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Éthique, politique et corruption au Royaume-Uni

 | 
David Fée
, 
Jean-Claude Sergeant

Sleaze, Freebies and MPs. The British parliamentary expenses and allowances scandal

Sarah Pickard

Résumé

C’est en 2009 que le public britannique a eu connaissance de l’exploitation par les députés britanniques du système, financé par les fonds publics, qui leur permettait de se faire rembourser leurs notes de frais et de percevoir des allocations en complément de leurs indemnités parlementaires. Ces révélations n’auraient pas été possibles sans la détermination de quelques journalistes et la liberté d’accéder aux documents officiels, effective depuis le 1er janvier 2005 aux termes du Freedom of Information Act adopté en 2000. Les conséquences de ce scandale, qui a révélé un système d’autogestion particulièrement opaque, ont été multiples. Certains députés ont été amenés à démissionner, d’autres ont été emprisonnés, tandis que s’érodait un peu plus la confiance que le public britannique plaçait dans ses représentants au Parlement et dans la vie démocratique du pays.

Ce chapitre se propose d’analyser le scandale des notes de frais en tant que révélateur du fonctionnement du système parlementaire britannique au début du xxie siècle. Sont successivement abordés le contexte qui a donné naissance au scandale, ses conséquences, avant que ne soit proposée une explication de ce comportement déviant, largement répandu parmi les parlementaires britanniques.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Tony Blair, acceptance speech outside 10 Downing Street, 2 May 1997, “It will be a government that (...)
  • 2 Peter Oborne, The Triumph of the Political Class, London, Pocket Books, (2007) 2008, p. 31, “The mo (...)

1 When Tony Blair, as leader of the Labour Party, became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1997, he declared he was ushering in a new government that would : “restore trust in politics”.1 He announced his party would clean up politics, i.e. step aside from the sleaze that had become so prominent during the years when his Conservative predecessor John Major had been Prime Minister. During the Major years (1990-1997), the Tories had become indelibly linked to two main types of sleaze. First, there were numerous sexual scandals, tinged with hypocrisy due to the “Back to Basics” policy launched in 1993 that insisted on the importance of traditional family values. Second, there were various isolated financial scandals : corruption as well as abuse of power and public office, for the personal financial benefit of the individuals involved, e.g. the MPs Neil Hamilton and Jonathan Aitken (see article by Agnès Alexandre-Collier in this volume).2 Thus, Tony Blair seemed to want to distance his party and Parliament more generally from the public perception that certain MPs (almost exclusively Conservative ones) appeared to consider their political positions as a means for self-enrichment.

2However, just over a decade after Tony Blair moved to 10 Downing Street, it became very apparent that parliamentary probity regarding financial matters had not become the norm. On the contrary, in 2009, the British parliamentary expenses and allowances scandal broke, propelling MPs and financial sleaze into the headlines on a much larger scale than previously. The striking depth and breadth of the scandal revealed widespread abuse and in some cases illegal misuse of the permitted parliamentary expenses and allowances claimed by MPs. Subsequently, numerous reports were published and certain changes have been made in a bid to make parliamentary procedures more transparent and MPs more accountable (see article by Mark Stuart in this volume).

  • 3 A much smaller number of peers in the House of Lords were also implicated in the expenses scandal, (...)

3This article addresses the question of what the MPs expenses scandal revealed about the state of the British Parliamentary system at the start of the twenty-first century.3 The article starts by outlining how the expenses scandal came to light. It then explores the impact and long-term consequences of the MPs parliamentary expenses and allowances sleaze. This leads to a discussion on some of the potential explanations for the sleaze-ridden behaviour of so many MPs.

Setting the scene : bending and breaking the rules

  • 4 The Review Body on Top Salaries (TSRB) was launched in 1971 as an independent organisation. It was (...)
  • 5 For information on the evolution of the Additional Costs Allowance (ACA), see Richard Kelly, “Addit (...)
  • 6 The Members Estimate Committee was established in 1978 to consider matters relating to MPs’ pay and (...)
  • 7 Richard Kelly, op. cit., p. 3.
  • 8 The broad categories of all MPs allowance expenditure 2008-2009 can be accessed at http://www.parli (...)

4In 1971, a resolution of the House of Commons introduced an Additional Costs Allowance (ACA) to supplement the salary of Members of Parliament (MPs). The allowance was created to enable MPs to cover additional expenses necessarily incurred in staying overnight away from their main home (in their constituency) for the purpose of performing their parliamentary duties. The Top Salaries Review Body (TSRB) had suggested that the allowance should take the form of a daily subsistence rate.4 However, the Government preferred a scheme which reimbursed expenses within an annual limit.5 In 1985, MPs were informed by the TSRB that there was : “no reason why [they] should not claim mortgage interest payments against this allowance”. In 2001, MPs agreed to a backbench amendment proposing a considerable increase in the maximum rate for the Additional Costs Allowance. Four years later, the Members Estimate Committee permitted further changes to the Additional Costs Allowance to allow for increased mortgage payments in certain circumstances and to allow overnight stays on journeys to an MP’s constituency, when it was not practicable to complete the journey in one day.6 Thus, the maximum annual amount that could be claimed by an MP under the Additional Costs Allowance went from £750 in 1972-1973, to £13,322 in 2000-2001, to £24,006 in 2008-2009.7 By the twenty-first century, MPs also benefitted from a number of other allowances to enable them to work effectively in Parliament and their constituencies, including a travel allowance, a food allowance and a communications allowance (see Table 1).8

  • 9 The Information Commissioner is responsible for regulating compliance with the Freedom of Informati (...)

