In 2002 I agreed to be interviewed by the lovely Kate Sanderson (now Kate Gerbeau) from the BBC's "Watchdog" programme. You may remember Kate and her penchance for black leather trousers, if you don't I certainly do, (but don't tell the wife). Anyway Kate came to my London flat to talk to me as part of a BBC Watchdog inquiry into MP's expenses.
Given the current, public uproar over the scandalous abuse of the system you will be pleased to learn that my part in the programme was to be held up as a paragon of good practice. At the time I was one of a very few, if not the only Member of Parliament who openly published their expenses within my annual report. My wages, my additional cost allowance, (for living p/t in London) and my office cost allowances were broken down, line by line for everyone to see where the cash went and on what it was spent.
£60,000 a year salary was more than enough as far as I was concerned to recompense me for doing a job I had always wanted to do. And the fact that Parliament would pay for the rent on a London base for me to use when in the Commons was a huge help and a privilege, that should never be abused. No members of my family worked in my office, and every penny spent was accounted for and spent well. After all it wasn't my money, it was yours ! and as a consequence telling you where it went was part of my job, I thought I was there not only to represent the electorate but also to give them good value for money.
Myself and two other parliamentary colleagues shared taxi's home at night to save on cost's, and despite "the rules" allowing us to claim for a wide variety of "essential items" I and they always thought it churlish and inappropriate to claim for personal costs that I would have still incurred even if I had been at home in Northampton.
I said to Kate at the time that the whole system was open to abuse and that unless Parliament got a grip of the system, then in the future difficult questions would be asked of individuals and of the institution itself.
It therefore gives me little satisfaction to be proved right, but I was surprised to be asked this week by the local press as whether or not I thought the "Government" could recover from the public outrage that has followed the story so far.
I pointed out that whilst the initial focus had been on government ministers, that in fact MP's from all the three main parties were equally guilty and equally should be shamed. This is a plague on all their houses, and yet another example of how low in moral malaise our democracy has fallen.
The parliamentary expenses system needs a total overhaul, and the most urgent focus of that overhaul has to be the use of the additional cost allowance which should have been used (but clearly has not been by some) to reimburse to a member the cost of staying in London to perform their duty in the House. I said when in parliament that we should move towards a system of furnished apartments owned by the state and paid for by the state, to made available to individual members whilst they are in office. They provide MP's with offices already so why not a place to rest their heads?
Any MP not willing to take up the offer could be given a reduced amount (say £8,000 a year to sort out their own arrangements in hotels or as part of a private arrangement payable only upon receipt of clear invoices. All payments should be made publicly available for scrutiny and MP's should be forced to publish their accounts in their annual reports to electors as a condition of their service.
One final point, the focus has so far been on those MP's from all three parties who have disgraced themselves and the office they serve, but hidden deep down out of sight are an unfortunately small minority who have not and would not as a matter of principle take a penny more than is due to them. As we approach a general election that could see sitting MP's punished for the sins of the collective whole, I hope that the good as well as the bad and the down right ugly are equally brought into public focus.
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