Last week, the Daily Telegraph cleared me from its enquiries into the MPs’ expenses scandal – describing my housing bills as “modest”. But I’ve no intention of hiding behind its brief and benign summary. Today, I’m giving the Bucks Free Press the full details, as promised.
My most controversial claims are probably as follows. I paid several bills late – including a 2004 Council Tax bill so tardy that I was required by Wycombe District Council to make the rest of the year’s payments in advance. The Commons authorities also rejected two of my claims – one for a bed, and one for a mattress.
In the first case, they wrote to explain that the claim was against the rules, because my young son would sleep in the bed. In the second, they didn’t bother. Previously, they allowed claims for a cot, a stairgate, a booster seat, and a pair of child’s blinds. Readers will draw their own conclusions about the intelligibility of the rules – let alone their reasonableness.
MPs should obviously pay their taxes on time, and I’m sorry to be so slow with bills. But, in general, I defend my claims. Voters can’t demand the commitment that they expect of MPs and simultaneously refuse them the means to carry it out.
And, yes, I’m afraid that means bills for housing and homes, utility bills, subsistence and travel. No responsible Wycombe-based business would make an employee meet regularly in London until after 10.30 in the evening, and refuse to put him up in a hotel for the night. The MP for Wycombe should be treated no less fairly. My housing costs last year were roughly the same as those hotel costs, paid at a civil service rate.
For the record, I’ve never flipped a property for profit or inflated my claims to the maximum. On the controversial accommodation allowance, I come in lower than most MPs. And during the last Parliament, I not only voted against improved pension terms for MPs, but went on to refuse to take them. I look forward to hearing from constituents who’ve also turned down large amounts of public money.
The voters of Wycombe have always been kind to me. I suspect that, when the dust settles, they’ll consider their local MP, ponder, and conclude that while I have my faults – who doesn’t? – the Daily Telegraph’s summary is fair. At the next general election, I could reasonably look forward, given the expected swing to my party, to gaining more votes than I lose and serving, under a leader I like and admire, to help make Britain a better place.
But this prospect is set against a darkening backdrop. For Parliamentary democracy to work, a robust executive – strong government – must be balanced by a healthy legislature – by a flourishing House of Commons. That the Commons has been sick for many years is incontestable. The tragedy of the expenses scandal is that the patient, in consequence, is likely to receive a bigger dose of the medicine that’s causing the illness – namely, professional politics.
Not so long ago, MPs were elected representatives, paid little by the taxpayer but free to work outside the Commons. MPs drew on their expertise of business or the shop floor. The chamber was a forum in which the clash of different interests was resolved for the public good.
However, the representation of interests came to be seen as outmoded at best and corrupt at worst. Restrictions on MPs outside earnings were imposed. Relatively swiftly, they became largely dependent on the taxpayer – and therefore, increasingly, professional politicians rather than elected representatives: a “political class” different to and therefore separate from those who elected them. Consequently, MPs got smaller. The media got bigger. Powers leaked away to Europe, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the quangos.
A few weeks ago, this journey reached its logical destination. In an act of class revenge, Gordon Brown pushed through Parliament a measure compelling the remaining MPs who work outside the Commons to declare how often they do so.
The result will be a further injection of state power and patronage – the medicine that’s sickening the patient. The spirit of the age is against citizen MPs, and few working business people, lawyers, doctors or (dare I say) journalists will long be able to fend off local rivals who pledge to be in the Commons for every hour of the working day. Parliamentary elections threaten to become dutch auctions of self-abasement.
In the short term, a few older MPs with knowledge of the outside world will hang on. But some of their younger colleagues will quietly leave, telling friends that the loss of earnings is the last straw that broke the camel’s back – on top of vanished privacy and declining status. And, in the medium term, much future talent will avoid the Commons altogether.
Most of the rest will get in quick, scramble to the top, and get out quicker. The Commons’ institutional memory will weaken. With a number of exceptions, MPs will become cowed and toiling drudges. Fringe eccentrics and exhibitionists will provide the necessary colour, coming and going like celebrity TV contestants – briefly exalted and just as swiftly toppled.
Forceful Ministers and effective Select Committee Chairmen are likely to be scarce in such a shallow pool. And the reputation of the Commons will continue its downward spiral. Such is the Pandora’s Box that the national media elites have helped to open – one which, needless to say, they won’t be able to close. In making this case, I’ve little personal interest, since my earnings outside Parliament are minimal.
Over the long term, I suspect that fashion will change, and that the Commons will renew itself, as it’s often done before. But the long term is perhaps ten years away – which brings me to my conclusion.
I’ve come to love the Wycombe area, and trying to help my constituents as best I can. I’ve been looking forward to helping David Cameron turn Britain round, and to pursuing my passion for better relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. I believe that David will be a great Prime Minister. But this future House of Commons isn’t for me. Sometimes, one has to see a duty through. But I’ve made a contract with the voters for five years, not sworn an oath to serve for life. With regret, I won’t be applying to renew it.