5The Freedom of Information Act 2000 introduced by the Labour government allowed the public to apply for disclosure of information from public bodies. The law came into effect in January 2005. Heather Brooke a free-lance journalist, as well as two journalists, Ben Leapman (Evening Standard and then Sunday Telegraph) and Jon Ungoed-Thomas (Sunday Times), filed requests to obtain details about MPs expenditure under the Additional Costs Allowance. In April 2005, the House of Commons authorities rejected these requests and the appeals were sent to the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, who solicited data to evaluate whether the details should be released.9

Table 1 : MPs’ maximum annual allowances, 2008-2009

Annual allowances Maximum in 2008-2009
1) Additional Costs Allowance (ACA) £24,006
2) The London Supplement £2,916
3) The Incidental Expenses Provision (IEP) £22,193
4) Staffing Allowance £90,854
5) IT (computers, printers, scanners) £3,000 *
6) Winding-up Allowance £40,799
7) Communications Allowance £10,400
8) Motor Mileage Allowance 40p per mile (for first 10,000 miles)
25p per mile (after 10,000 miles)
9) Motorcycle Allowance 24p per mile
10) Bicycle a Allowance 20p per mile
  • 10 Prior to the General Election in May 2010 the allowances were administered by the House of Commons.
  • 11 Notes : 1) The Additional Costs Allowance (ACA) was to cover the cost of staying away from main hom (...)

Sources : Adapted from “Members’ allowance expenditure 2008-2009 to 2010-2011 : explanatory notes”,<http://www.parliament.uk/​mps-lords-and-offices/​members-allowances/​house-of-commons/​house-of-commons-scheme-guides/​hocallowances07>,10 and * <http://news.bbc.co.uk/​2/​hi/​uk_news/​politics/​8039590.stm>11

  • 12 The Information Tribunal (renamed the Information Rights Tribunal in 2010) hears appeals from notic (...)
  • 13 In March 2008, the Commons Members Estimate Committee announced MPs would have to submit receipts f (...)

6The following year, in February 2007, rulings by the Information Commissioner and the Information Tribunal required the House of Commons to publish a breakdown of MPs’ travel expenses.12 Then, in June 2007, the Information Commissioner ruled that the public (the taxpayer) had a right to know the broad details of MPs spending on second homes (accommodation used by MPs when carrying out their Parliamentary duties) via allowances, but not fully itemised lists on the grounds of privacy. Thus, MPs were ordered to release details of how much money they were claiming to run a second home under broad headings such as mortgages, food, service charges, utilities, telecoms bills, furnishings, cleaning, insurance and security. The Commons authorities initially agreed to release the details of MPs’ expenses claims for second homes, staff, office costs and IT. But then it announced a legal appeal against the Information Tribunal ruling with a tribunal hearing in February 2008, subsequent to which the Commons was ordered to disclose details of expense claims and to publish documentation relating to fourteen specific MPs within twenty-eight days. The Information Commissioner Richard Thomas declared in a statement made by his office that the figures should be broken down for publication as : “the legitimate public interest in disclosing the information outweighs the prejudice to the rights, freedom and legitimate interests of MPs”.13

7During the tribunal hearing it came to light that there was an Additional Cost Claims Guide that outlined what was deemed reasonable expenditure on certain named household items. The so-called “John Lewis list” was used to approve or reject MPs’ expenses claims. Its forced publication revealed that MPs were permitted to claim a parliamentary allowance up to £10,000 for a new kitchen, more than £6,000 for a bathroom and £750 for a television on their Parliamentary allowances (funded by the taxpayer).

  • 14 It soon emerged that Mr Martin’s official residence had received improvements costing over £700,000
  • 15 Nigel Giffin QC appearing in the Commons argued that the publication of receipts would be “a substa (...)

8In March 2008, Michael Martin, Speaker of the House of Commons, made an appeal to the Higher Court against the release of the details of the fourteen MPs’ expenses.14 Two months later, the House of Commons lost its High Court appeal and shortly afterwards, the Members Estimate Committee announced it would not appeal.15 The Commons was thus obliged to make further disclosures on MPs expenses in accordance with the original Freedom of Information request on fourteen MPs (using wide categories such as mortgage, food, telephone). In this way, on 23 May 2008, three and a half years after the coming into effect of the Freedom of Information Act, certain details of the expenses claims (2004- 2008) of fourteen prominent MPs were released. It was discovered that among many other claims, Tony Blair had claimed £116 for his television licence, Gordon Brown had claimed £2,000 for cleaning expenses, John Prescott had claimed £4,000 for food and David Cameron had claimed £680 for gardening expenses. In July 2008, MPs threw out a series of proposed reforms pertaining to their expenses regime, rejected a call for independent scrutiny of their allowances and decided to keep the “John Lewis List”.

  • 16 The Committee on Standards in Public Life is made up of 10 people. The Chair and six other Committe (...)

9In January 2009, the Government was obliged to drop a motion to exclude the House of Commons from the parts of the Freedom of Information Act that would have prevented details of MPs’ expenses from being made public. Then, in March 2009, the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life announced an inquiry into MPs expenses.16 The Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a pronouncement in a video posted on the Number 10 website in April and in a publication given to MPs. He said that MPs should vote imminently on interim reforms to abandon the second home allowance. He declared it should be replaced by an independently set flat-rate attendance fee in order to restore public confidence in MPs who should show “humility”, as they were there to : “serve the public and not there to serve themselves” (Daily Telegraph, 21 April 2009). At the end of the month, these plans were dropped after being rejected by MPs.

  • 17 The Daily Telegraph revealed on 25 September 2009, that it had bought the disk for £110,000 from a (...)
  • 18 Anonymous, The Little Book of Big Expenses : How to Live the MP Lifestyle, A & C Black Publishers, (...)

