‘A damning indictment of brazen dishonesty and greed’

(Telegraph) – SIR THOMAS LEGG’S review of the House of Commons’ additional costs allowance (ACA) is a model of clear thinking. While public attention will focus on the details of the repayments demanded for illegitimate claims – the scale of which confirms that abuse of the system was indeed institutionalised – the real lessons are to be drawn from Sir Thomas’s forensic analysis of how the scandal developed. In essence, it happened because MPs failed to observe the propriety in handling public money that they, as legislators, demand from every other part of the public service. It was not a failure of a system or a process; it was a failure by individual MPs to behave honestly.

This, it is important to stress, does not apply to all MPs. Sir Thomas has found that roughly half the House had “no issues” to answer, although voters will note their collective failure to speak out against abuses. But the other half took advantage of a “flawed” system, which they themselves created, using the ACA not for the reimbursement of costs incurred as part of their duties but as a salary supplement (which they also voted, in the 1983 Finance Act, to make tax-free). Uniquely in the public sector, MPs’ claims were self-certified. More than half of the annual maximum payment of £24,000 could be claimed without an MP being required to produce a receipt of any kind. This placed a particularly heavy duty on them to behave honestly – a responsibility that too many of them shirked.

When they were found out, many members claimed it was the Commons fees office that was responsible for the imbroglio. How many times did we hear the plaintive bleat: “I did everything by the rules.” Sir Thomas is unimpressed. He believes that a “culture of deference” meant that the fees office acted not as a watchdog, but as a facilitator. It was therefore up to the claimants to demonstrate the requisite propriety. Too many did not. Shockingly, there was no proper auditing mechanism to monitor any of this – and still isn’t. Sir Thomas noted that only last year did the House vote to introduce a full audit system; it is still in the process of being created.

Some MPs have complained that Sir Thomas has demanded repayments retrospectively. He has given them short shrift. The wrongful claims, he said, breached the rules and standards in force at the time: “To hold such payments invalid is not to impose new rules retrospectively, but to apply now the rules that were properly in force then, but were overlooked or misunderstood at the time.” He was generous in his wording in that final remark – many would use the phrase “brazenly flouted”. After all, the regulations governing the allowance indicated it could “only be used as reimbursement for specific and proportionate expenditure on accommodation needed for the performance of Parliamentary duties”. That is hardly difficult to understand.

Without this [the Daily Telegraph’s] newspaper’s series of exposés last summer, this rotten state of affairs would not have been revealed. Yet despite the wrongdoing we uncovered, there remains a feeling among many at Westminster that MPs are somehow the victims in this sorry business. There are even signs of a backlash by the Commons machine – for example, the new mechanism for viewing MPs’ claims is more confusing than the old one.

To his credit, David Cameron was swift to grasp the true implications of the scandal and to take action: he is still resented by some of his backbenchers for what they regard as the brusque way he treated them. Gordon Brown’s performance, however, has been less praiseworthy. Indeed, it was the Prime Minister who gave his MPs the green light, in July 2008, to vote down proposals to reform the expenses system (he himself did not even bother to vote). This wrecked the last opportunity MPs had to put their own House in order, before change was forced upon them by an enraged public.

Yesterday, Sir Thomas said that he has submitted his report “in the hope that it will contribute to restoring full public confidence in Members of Parliament, thus enabling the House of Commons to move forward with confidence in its vital role as the democratically elected and leading branch of our national legislature”. In that single sentence, he distilled the real import of this scandal. It was not just that it exposed the dishonesty and greed of many MPs; it has also done untold damage to our democracy, which only the election of a new parliament can repair. Our lingering worry, however, is that this wretched business has prompted such widespread disgust with all politicians that many will simply turn their backs on the political process. That is a terrible price to pay for fiddled expenses.

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