Sunday, 17 May 2009

The game

Posted on the Bevan blog on 17th May 2009

The expenses revelations over the last week have been grim. Even old Westminster operators have winced at the claims for maintaining moats and helipads.

But the spirit of the practice is no surprise.

It has long been an open secret to those with a working knowledge of Parliament that the system of allowances was regarded as a top-up of their salary by MPs. It's another wheeze.

Just as MPs hide free foreign trips (if they are on official business they don't have to be declared), so a free London flat to sell-on at profit when you stand down is just another perk of the job.

In lieu of a 'proper' salary most MPs feel entitled to make claims up to the limit of their allowances, regardless of how much they actually spend.

Gerald Kaufman, for example, is reported to have made regular claims for “odd jobs” which he submitted without receipts at a rate of £245 every month — £5 below the then limit for unreceipted expenses. When these were challenged by officials he replied: “Why are you querying these expenses?”, and threatened to make official complaints against them.

After all, who would find out?

Journalists would be unlikely to probe. It simply would not be cricket. As a Lobby Corespondent myself for three years I was complicit. I knew about some of the wheezes but wouldn't have dreamed of offering it as a story to my newsdesk - it would have broken the code, and more importantly, it would have resulted in me being frozen out from polite political society (and sources of intelligence). Of course I didn't know the details of the excesses, but I didn't ask either. Where would I start?

"It's systemic", the veteran Lobby Correspondent Mike White blogged this week, "and those of us who routinely explain or defend the political class – including me – are damaged by it, too. Rightly so".

The Telegraph's chequebook journalism has been lauded. But the revelations surely serve as testimony of the failure of journalism not it's high point. The credit belongs to Freedom of Information campaigner Heather Brooke, who has hitherto been regarded by many in the world of political journalism as naive and unhelpful for seeking disclosure of expenses.

There's no shortage of people saying sorry, but most are simply sorry the details have been published. They still don't get it.

Another Lobby Correspondent, the BBC's Nick Robinson, reports that some Tory MPs regard the forced repayments by the shadow cabinet of claims for furniture and gardening as "the price of David Cameron's press release". Simply the cost of getting the Leader of the Opposition on the right side of the story.

The saga goes to the heart of our system of politics and journalism. The unwritten rules which govern them have been exposed. That's what has been so traumatic for inhabitants of the Westminster village this week - the dark nooks of the Palace have had light shone into them. The game is up.

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