10The big turning point in the expenses scandal came on 8 May 2009 when the Daily Telegraph started to publish details obtained from a leaked computer disk containing a full unexpurgated version of MPs expenses claims from 2004 to 2008.17 The right-wing newspaper announced that it would continue to publish details on : “the scandal of members’ expenses across all parties”. Thus during the following weeks considerable information entered the public domain on all MPs’ practices regarding parliamentary expenses and allowances. In particular, the Daily Telegraph published a series of extracts on second home claims submitted to the authorities.18 These details revealed the MPs’ practice of “flipping” – the changing of the registered main and second homes for expenses and tax purposes. It was discovered that some MPs avoided paying Capital Gains Tax (CGT) profit made from the sale of a property which was not their main home, i.e. their secondary residence by “flipping” the designated main residence and “second home”. In some cases, this was done more than once in a year in order to maximize the amount of claims possible. It also became known that some MPs were claiming reimbursements for mortgage payments after the mortgage had already been paid off. Other revelations were about both the lavish and the mundane expenses claims via the Additional Costs Allowance of certain MPs to be reimbursed by the taxpayer. Items included a luxury duck house, the cleaning of a moat, nappies and dog food, none of which could be deemed essential for the carrying out of an MPs parliamentary or constituency duties.

  • 19 Robert Winnett and Gordon Rayner, op. cit., p. 17.
  • 20 Sources : Robert Winnett and Gordon Rayner, op. cit., p. 141-142 and Gordon Rayner, “MPs’ expenses  (...)

11It emerged that MPs were using several different schemes to play the allowances arrangement. According to Robert Winnet and Gordon Rayner from the Daily Telegraph, when analysing the data on the leaked disk : “with each passing day the reporters had discovered another scam, until they were faced with a mind-boggling array of ingenious ways in which ways MPs had managed to milk a publicly funded system”.19 The Daily Telegraph divided up these into ten main groups and gave them each a title.20

  1. Flipping : MPs first designated their London property as their “second home”. This allowed them to claim expenses for renovations, refurbishments and furniture. Then they “flipped” the designation of “second home” to their “main home” and claimed for the same type of expenses on that residence.
  2. Property Ladder : MPs had a “second home” redecorated and/or renovated on expenses, adding value to it, and then sold the residence, keeping the profit. Some MPs would buy a new property and repeat the exercise.
  3. Council Tax Reduction : MPs claimed back on expenses the full rate of Council Tax on their “second home”, but would then pay themselves a discounted rate of Council Tax on their “main residence”, telling the council that it was really their “second home”.
  4. March Madness : MPs used up the remainder of their allowances before the April deadline, in order to claim the maximum allowance permissible during the financial year.
  5. Last-minute repairs : MPs spent large amounts on house renovations just prior to stepping down as MPs, thus maximising the profit they would make when selling the house they would soon no longer need.
  6. Capital Gains Tax avoidance : MPs declared that their “second home” (subject to Capital Gains Tax) was their “main home” when they sold it, in order to avoid paying Capital Gains Tax on the profit from the sale.
  7. Claiming for the “wrong” address : MPs were supposed to designate the home where they spent the least time as their “second” home. Some claimed their main family home was their second property, so that the larger household bills were met through expenses. The main residence would be a cheaper residence paid for by themselves.
  8. Long-distance shopping : MPs bought large household goods (beds, wardrobes) and had them delivered to their main home which they were not allowed to furnish on expenses. They said to the Parliamentary Fees Office that the goods were for their second home (which they were allowed to furnish on expenses) and that they took them there afterwards.
  9. Maxing out : MPs made monthly claims for almost £250 because they were not obliged to submit receipts for claims under £250.
  10. Binge eaters : MPs claimed the maximum monthly food allowance of £400, every month of the year, even during the recess when Parliament was not sitting.

12By the time the Daily Telegraph had finished publishing details, over half of MPs were implicated in bending or breaking the rules regarding parliamentary expenses and allowances, thus exploiting parliamentary privilege. Without the Freedom of Information Act, the persistence of certain journalists, the leaked computer disk and the subsequent revelations in the Daily Telegraph, the sleaze would not have become public knowledge. Clearly, many obstacles had to be overcome for the truth to be known, suggesting a culture of secrecy within the British Parliamentary system. The secrecy and the sleaze would have a considerable effect on the political careers of numerous MPs and an impact on the electorate’s image of politicians.

Investigating the impact : denial and a drop in trust

  • 21 The former Independent MP and journalist Martin Bell emphasises throughout his book on the expenses (...)

13Following the start of the Daily Telegraph revelations, the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown made a public apology on 11 May 2009 on behalf of all MPs and the day after David Cameron announced he was : “sorry for the actions of some Conservative MPs. People are right to be angry”. The next week, Conservative MP Douglas Carswell tabled a motion of no confidence in the Speaker of the Commons, Michael Martin, due to his handling of the expenses row, in particular his attempts to keep things secret.21 The latter stood down saying he was “profoundly sorry” and that the public had been let down “very badly indeed”. He also revealed new rules on allowances, pending recommendations from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Gordon Brown ordered an audit on all MPs’ second-home claims over the past four years to be carried out by Sir Thomas Legg. At the end of that month the Labour Party’s new disciplinary panel called the “Star Camber” started to consider cases of Labour MPs accused of exploiting the parliamentary expenses and allowances.

  • 22 The process of blacking out of certain details which took place at The Stationery Office (TSO) was (...)

14On 16 June 2009, Sir Christopher Kelly, when opening the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s first evidence session, accused MPs of exploiting expenses “for personal gain”. Two days later, as arranged before the release of information by the Daily Telegraph, the House of Commons published MPs expenses claims. However, very many details were blacked out, including addresses, which made it impossible to see whether MPs had indulged in house “flipping”, or where goods bought on allowances had been delivered.22 The next day, Scotland Yard announced that a small number of MPs were facing criminal investigations due to their expenses and allowances claims. On the 23 June 2009, the Government published its Parliamentary Standards Bill (that became law the following month). The legislation removed MPs’ right to set their own allowances ; it established a new Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to administer pay and expenses ; and it created the position of Commissioner for Parliamentary Investigations to probe into alleged breaches of the rules.

  • 23 For a list of the amounts repaid by MPs, see : http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/8493634. (...)

