Cut to the core, as it used to say in some ad or other. The MPs’ expenses row isn’t about their claims for expenses, its about weak management and the alleged exploitation of that weakness by a relatively small group of presumably unscrupulous or amoral individuals.
For thirty years or more successive governments have failed to grasp the nettle of MPs pay. Being an MP is an expensive business. It requires lots of work at anti-social hours, even in the supposedly reformed House of today. MPs earn and need proper remuneration. The public knows and understands this, but successive governments have fought shy.
Attempts to link MPs pay to civil service rates failed because the government of the day conceded a rise to civil servants which it was not prepared to concede to MPs. They feared the attendant publicity. Other similarly practical schemes have all fallen in the face of pusillanimous short-term expediency, usually the fervent desire to avoid a storm in the press.
Instead, pay enhancements were disguised as expense claims. MPs were compensated through an expenses system which actively encouraged overclaiming, misrepresentation and even allegedly fraud.
The venality of this system from the MPs point of view is that it institutionally penalises honesty whilst rewarding and encouraging deceit. The Fees Office, which should be a watchdog, became instead a guide dog, eager to walk any morally challenged MP around the darker but more profitable intricacies of a corrupt system.
Because the failings in the system were so widely known it became an accident waiting to happen. The only truly remarkable thing about this scandal is that it did not break 15 years ago when the press zeroed in on the allied MPs’ trade of brown-envelope pocketing. And when the balloon finally went up, the public, realising it had been hoodwinked, lied to and generally treated with contempt (how very rare), was sure to react as it has, with unsuppressed fury.
Government, faced by the righteous wrath of the public thus unleashed, remained true to its tradition of 24-carat cowardice in the face of the press, so blamed the whole thing on the MPs. Government cannot admit that the entire debacle is the result of its own spectacularly weak management. Honest MPs who have followed the advice offered by the fees office because they have to make ends meet have been dumped on to get government off the hook. Unsurprsingly, MPs are unhappy!
Where is the message for charities? Be honest and open about your costs and your spending. Transparency may be uncomfortable, but not so unpleasant as the consequences of getting caught in a lie. If you blunder, ‘fess up. Trust your supporters to take an informed and intelligent interest in your explanations. Some will let you down, most will surprise you.
Weakness and deceit, by contrast, engender only contempt. Politicians are quick to lecture charities on the perils of losing public confidence. Start the New Year with a smile.