Westminster: what gives?

Am I going senile or did Labour not win the 1997 general election on the promise to cut out sleaze from Parliament?

Wasn’t there a Tory minister called Neil Hamilton whom they vilified after he was accused of receiving money in a brown envelope from Mohammed Al Fayed? Didn’t Labour crow with moral superiority when Jonathan Aitken had a Parisian hotel bill paid for him by the same Mr Al Fayed, and then go to prison after perjuring himself in a libel trial over the issue?

The more I think about it, I am not going senile. Labour really did assert that it was going to clean up the country after taking office.

So it wasn’t without reason, then, that I nearly gagged when I heard home secretary Jacqui Smith claiming that “great progress” had been made over the past dozen years on the subject of financial probity at Westminster.

This is the same Jacqui Smith who claims that her “main” home is her sister’s spare bedroom in London, allowing her to claim £24,000 a year in expenses to maintain her “second” home in the West Midlands?

The Labour government that claimed it was going to clean up public life in 1997 is the same Labour government whose employment minister, Tony McNulty, has claimed £60,000 worth of “second home” expenses on his parents’ house, which lies only a few miles from his own London home.

Disreputable though the Tories were in the nineties, at least they only took payments for asking questions in Parliament – unlike the four Labour peers recently caught taking payments to actually insert clauses in new legislation.

New Labour isn’t just rotten, it is worthy of a banana republic. How can ministers keep a straight face as they implore the public to ring up their benefit cheats hotline, when they’re trousering thousands of pounds in public money for spurious “expenses” themselves?

Ah, but MPs are trying to tackle the problem. One or two of them have just put forward a noble suggestion to do away with their second home allowances altogether. The sting in the tail is that they are demanding, as compensation, a pay rise of £40,000.

What planet are MPs living on that they can think it acceptable – in the middle of a recession, when private-sector salaries are falling – to bung up their pay by tens of thousands of pounds? It isn’t just MPs. Public-sector pay as a whole is still rising at a rate well above inflation.

During the good times, steep rises in public-sector pay were explained by the need “to attract the best people” – the conceit being that if you didn’t pay your MP or diversity and access officer enough, he’d run off and get a job in the City.Now the economy is in recession, public-sector workers no longer seem to see the need to compare their salaries with private-sector workers. They should.

And they should emulate the private sector by outsourcing their accommodation needs, too. If MPs need accomodation in London for the nights they must stay away from their main homes, why shouldn’t Travelodge and Holiday Inn be invited to bid to supply it?

I’ve done a bit of research on their behalf and found single rooms at the Travelodge in Covent Garden for £32 a night. Given that Parliament sits four days a week for around 30 weeks of the year, this would mean an MP could be accommodated for around £4,000 a year – one sixth of what MPs can claim on their second homes. And I’ve been generous, looking within a mile of Westminster. I’d have saved even more finding them accommodation in Barking and giving them a tube ticket.

If MPs were employed by a private company, accountants would be going through their expenses as we speak, trimming everything back to basics. If MPs want private-sector salaries, it is about time they accepted private sector-style cuts, too.

Picture: source

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