15After his audit, Sir Thomas Legg sent a letter to every MP in October 2009, indicating how much money he expected them to repay. This included amounts that were retrospective to the new rules regarding limits on cleaning and gardening expenses. The following month, Sir Ian Kennedy was appointed chair of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. The Committee on Standards in Public Life published in November 2009 its review of House of Commons expenses. It included recommendations that MPs should not be able to claim for mortgage interest, retiring MPs should receive a smaller resettlement grant (“golden goodbyes”) when leaving office and that MPs should be banned from employing family members. The following month, eighty MPs announced that they would appeal to the Appeal Court Judge Sir Paul Kennedy concerning Sir Thomas Legg’s demands for repayment of expenses. The results of the appeals were made known in January 2010, when it was discovered that certain repayment orders were overturned, or considerably reduced. On 4 February 2010, the Commons Members Estimates Committee chaired by Sir Thomas Legg published its findings, along with details of how much has been repaid by MPs since April 2009.23

  • 24 Peter Riddell, “In defence of politicians – in spite of themselves", Parliamentary Affairs annual l (...)
  • 25 Peter Riddell was also more optimistic regarding the scale of MPs expenses prior to the Daily Teleg (...)
  • 26 Conversely, a few MPs made no second homes claims at all after 2005, including Adam Afriyie (Conser (...)
  • 27 Martin Bell, op. cit., p. 17, “It was like the start of the hunting season, with MPs as the quarry. (...)

16For the political journalist and author Peter Riddell, speaking at the start of 2010 before the Legg enquiry had finished, there were different degrees of sleaze and offending MPs could be divided into three broad categories.24 First, “a small number who may have broken the law”. Second, “a larger group of perhaps three of four dozen MPs who clearly abused the spirit, if not the letter, of the previous system by their greed and lack of judgement”. Third, “the majority of MPs whose repayments are more the result of administrative incompetence than any personal abuses”.25 However, this interpretation is rather more generous than those made by most commentators who were very critical of MPs and considered the sleaze to be much more widespread.26 According to the journalist and former Independent MP Martin Bell, more than half of all MPs made dubious expenses claims.27 Moreover, many MPs denied any wrongdoing, with the most frequent comment being “I abided by the rules”.

17Indeed, the reactions of MPs to the revelations made by the Daily Telegraph varied from indignation to resignation.

  • 28 “MPs’ expenses : Blears writes £13,332 cheque to Inland Revenue for Capital Gains Tax avoided on ‘s (...)

18A minority of MPs – mostly prominent ones – made a mea culpa and immediately offered to repay some of their expenses, as soon as the truth was published by the newspaper. For example, Hazel Blears (Labour, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government) notably waived a cheque for £13,332 to reimburse the Inland Revenue for the Capital Gains Tax she had not paid on the sale of her second home.28 On 3 June 2009, she resigned from her ministerial position.

  • 29 Holly Watt and Robert Winnett, “Tory MP ordered to repay £1,500 after expenses investigation", The (...)

19Many MPs did not offer to reimburse sums straight away, but were subsequently forced to pay back certain amounts following the Parliamentary Standards Committee investigation and/or the Legg inquiry. For example, the Conservative MP Brian Binley was found by the Parliamentary Standards Committee to have : “breached the rules of the House relating to claims against the Additional Costs Allowance and that this was a serious matter. [...] The breach was sustained and it was deliberate. We regard this [...] as a serious failure of his duty under the Code of Conduct to ensure at all times that his use of allowances provided from the public purse is strictly in accordance with the rules”.29 He had to reimburse £1,500.

  • 30 “MPs’ expenses : Kitty Ussher’s resignation letter”, The Daily Telegraph, 17 June 2009.

20Some MPs announced they would not stand again at the next general election, i.e. resign but not straight away. If they had resigned immediately, they would have forgone their right to a resettlement grant (£65,000 in 2009). A record number of MPs (149) did not stand for re-election in 2010. For example, Kitty Ussher (Labour Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury) stood down from her ministerial position on 17 June 2009 due to revelations about her avoiding paying Capital Gains Tax and excessive claims for the redecoration of her second home. In her resignation letter to Gordon Brown, she wrote : “I did not do anything wrong. At all times my actions have been in line with HM Revenue and Customs guidance and based on the advice of a reputable firm of accountants who in turn were recommended to me by the House of Commons fees office. Neither have I abused the allowance system of the House of Commons in any way”.30 She remained an MP but did not stand at the 2010 general election. The Conservative MP Douglas Hogg (who had claimed among other expenses more than £2,000 for maintenance on the moat around one of his houses) announced on 19 May 2009 his retirement from the House of Commons at the next general election.

21Some MPs were forced out of office. For example, Michael Martin (Labour) Speaker of the Commons was made to stand down due to his failure to prevent abuses of the expenses system (and his inability to prevent the scandal from hitting the headlines). He was the first Speaker to be in that position since 1695.

22A few MPs were de-selected or barred from standing at the next general election. For example, Labour MP Ian Gibson was forbidden by the Labour Party “Star Chamber” to be a candidate at the next General Election because he had allegedly claimed expenses for a flat in which his daughter lived rent-free, before selling it to her for half its market value. He resigned on 5 June 2009, leading to a by-election that the Conservative Party won.

23Some MPs did stand at the May 2010 general but lost their seats. For example, Jacqui Smith, Labour Home Secretary, resigned from her ministerial position whilst remaining an MP. She was found to have designated her sister’s house as her main home ; it was also revealed that the dwelling where her husband and children lived was her second home and thus could benefit from home improvement and allowances (including the rental of two pornographic videos claimed on expenses by her). She contested her seat in the May 2010 General Election but was not re-elected by the voters.

24Many MPs stood in the May 2010 General Election and were re-elected and remain in office. For example, Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, lived rent-free in the “grace and favour” flat in Downing Street, but claimed thousands of pounds in taxpayer-funded second-home payments on his Edinburgh constituency home, while also renting out his main home, a flat he owned in London. He also attempted to claim on expenses the filling out of his tax form by an accountant, which is not allowed. He remains MP for Edinburgh South West.

