The shaming of Parliament

There has only been one story this week in the UK -- and it's not a pretty one. Starting last Thursday, the Telegraph has been daily publishing details of MPs' expenses claims, made possible by a new Freedom of Information Act and some assiduous leaking. What has been uncovered is a snouts-in-the-trough culture in the Mother of Parliaments, a culture of entitlement that has badly undermined the moral authority of politicians.

A simple Q&A is published here by the Telegraph, which points out that most of the claims are, technically, within the rules, but certainly not within their spirit. The most damaging revelation concerns the way MPs have used their second-home entitlement,  which allows for the fact that MPs have to spend a large amount of time in London as well as in their constituency. During the property boom, this allowed them, say, to buy a flat (sorry, apartment) in London, restore it, sell it, keep the profit, buy another flat, claim for renovating that one, and so on. Even more controversially, because they can claim for legitimate expenses in the second home, many have switched their second home between London and their constituencies when the time has come to do expensive renovation work -- a practice known as "flipping".

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A lot of the revelations are designed to bring a wry smile to the face: John Gummer, the former Conservative minister and Catholic convert, claimed £9,000 for "gardening expenses", including hundreds of pounds to meet the costs of "treating" moles, removing jackdaw nests, and tackling insect infestations. 

But public anger at the revelations, which are being dripped out by the Telegraph, is mounting fast, to the point where a former deputy speaker of the House, Lord Naseby, has suggested that parliament may have to be dissolved. "It's dreadful. It is quite awful," the Tory peer told BBC Radio 4's The World This Weekend. "I think frankly, if this runs and runs, then parliament should be dissolved, I think they have to start again. The Great British public has lost their confidence and I think that it is extremely serious. And if it is that serious then there is only one way of dealing with it, that is to dissolve parliament."

Church leaders have been largely silent, although the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, was tempted out of retirement - something he seldom resists -- to deplore "the clawing greed" behind "painstaking claims for such minor items as tampons, barbecue sets and bathrobes".

The origin of the scandal lies in a decision made many years ago not to up MPs' modest salaries out of fear of public disapproval, but to allow for a generous expenses scheme. Having persuaded themselves that the expenses mechanism was an unofficial means of boosting their salaries, MPs have decided to milk it for what it's worth.

The ramifications are endless. Although this week has been dominated by Labour MPs' claims, the newspaper turns next week to the opposition MPs, thus spreading the tar away from Government and over Parliament in general. But it will be the Government, already scraping the sea bottom in the polls, which will take the greatest hit in the European elections on 4 June. 

One commentator has suggested that whether an MP has abused the system will become one of the criteria voters use when it comes to putting their crosses on the ballot paper.

Whatever happens, one thing is for sure. Coming on top of public disgust at bankers' bonuses, the stage is set for a major crisis of faith in Britain's institutions.

There is a good spiritual word for it: purgation.

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