There is no doubt that the Daily Telegraph has done a huge service to the British people, and to the body politic, by publishing its MPs’ expenses files. They have turned over some stones, and found some pretty unpleasant things underneath them. It is clear now that a major restructuring of the MPs’ expenses system is needed (and let me remark in passing that a major restructuring of MEPs’ expenses, the so-called “Members’ Statute”, was agreed last year and becomes effective in July this year). The whole scandal can only be brought to “closure” (in today’s trendy jargon) by a General Election, in which the public can pass their own judgement on their elected representatives — and the sooner the better.
But that said, it seems to me that the paper is now scraping the barrel. When any MP is mentioned in another context, for example as a candidate for the Speaker’s post, we get the ritual restatement of the expenses files, as though that were the only relevant and defining feature of the MP. We get lists of perfectly proper expenses items which are aired again, with the unspoken suggestion that any expense claim, of any sort, is in and of itself scandalous. It’s time for the Telegraph to get over it, and to start reporting other news.
I have been particularly exercised over the finger-pointing associated with perfectly normal activities which, on reflection, are seen to be not only proper, but an essential part of a parliamentarian’s work. Commentators and the general public constantly complain that they don’t have enough information about their MPs (and MEPs), who should do more to inform their electorates (though the information is usually there if the critics bothered to look for it). I maintain a web-site (www.rogerhelmer.com) on which I post photographs of many of my activities, and I always carry a small digital camera in my jacket pocket. I regard that camera as a key tool of my job. Yet I see MPs accused — shock-horror — of making an expense claim for a digital camera! Of course MPs should have digital cameras for their work, and they are entitled to charge a professional tool to expenses. I certainly set my own digital camera against my office allowance.
Then MPs have been criticised for paying for video clips of themselves to put on YouTube, or on to their own web-sites. They’re criticised for providing the public with information, yet they’re criticised if they fail to inform the public. I personally don’t charge anyone for video clips of my speeches in the “Hemicycle” in Brux or Straz, but only because the parliament video service provides these clips free of charge to members. If I had to pay for them, I would regard that as an entirely proper and necessary expense.
So by all means let’s criticise the genuine failures of judgement and of probity that have taken place, but let’s not devalue political discourse in our country (and devalue our valid criticisms) with shot-gun witch-hunts against perfectly reasonable behaviour.
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