  • 31 Evans Martin, “Expenses MPs and their sentences : how long they each served”, The Daily Telegraph, (...)
  • 32 Parliamentary privilege is codified in May Erskine, Treatise on the Law, Privileges, Proceedings an (...)
  • 33 Rayner Gordon, “MPs’ expenses : Three MPs and peer to face trial as privilege claim dismissed", The (...)

25Four Labour MPs were sent to prison,31 three of which (David Chaytor, Jim Devine and Elliot Morley) after having initially unsuccessfully argued that they should not be put before a Court, due to parliamentary immunity that exempts MPs from prosecution over proceedings in Parliament.32 Their applications to claim parliamentary privilege were rejected in the Court of Appeal by Mr Justice Saunders.33 In particular, Eric Illsley made false claims for his second home and over claimed (made “phantom claims”) for Council Tax and utility bills. Nevertheless, he was re-elected as a Labour MP at the May 2010 general election, but shortly afterwards he was suspended from the Labour Party and so became an Independent MP. However, he resigned as an MP at the start of 2011 leading to a by-election. In February 2011, he pleaded guilty to three charges of dishonestly claiming more than £14,000 and was jailed for twelve months.

26It is striking that Eric Illsley was re-elected as an MP in May 2010, despite his expenses and allowances misdemeanours being exposed by the Daily Telegraph the previous year. Even though in 2010 his share of the vote dropped by 10.4 % compared to the 2005 general election, he still obtained 17,487 votes (47.3 % of the vote, whereas the Liberal Democrat and Conservative candidates both obtained 17.3 % of the vote). Part of the explanation for his re-election, as well as that of other MPs exposed by the newspaper, may lay in the disenchanted cynical view of some voters that all MPs are the same : corrupt and untrustworthy.

  • 34 Sir Christopher Kelly, Press conference, 4 November 2009.

27Trust in politicians was an issue that was particularly affected by the expenses scandal. On the release of The Committee on Standards in Public Life Report on MPs’Expenses and Allowances, Supporting Parliament, Safeguarding the Taxpayer, in November 2009, Sir Christopher Kelly underlined during his speech the effect of the expenses scandal had on the electorate’s trust in politicians : “Revelations about the expenses system have caused considerable damage. I do not believe that trust in those who govern us will be restored unless those in authority show leadership and determination in putting the abuses of the past behind them, however uncomfortable that may be for some”.34

  • 35 In the Ipsos MORI poll, the public were asked about some ideas for improving public confidence in t (...)
  • 36 Alison Park and Elizabeth Clery, British Social Attitudes 26th Report, January 2010.
  • 37 Hansard Society, Annual Audit of Political Engagement, 7th report with a focus on MPs and Parliamen (...)

28In an opinion poll published in June 2009 shortly after the start of the Daily Telegraph revelations (Ipsos MORI, Expenses Poll for the BBC, 2 June 2009), two in three (68 %) of respondents agreed with the statement : “most MPs make a lot of money by using public office improperly”. Over three in five (62 %) thought that : “MPs put their own interests ahead of the interests of their party, constituents and country”, the highest score ever recorded by Ipsos MORI for this measure (compared with 45 % taking this view in 2006). Over three-quarters (76 %) did not : “trust MPs in general to tell the truth”. Over two in three (68 %) believed that half or more : “MPs use power for their own personal gain” (compared with 46 % believing the same in 2006). Almost half of the public (48 %) believed : “half or more of “MPs are corrupt”.35 Similarly, the British Attitudes Survey for 2010 discovered that a majority of people believe that MPs : “never tell the truth” and that 40 % of respondents “almost never” trust politicians to put the national interest first.36 Lastly, according to the Hansard Society’s Annual Audit of Political Engagement for 2010, that year 24 % of respondents said they trusted politicians, compared to 27 % in 2004.37 However, as the starting level was so low, the results simply confirmed and reinforced the poor image the British population already had about their politicians. Thus, the expenses scandal seems to have had an impact on the trust the electorate has in representatives.

  • 38 “MPs’ expenses : Kitty Ussher’s resignation letter”, The Daily Telegraph, 17 June 2009.
  • 39 Peter Riddell, 2010, op. cit., “It has been the reaction of many MPs to criticism [...] the refusal (...)
  • 40 Ben Leapman, “My four-year battle for the truth over MPs’ expenses”, The Daily Telegraph, 10 May 20 (...)

29However, it is not only the fact that many MPs exploited their expenses and allowances that diminished trust in politicians. It is the cumulative effect of the abuse, the attempt to prevent information from being released into the public domain, the denial of misdoing38 and the reluctance for an overhaul of the system.39 More nebulous is the loss of confidence regarding politics in general that members of the electorate may have felt. As stated by Ben Leapman, one of the three journalists who made the original Freedom of Information requests in 2005 : “The tragedy of the expenses affair is that the MPs who fought so hard for secrecy have made themselves and their colleagues look furtive as well as greedy. They have bought politics into disrepute”.40 However, at the 2010 general election, the number of voters did not decrease and the voter turnout did not drop – this may be due to the tightly run race. Furthermore, despite many discussions about there being a rise in the number of independent candidates at the general election, in the event there were fewer than expected. Moreover, only one independent candidate was elected in the United Kingdom in the 2010 General Election (in Northern Ireland).

  • 41 John Pilger, “Damn or fear it, the truth is that it’s an insurrection, The New Statesman, 18 August (...)

30What is clear is that many British felt and feel annoyed about the way some MPs abused the expenses and allowances system. This anger at politicians was all the more poignant in 2009 since the country was going through a recession. In this way, MPs were lumped together with people in banking and finance. This amalgam stood out indeed during the Summer disturbances of 2011 when some looters commented that they were just behaving like politicians (“the revolt of the working class”)41 and Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party, made a similar comment on 15 August 2011 :

  • 42 Ed Miliband, “Full transcript, Ed Miliband, Speech on the riots, Haverstock School", The New States (...)

