Mark Wallace of the TaxPayers' Alliance reflects on how the week's revelations about MPs' expenses could impact upon Town Hall politics and local councillors – and concludes that transparency about allowances is essential.
Fairly or not, the effects of the MPs’ expenses scandal will undoubtedly have an impact on local politics, as well as the House of Commons. Whilst the revelations have been entirely about Members of Parliament, and the allowances and expenses available to councillors are a fraction of those on offer in the Commons, the behaviour of our national politicians has inevitably harmed the people’s faith in politics as a whole.
Indeed, this week I have heard from a number of TaxPayers’ Alliance-supporting local councillors who have already experienced cynicism and anger on the doorstep directed at all politicians when out canvassing over the last few days.
Whilst there are no suggestions that councillors have been up to no good, the sheer scale of deceit, greed and secrecy in the Commons has shaken public confidence so much that local politicians must act fast to avoid the opprobrium that has fallen on MPs.
The best way to do this is by being transparent. The reason that there is so much anger directed against MPs as a group at the moment is that details of their claims were kept secret for so long, and are still being kept under wraps by the Commons Authorities despite the Telegraph’s expose. Had they published this information four years ago when they were first asked, things would – rightly – have been bad for greedy MPs but the bulk of innocent Parliamentarians would have been exonerated.
To dispel any suggestion that they, too, are on the take, councillors should publish their expenses and allowances claims in full. This is the only way that the anger that has been aroused by Speaker Martin’s arrogance and the greed of some MPs can be deflected from harming faith in local democracy, too.
That means publishing the amount claimed in councillors’ allowance, your attendance rate and the amounts billed on other expenses, such as mobile phone bills. This may be inconvenient, but it is essential. Whilst councillors are not to blame for the current scandal, this small effort would do a world of good to making sure that honest local representatives are not tarred with the same brush as the Morleys, Mackays and Chaytors of this world.
To councillors who object to the idea of having to be transparent, I would say: what have you to hide? If these costs are justified, and you do a good job then there is nothing to worry about. Indeed, there is a lot to gain by being honest and open at a time when people are starting to assumer that all politicians are wedded to dishonesty and secrecy.
Next time a constituent opens their door and says “how much money are you taking, then?”, instead of spouting generalities show them the facts. In the current climate, carrying round an itemised list of what you have claimed, when you claimed it and why is the best way to dispel their concerns and convince them that not all politicians are the same.
This whole affair has become a crisis of confidence in the probity of politicians as a group. The money-grabbing, and in some cases criminal, behaviour of some MPs has not just harmed taxpayers financially, it has severely wounded our democracy. While trust is easy to lose, it is hard to gain back. It may not be fair that councillors should suffer for the sins of MPs, but local politicians must recognise the threat this scandal poses to local democracy and act now to avert it. Openness is the only way.