The latest British parliamentary spat was a further ripple from the scandal about MPs’ expenses that first splashed into our headlines in 2009. In December 2012, it was discovered that up till the wider scandal’s outbreak, the Culture Secretary had been wrongly claiming expenses for the mortgage and upkeep of the house her parents lived in. The fact that she stopped her claims just as the scandal first broke is apparently coincidental, although cynics have suggested that if that were the case, it was only because she was thereby able to avoid capital gains tax on the over £1 million profit she made when she sold the house this year.
The subsequent inquiry by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards found that Mrs. Miller had been in the wrong and recommended that she repay £45,000. This was judged by the Commons Select Committee on Standards to be overly harsh, and the penalty was reduced to £5,800 plus a formal statement of apology in the House of Commons for the obstructive and aggressive attitude that the minister displayed during the investigation. She did so in a statement that lasted, as has been extensively reported, just thirty-two seconds.
Mrs. Miller and the Prime Minister clearly hoped that this would be the end of the matter. Unsurprisingly to everyone else, it wasn’t. Shunned and condemned almost universally throughout the media, by the Opposition (inevitably), and (more tellingly) by members of her own party—not all of them anonymously—she eventually handed in her resignation as Culture Secretary, saying the row distracted from the Government’s ability to conduct its business. Notably, the Prime Minister remained supportive of her position throughout.
There have been widespread calls in the last few days to reform the system that allowed the Commissioner’s recommendations to be so watered down by fellow MPs. But in fact the dual oversight of Commissioner and Select Committee over expense complaints has already been replaced by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), and only cases that occurred before 2010 are still reviewed under the old system. The efficacy of the new structure is as yet unproven, but it is hard to see how it could be less compromised than that which it replaces.
Now one might be tempted to say that that’s that, and to move on. The offense, after all, occurred before the expenses scandal broke, and we are confidently told that it nowadays couldn’t happen. As far as the (depending on one’s stance) unfortunate or unedifying case of Mrs. Miller goes, I would agree with that. But there is a broader conclusion to be drawn from an affair that has restoked public anger about legislators’ behavior and aggravated the already catastrophic crisis of confidence in the political classes.
Amongst most people, that anger hasn’t been a red-hot-man-the-barricades rage; it’s a weary, resigned and cold anger that is in many ways much more dangerous, and certainly much more insidious. For most people in Britain (and one suspects that this applies internationally) it wasn’t even a surprise that all this blew up; it’s possible that most people don’t realize the offence was a past one and not some new occurrence. It is a shame that the media coverage wasn’t as assiduous in pointing out that fact, although that’s not to say that the press is the villain here: clearly not. But there is still a real problem with parliamentary finances, and it’s one that our anger prevents us from addressing.
MPs may be out of touch at times, and arrogance was ever a danger in ruling classes. But the vast majority of them do believe that they are working for the benefit of the country and its population. For most, it’s a vocation rather than purely a thirst for power and glory. That’s not, of course, to say that they’re all particularly good at their job; just that they’re not a bunch of crooks. But when an individual MP is caught out in some malfeasance, it inevitably casts a shadow on all the rest. There’s sadly no way that reporting of any such incident will ever emphasize the great majority of honest members: circulation driven headlines present every story in the most sensational light.
The expenses scandal was particularly damaging in this context because it wasn’t an individual incident. It was systemic. What the press did not emphasize, however, and even castigated those honest enough to admit it, was that MPs were told to manipulate the system by those in charge of it. It was all a behind-closed-doors method of raising MPs’ effective salaries without openly admitting their official salaries were deemed insufficient. This is where the press, and the population more widely, really could have been, and still should be, more realistic.
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