31Children’s ideas of right and wrong don’t just come from their parents. And we can’t honestly say the greed, selfishness and gross irresponsibility that shocked us all so deeply is confined to the looters or even to their parents. It’s not the first time we’ve seen this kind of me-first, take what you can culture. The bankers who took millions while destroying people’s savings : greedy, selfish, and immoral. The MPs who fiddled their expenses : greedy, selfish, and immoral. The people who hacked phones to get stories to make money for themselves : greedy, selfish and immoral. People who talk about the sick behaviour of those without power, should talk equally about the sick behaviour of those with power.42

32A positive result of the expenses scandal is the development of a more transparent system. Subsequently, MPs are now undoubtedly more careful regarding their expenses claims, mindful that all their claims will be published on line and that the media will carefully scrutinize them. This awareness of MPs “vulnerability” and “exposure” might dissuade some truly “honourable gentlemen” and “honourable ladies” from standing to be an MP (including Independent MPs). Certain potential candidates might not want to be inspected under the new much more transparent system and thus not stand for Parliament. This claim was made by the Commons authorities during the February 2008 Tribunal. The Commons director of resources, i.e. Head of the Parliamentary Fees Office, Andrew Walker, claimed in a written statement that publishing more expenses might not appear damaging, but when put together with other details it could create : “a peephole into their private life” and may put people off becoming MPs. However, Hugh Tomlinson QC replied that it was “wholly fantastical” to suggest a monthly telephone bill would be a big intrusion and Philip Coppel representing the journalist J. Ungoed-Thomas commented : “It is ridiculous to suggest that the sort of disclosure is going to discourage able people from entering politics”.

33Thus, five years after the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act when the first requests were filed and three months before the forthcoming general election, the nature and the scale of the MPs parliamentary expenses and allowances scandal had been exposed. It had become very clear that many MPs had been “bending the rules”, whilst a few had broken the rules and indeed the law of the land. The sleaze was widespread and endemic. It was associated with all the political parties and all levels within them from Cabinet ministers to backbenchers. Moreover, it became clear that many MPs had vigorously and systematically attempted to prevent disclosure of their misdemeanours by stopping the information from being released. In this way, they actively sought to place themselves above the rule of law. They tried to set themselves apart from the electorate, i.e. the taxpayer who funded the parliamentary expenses and allowances scheme. The explanations for how such a generalised and in some cases criminal abuse of MPs’ parliamentary expenses and allowances came about are manifold.

Explaining the scandal : self-centeredness and self-regulation

34The scale of the parliamentary expenses and allowance scandal raises the compelling questions of how and why there was such widespread sleaze. There seem to be a number of contributory factors that feed into each other. Most are linked to recent evolutions inside the “Westminster Village”, especially the working conditions of MPs, the mechanisms of the Parliamentary Fees Office and the mindset of the new type of people going into politics.

  • 43 The introduction of an annual salary can be partially explained by the creation of the Labour Party (...)
  • 44 However, MPs are not paid as much as many other comparable professions, according to the BBC, “Recr (...)

35Members of Parliament started to receive a regular salary in 1911 that has steadily increased over the years, with a steep rise in 2001 (see Table 2).43 In April 2008, just before the expenses scandal came to public attention, the basic salary of an MP was £61,291. According to the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE) carried out by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the mean gross annual earnings for all full-time employees in 2008 came to £31,323. So that year, basic MPs were earning nearly double the average wage and were situated in the top 5 % of wage earners in the country (i.e. above £58,917).44 MPs with ministerial posts or with positions on committees received more than the basic salary.

  • 45 David Cameron, BBCRadio 4, 4 February 2008, “For many years, a culture grew up in Westminster where (...)

36Controversially, MPs were used to setting the level of their own salaries in an annual House of Commons vote. Whilst it might have been expected that MPs would raise their salaries substantially in order to boost their income, in fact they resisted pushing themselves up into the top £1 % of wage earners. This could have been because MPs feared the disapproval of their constituents : the voters. However, since MPs’ time is divided between the House of Commons and their constituencies (in 2009 there were 659 constituencies, most of which are not in London), they do incur financial demands (travel and accommodation) that most workers do not. This combination (apprehension regarding public opinion and special circumstances) may have contributed to certain MPs feeling that they were undeservedly under-paid for which they should be compensated somehow.45

Table 2. MPs’ annual salary 1911-2011 (pounds sterling)

Year Annual salary (£)
1911 (August) 400
1931 (October) 360
1946 (April) 1,000
1957 (July) 1,750
1964 (October) 3,250
1972 (January) 4,500
1982 (June) 14,510
1992 (January) 30,854
1997 (April) 43,860
1998 (April) 45,066
1999 (April) 47,008
2000 (April) 48,371
2001 (April) 49,822
2002 (April) 55,822
2003 (April) 56,358
2004 (April) 57,485
2005 (April) 59,095
2006 (April) 59,686
2007 (April) 61,181
2008 (April) 61,291
2009 (April) 64,766
2010 (April) 65,738
2011 (April) 65,738
  • 46 On 3 July 2008, the House of Commons agreed to a government motion that provided the mechanism for (...)

Sources : House of Commons Information Office, Members’ pay, pensions and allowances, Factsheet M5, Members Series, House of Commons, Revised May 2009, p. 12 and www.parliament.uk.46

  • 47 Robert Winnett and Gordon Rayner, op. cit., p. 33-34, “Successive governments had shied away from t (...)
  • 48 Martin Bell, op. cit., p. 33, “Many regarded it as their due – a common argument that embezzlers ma (...)
  • 49 Robert Winnett and Gordon Rayner, op. cit., p. 40.
  • 50 Emma Griffiths, “Expenses details ‘intrude’ on MPs", BBC News website, 7 February 2008.
  • 51 John Swaine and Heidi Blake, “Janet Anderson : former tourism minister is one of the most prolific (...)

