I was amused to see last night on Channel 4’s Dispatches that where The Huntsman leads, Peter Oborne follows.

Corrupt behaviour in politics and public life may take many forms, whether it is the Tanzanian policeman ‘fining’ motorists for traffic ‘offences’ at the roadblock on the main Arusha-Nairobi road of a morning or the Labour Party trousering £250,000 from some tycoon who has never before shown an enthusiasm for Socialism but suddenly finds himself wearing the ermine or the political lobbyist flogging half-an-hour of a Minister’s time to an importuner. Some corruption is explicitly criminal but other forms, as Oborne pointed out, may actually receive the lawful sanction and approbation of Parliament.

I mention being ahead of Peter Oborne in the game with some confidence. When David Maclean, a former Tory Chief Whip, was trying to pilot his odious and Orwellianly-named Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill 2007 (it should have been named Freedom of Amendment (Suppression) Bill 2007) through Parliament, I became sufficiently irritated to start an ePetition on the No 10 site promoting a Bill which would require both Houses of Parliament to establish online Expenses registers for the expenses of MPs and Peers and which provided for some serious sanctions for those making fraudulent claims. I set up a website to help me promote the idea (see here). I was particularly drawn to the fact that, after some shenanigans by MSPs and their expenses, the Scottish Parliament had set up just such a scheme, whereby each and every claim for expenses is available for all and sundry to see online (subject to some obvious censorship for security of both the person and the risk of identity theft, with which I have no quibble). I took the view that this was a most progressive move by the Scots which, by all accounts, had saved a lot of money and has made, according to Peter Oborne, MSPs so careful about their claims that they were doing all their returns themselves to ensure that nothing untoward was claimed.

I then tried to interest the MSM in the cause.

I need not have bothered, having utterly forgotten that unchanging saw about dogs not biting the hands that feed them. I went round most of the journalists who were following the story with a view to throwing them the ball and seeing if they could score a try but I was left with a nasty taste in my mouth of political journalists who were not overly keen on trashing their contacts folder on Outlook. I admit that my notion that someone might pick this up was naïve. I just had not quite remembered that fish only breathe in water.

I return to this matter, not just because Peter Oborne, having undoubtedly better connections than I and just having written “The Triumph Of The Political Class” 1 (for a review of which by Sir Simon Jenkins see here and comment upon which in the Daily Telegraph here) and having just made a TV programme, Channel 4’s Dispatches on the topic, but because the issue has been thrust back centre stage by his revelation that the Golden Balls couple, Ed of that Ilk and Yvette Cooper, have got their snouts, quite lawfully, into the Parliamentary expenses pig-trough. The story is here in the Mail on Sunday and was featured last night in Peter Oborne’s effort on Channel 4.

There is a further twist to this story in that Parliament has itself, by resolution, exempted these Parliamentary allowances from the usual rules on taxation, so that, not only are MPs enabled to acquire a substantial capital asset (provided Brown has not made a complete mess of things and the housing market does not implode) but MPs are given a Tax advantage not available to those whose lives they order.

I have no problem with MPs having expenses to run their offices and carry out their duties, provided they are properly justified and are accounted for in full detail. I also understand fully the problems that those MPs with constituencies outside London have in affording accommodation in London whilst Parliament is in session. What I find impossible to accept is that the solution which has been found for this enables MPs to acquire personally from the Taxpayer a huge capital asset the benefit of which accrues not to the Taxpayer but to that MP and his estate.

This is not some chippy piece of envy. It is because this is something which so detaches the MP from the lives of their constituents, many of whom struggle manfully to afford their mortgages, that it positively harms their ability to do their job properly and creates a disconnection between the citizen and the MP that can only serve to breed disaffection amongst the electorate towards politicians and to act as a deeply corrosive agent upon the relationship which ought to exist between that electorate and its representatives who ought, ideally, to have to face the same challenges and struggles as the rest of us the better to understand the lives of ordinary people.

And that is before one considers all the abuses which are open to the MP. If it is right, for example, that the Balls declare their London home as their ‘secondary’ home yet spend most of the week there and send their children to school from that house and only go to their home in Yorkshire at weekends, then that reveals more than just a little lack of propinquity to the truth, does it not? If they are then, in a reverse of this situation, enabled to declare their London home as their principal home for Tax purposes, this surely is a feathering of the nest which, whilst lawful at the moment, ought to be abolished right away.

I throw into this heady mix the various other reported abuses of the system, the iPods which MPs suddenly seemed to need around Christmas, the Plasma TV screens, the Fish Tank, The Quad Bike claimed by the very same David Maclean who wanted to conceal MPs expenses from the public gaze, Derek Conway employing his full-time university student son as a researcher (here) and Jon Cruddas also on the housing expenses kick (here).

There was one other aspect picked up by Peter Oborne which raises a matter of considerable concern and that was the appearance (at best) of a degree of connivance between Mr. Speaker Martin, Jack Straw and the Government as a whole. The Speaker and his deputies seemed to give David Maclean’s bill (a private member’s bill) a degree of latitude in its passage through the House of Commons that was remarkable. The part the Government played also seems sinister. I noted at the time that when Maclean’s Bill got its third reading in May 2007:

Gordon Brown seems not to be against it for one of his principal Lieutenants and political friends, Ed Balls, voted in favour of the Bill. Balls is Treasury Economic Secretary under Brown.

Far more significantly, however, out of 13 Government Whips, 11 voted during various divisions on the Bill, of whom all were in favour of the Bill. These were Jacqui Smith (Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury and Chief Whip) Alan Campbell, Claire Ward, David Watts, Frank Roy (Lords Commissioner), Liz Blackman, Ian Cawsey, Michael Foster, Huw Iranca-Davies, Stephen McCabe and Jonathon Shaw (Assistant Whips).

At Third Reading, of the 76 Labour supporters of the Bill, no fewer than 36 were members of the government (including Parliamentary Private Secretaries). Labour made up 76 of the Bill’s 95 supporters, the Tories providing the rest. Nine of those voting in favour of the Bill were at this stage Government Whips (out of a total of thirteen in the Government Whips Office).

The reasonable inference which might be drawn from all this is that Maclean’s Bill was de facto a Government Bill and that it is the Government which wants to conceal MPs expenses from the gaze of the Taxpayer. That can only be because they regard what as going on as being open to severe criticism, unsurprising since it seems that most of the sleaze seems to be coming from their supporters just now.

The gulf which is growing between the modern professional political class (particularly the Labour part of it: it is a matter of note that none in the Cabinet seems to have had much employment outside the world of politics save Alan Johnson, though quite how much of an insight into how the world works you get from stuffing letters through a hole in the door is open to question) and ordinary members of the public is a matter for grave concern. The loss of trust in politicians, the growing consensus between the parties which excludes a large dissentient voice, the increasing tendency of Parliamentarians to treat themselves as being of a race apart whether it be on the matter of pensions or expenses, all these things combine to create a degree of contempt for our institutions which is dangerous for the good health of the nation’s body politic. Such a contempt has, in more febrile Continental nations, sometimes led to violent spasms. We should act now to avoid any such thing happening here.

A good place to start might be to force MPs and Peers to give proper account of how they spend our money and how better to do it than in the wholly transparent way devised by the Scots (which may be seen in action here), which would mean an Online Register for their expenses.

Perhaps some courageous MP out there might be persuaded to pick up this particular ball and run with it. He or she will need the skin of a Rhino though.

Oh, and my congratulations to Peter Oborne on picking my story up so neatly and developing it…

1 Simon & Shuster, London 2007