Sir Thomas Legg. You may well have heard of him, defender of the public interest, scourge of Westminster, punisher of those “crooks in Westminster”. Auditor of MPs expenses, Sir Thomas has ordered the repayment of over £1 million (after an investigation that cost £1.2 million) in so called “dodgy expenses” including Duck Houses, Moats, flagpoles, private security patrols and extravagant furniture which have come to remind us of parliament as much as Big Ben or the Magna Carta. Trust in parliament has plummeted to almost tragicomic lows and fears of anti-systemic parties benefitting from a public deeply unhappy with the “Big 3” have become an ever increasing prospect. We just can’t trust them anymore. They abused the system. They stole from the public purse.
But have you heard of Sir Paul Kennedy? No? Unsurprising. Sir Paul is the former High Court Judge to whom MP’s have been allowed to direct their appeals. And Sir Paul has painted a rather different picture of the expenses scandal, a picture far less likely to grab the public’s imagination. For, upon appeal, 44 of the 75 MPs claims considered by Sir Paul were upheld. Almost 200 would’ve been upheld had they been submitted according to a senior MP.
A little digging shows that the Auditors enquiry has indeed been the “deeply flawed” process that Sir Paul has criticised so strongly this week. For example, many of the claims that were thrown out by Sir Thomas were judged not by the standards at the time of submission, but rather according to new limits set years later. These limits were not consistently applied. In fact, most of the claims appeared to have been submitted in good faith, on the advice of Parliamentary staff, and were fully in accordance with the rules of the time.
Now, it is true that a number of MPs did break the rules. And some did just take the piss, Barbara Follett’s private security, fine art insurance, six telephone lines and pest control being a case in point, but most did what all of do on a daily basis.
Let’s take an example. You get an interview at the Foreign Office and they offer to pay for your transport to London. How many of us would take the train even though we know we can get a bus for a great deal less money? They take you to lunch. How many of us would order the most expensive item we think that we can get away with? This isn’t theft. It’s not some enormous scandal. It’s human nature. And how many of us would be happy if three years down the line the FCO ordered us to repay the difference in cost between the price of a meal at the Randolph and one at McDonalds.
Yes the expenses system needs to change, but the expenses scandal wasn’t a scandal, it was a PR failure. It was the result of individuals acting as all rational self interested actors do within the bounds of an agreed set of rules and regulations: they maximise their rewards. Assuming that MPs should somehow be judged not according to the legality of their actions, but some sort of super-moral code is unfair, hypocritical and a bit silly. Especially when that code is based upon rules applied in retrospect. Sir Paul has tried to drag the debate back in that direction, but, unfortunately, Sir Thomas has already delivered the much more exciting headlines. Headlines from which parliament does not look set to recover.