37Consequently, whilst the Additional Costs Allowance was created in 1971 and portrayed as a legitimate means for MPs to cover the costs of running a second home (including the interest on their mortgage),47 it became a way for any aggrieved MPs to supplement their salaries.48 However, this was only possible due to the means by which the Additional Costs Allowance came to function. In 2008, MPs could claim up to £22,110 for costs incurred when away from their main home via the ACA, including any item up to £250 without a receipt (see Table 1). During the tribunal of February 2008, Andrew Walker, the House of Commons director of resources and Head of the Parliamentary Fees Office (the branch of the civil service responsible for scrutinizing MPs expenses claims) was questioned about its somewhat opaque workings. He replied : “There is checking where there are receipts. Where there are no receipts there is no checking. If it’s below £250 then the assumption is that it’s going to be reasonable”.49 He also revealed that MPs were entitled to claim up to £400 per month for food without the need to submit receipts. Andrew Walker confirmed the existence of the “John Lewis List”, officially called the Additional Cost Claim Guide produced by the Parliamentary Fees Office that indicated the maximum amounts of money that could be reimbursed for household items. But as the lawyer, Philip Coppel commented (representing Jon Ungoed-Thomas, one of the original journalists who filed a Freedom of Information request) : “There’s nothing checking, for example, that a Member of Parliament doesn’t claim for an iPod under the heading of food”.50 There was also a Motor Mileage allowance refunded per mile travelled, but no requirement for the claimant to produce any receipts. Thus, MPs could claim for petrol that they had not used. The Labour MP, Janet Anderson, submitted a claim for £11,996 in petrol expenses (the equivalent of 41,984 miles) that would have meant she had travelled from her constituency in Lancashire to Westminster (over 400 miles) every day the House of Commons had sat. She also claimed £2,987 in rail fares, £2,693 in airfares and submitted a claim for £23,039 for her second home, whist living midweek in the constituency home in London of her partner, Labour MP Jim Dowd.51 This was all within the rules associated with the expenses and allowances system.

  • 52 Martin Bell, op. cit., p. 29.
  • 53 Robert Winnett and Gordon Rayner, op. cit., p. 17.
  • 54 Ibid., p. 43.

38However, it was MPs themselves who devised the expenses and allowances system and its rules. Giving evidence to the Kelly Committee (16 July 2009), Jack Straw, Labour Justice Secretary admitted : “I confess we are all responsible for this”.52 Furthermore, these already obscure and covert rules seemed to have been insufficiently enforced. According to Robert Winnett and Gordon Rayner from the Daily Telegraph, the expenses system : “was so inadequately policed by civil servants that it almost seemed to have been designed to be abused”.53 During the tribunal of February 2008, the Additional Costs Allowance system was described as “deeply flawed” and suffering from a substantial “shortfall in accountability”.54

  • 55 The Committee on Standards in Public Life is an advisory non-departmental public body of the govern (...)
  • 56 Committee on Standards in Public Life, First Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, 1 (...)
  • 57 Martin Bell, op. cit., p. 29-30.

39This was despite internal and external checks that had been in place since the mid-1990s (following the Cash-for-Questions scandal) to prevent MPs from abusing the allowances and expenses system (and thus the taxpayer). There was an internal safeguard : the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards (a position established in 1995) who would examine complaints against MPs and report to the external safeguard : the Committee on Standards in Public Life (created in 1994).55 The initial report produced by the committee (under the chairmanship of Lord Nolan) in 1995, established the “Nolan principles”, entitled The Seven Principles of Public Life to which all MPs were supposed to adhere.56 These consisted of selflessness, integrity, objectively, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. Selflessness, the first of these seven principles, was explicitly explained as follows : “Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financially or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends”. Clearly many MPs did not follow this or the other principles produced by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Indeed, in general, according to Martin Bell, MPs did not seem to take much notice of the committee and : “there was those in Government who regarded it as a bit of a nuisance”.57 For the journalist and former Independent MP, none of the checks on MPs conduct worked :

  • 58 Ibid., p. 32-33.

40At the heart of the problem was a lack of transparency and external scrutiny. None of the parliamentary defences put in place by the reforms of 1994 prevented MPs plundering the Exchequer. They could do as they wished within reason and beyond it. The expenses system was out of control. There was no independent audit. The culture was pernicious. The House of Commons behaved like a company that certified its own accounts or hired a hole-in-the-wall firm of book-keepers, good friends of the chairman, to sign them off.58

  • 59 Ibid., p. 30.
  • 60 Ben Leapman, “My four-year battle for the truth over MPs’ expenses”, The Daily Telegraph, 10 May 20 (...)

41Indeed, when Sir Alistair Graham left the chairmanship of the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 27 March 2007, he declared in a speech : “My greatest regret has been the apparent failure to persuade the Government to place high ethical standards at the heart of its thinking and, more importantly, behaviour”.59 This serious accusation may explain the lack of transparency and accountability of the system, as well as the impotency of the Parliamentary Fees Office. Certain MPs may have deliberately deprived the Parliamentary Fees Office of resources and influence in order to prevent it from operating efficiently. For Ben Leapman : “abuses ought to be spotted by the fees office, of course, but MPs have never given it the teeth or the funding to operate as a policeman. Instead it works on trust, which all too often turns out to be misplaced”.60

  • 61 Martin Bell, op. cit., p. 38.
  • 62 Martin Bell, op. cit., p. 38, “The relationship between the MPs and their accountants was too close (...)
  • 63 Sir Philip Mawer, Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, evidence to the Kelly Commission, 29 Ju (...)
  • 64 John Swaine, “MPs’ expenses, Ben Chapman says he will quit over mortgage cash”, Daily Telegraph, 21 (...)
  • 65 Martin Bell, op. cit., p. 74-75.

