying overnight in London ought to be provided accommodation centrally to stop all the wide and varied schemes MP's dream up to utilise the additional cost allowance. And Brian's case only strengthens my argument

Despite him taking my seat at the last election and me also planning to challenge him at the next as an Independent, I have always got on with Brian, and he is also good company but we are political opponents with different ideas and values. As such the easiest thing for me to do in the circumstances would be to jump on the bandwagon and launch into a personal tirade of abuse and call for him to stand down immediately.

I won't do so though because I would rather look at the issue reflectively, and anyhow it seems that he has enough critics of his own already without me wading in. But I do think he has been more than a bit naive in thinking that renting a flat from yourself or your own company would be seen by Joe Public as anything other than just plain wrong. So for what it is worth I offer him and you my view.

The additional cost allowance is for "additional" costs of staying in London. So if you or the company you are chairman of owns a flat in London then you have no additional cost.

And if you want to avoid the risk of housing market forces putting pressure on you or your families purse, as he tries to explain in his response to critics, then you simply rent a flat and not buy one, but certainly not rent one from yourself.

I also think he will be digging himself a deeper hole by saying that his new flat now costs him and the tax payer more, about £1800 a month instead of £1500 a month. You see both sums are excessive even by London standards and without looking I would guess you would still be able to pick up a decent rent for around the £1000 a month mark, or maybe even less in today's market.

Some of the criticism he is facing though is unwarranted, for instance those who think an MP can commute to and from London on a daily basis forget that the Parliamentary day can start at 9.30pm and often goes beyond 10.30pm at night, meaning that even if you managed to catch the last train home at 11.30pm (which gets into Northampton about 2.30am) then you wouldn't be in bed before 3am and up again 6.30am in order to get back down to the smoke for the next days business, a 20 hour day with 4 hours sleep a night? not advisable for anyone.

So what choice has all these deliberations left the electorate at the next general election across Northampton? Well in Northampton North we have an MP in Sally Keeble who thinks it is OK to spend her "additional" costs on gas boilers, dishwashers, tree surgery, a new scullery, and replacing marble worktops with glass ones in her "flipped" second home.

Meanwhile in Northampton South Brian defends his right to charge the taxpayer a £1500 rent for a furnished property that belonged and was paid for by his own company, and then right again to pay even more for a second property at a rent of nearly £1800 a month?

I will stand at the election in Northampton South though not on Brian's record in Parliament but on my own, I believe that the 8 years I spent in office were good years for local democracy and those who criticised me at the time for publishing my expenses annually in my parliamentary report are now seeing why I felt so strongly about openness and transparency. If successful I will rent a small flat at the lower end of the market and publish once again annually all of my expenses.

The MP's expenses row though is now losing all proportion, and it is getting more and more difficult to separate out the guilty from the sinned against. Ian Gibson for instance was hounded out of his Norwich North seat by the Labour Party for simply allowing his daughter to stay with him in his London flat and selling the property to her below the asking price, both of which sound reasonable. But I think it suited the Labour Party to use his case as an excuse to cull a rebel.

Brian's case is more complex and I will give him the opportunity to explain himself for his own actions and leave his own party to decide on his fate. Although I feel humility rather than defiant indifference will serve him better and painting himself in a corner and saying he won't pay anything back will only make it more difficult for him to find an exit route. Sally's "additional" costs though are also just plain wrong and you can but wonder how some Labour colleagues have faced wider criticism and yet to date she has come through relatively unscathed.

In renting properties at prices way above the costs necessary and using tax payers money to buy luxury items both Brian and Sally have fallen into the same trap that Gorbel's Mick fell into, They all three thought that they were more important than they really are and that they had a lifestyle to live up to. But strip away the robes and the titles and the offices they serve and they will find that they are no more important than you and I. And when they do so they will probably see for the first time what all the fuss is really about. You see people will judge them not on grounds they have justified for themselves but on the common ground and expectation of the majority of us who are trying to eek out a living in such difficult times.

Perhaps we might get the chance to have two Independents elected to Parliament in the next general Election? If so I hope it's an opportunity that the electorate seizes with both hands.

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