42Besides, it is a distinct possibility that the Parliamentary Fees Office was in cahoots with some MPs, i.e., conspiring with them voluntarily or involuntarily.61 When Sir Philip Mawer, Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, testified to the Kelly Committee on Standards in Public Life, in 2010, he explained : “MPs had been told that what they would not be given through the front door, in terms of increases in pay, they would be given through the back door, in terms of the allowances system”.62 Who exactly did the telling to MPs is not clear, but it might have been the Parliamentary Fees Office. Sir Philip Mawer also hinted at collusion when he stated : “At one time it has been said to me the duty of staff was to enable Members to claim the maximum, not to police the allowances system”.63 Labour MP Ben Chapman, also suggested complicity between the Parliamentary Fees Office and MPs. He was found to have claimed approximately £15,000 in expenses for interest on part of the mortgage for his second home that had already been reimbursed. On 17 May 2009, he said that he had an arrangement with the Parliamentary authorities that enabled him to claim interest payments on the entire amount of the mortgage on his second home although the loan had already been repaid. When he resigned, he declared : “I maintain that I have done nothing wrong and have acted in good faith and with absolute transparency throughout. The Commons Fees Office have expressed their apologies and regret that the advice they gave me was incorrect”.64 Thus, the Parliamentary Fees Office appeared to have : “become complicit in an acrobatic reading of the rules”.65 However, it is also possible that staff working in the Parliamentary Fees Office was bullied into not questioning, or not refusing the expenses claims made by their superiors – MPs :

  • 66 Ibid., p. 38.

43The Commons accountants like all the servants of the House, are certainly not seen as equals, but subtly looked down on, and regarded as a potential nuisance which has to be squared away or kept in its box. During this disastrous period they were left in the invidious position of checking on their employers’ expenses and enquiring whether a claim for reimbursement [...] was within the rules.66

44In both cases, MPs being in cahoots with the Fees Office, or MPs putting pressure on the Fees Office, a certain kind of mindset would have had to be in operation for such behaviour to be fostered. This may be linked to the new type of MP entering the House of Commons in recent years who is more distant from ordinary people, i.e. voters and taxpayers :

  • 67 Anthony Sampson, Who Runs this Place ? The Anatomy of Britain in the 21st century, London, John Mur (...)

45MPs and journalists talk about working in the “Westminster Bubble” or the “Westminster Village”, where they are preoccupied with village gossip that is largely divorced from life as it is lived in the rest of London, let alone Britain. But the Westminster community is the size of a town, stretching almost half a mile along the river, and many of its inhabitants spend most of their working life there. And the more self-sufficient they are, the less they can seriously represent the rest of the population.67

  • 68 Peter Oborne, 2008, op. cit., p. 6.
  • 69 Ibid., p. 62.

46Writing four years before the expenses scandal broke, Peter Oborne declared : “All governments have contained liars, and most politicians deceive each other as well as the public from time to time. But in recent years mendacity and deception have ceased to be abnormal and become an entrenched feature of the British system”.68 For him, New Labour under Tony Blair distanced itself from the trade unions and became closer to business, which encouraged Labour politicians to behave more corruptly.69 It also widened the gap between MPs and the rest of the population, civil society. P. Oborne explains this change by the rise of a “political class”, as described by Anthony Sampson, in 2004 :

  • 70 Anthony Sampson, op. cit., p. 10, “In the twenty-first century nearly all MPs are full-time politic (...)

47Britain has now acquired a “political class” like those of the continental parliaments which were once so despised, consisting of people whose whole life is circumscribed by vote-getting and legislating. [...] Many MPs now have no experience of occupations outside politics. [...] Many spend their entire careers in politics, working in parliamentary research or local government before becoming members.70

48Kitty Ussher is a good example of a political class politician, who climbed the political ranks from researcher, to special advisor, to Labour MP in a safe seat in 2005, aged thirty-four, to junior Treasury minister. During her first term in office, she asked the Parliamentary Fees Office to refund £20,000 of renovations of her “second home”. Just one month before she sold it in 2007, she “flipped” it to make it her “main home”, thus enabling her to avoid up to £17,000 in Capital Gains Tax. Clearly, if she had behaved similarly in a job outside Parliament she would have been in serious trouble, but she probably would not have even had the possibility to behave in such a way.

  • 71 Peter Riddell, 2009, op. cit., p. 3.
  • 72 Ibid., p. 28.
  • 73 BBC news, “Cameron warns ‘jealousy’ MP Steen”, 22 May 2009.

49The notion that politicians towards the end of the twenty-first century were becoming increasingly cut off from the world outside Westminster had already been expressed by Peter Riddell. In 1993, he wrote : “British politics has become a mainly closed world [...] confined to those who have made a youthful commitment to seeking a parliamentary career. It is like a religious order which requires an early vocation, or perhaps a post-entry closed shop”.71 He reiterated the point a decade later : “Politicians inhabit a private intellectual and social world, largely separate from those running large companies or the professions”.72 This detachment was very apparent when the Conservative MP, Anthony Steen was interviewed on BBC Radio 4, The World at One programme, in May 2009 following the Daily Telegraph revelations. He stated : “I think I’ve behaved, if I may say so, impeccably. I’ve done nothing criminal, that’s the most awful thing. And do you know what it’s about ? Jealousy. I’ve got a very, very large house. Some people say it looks like Balmoral”.73 But his comments reveal not only disconnect, but also disdain for the electorate (who paid for the upkeep of his “very, very large house”).

50Thus, existing in a bubble separate from civil society may have also played a role in the MPs expenses and allowances scandal. Some MPs may have lost their moral compass, as they did not have any bearings within civil society :

  • 74 Peter Oborne, 2008, op. cit., p. 63.

51What emerges [...] is a contempt for, or possibly an overwhelming ignorance of, the ordinary standards of civil society. In Britain, the great majority of occupations, professions, corporations, institutions and civil associations of one kind or another have evolved over time an exacting set of codes of morality and behaviour. They insist on high standards of honesty and integrity. Members of the Political Class, who have very little experience beyond the connected worlds of the media, politics and public relations, find it extremely hard to understand this. They have a tendency to believe that virtue only resides in the state, and that civil society is largely corrupt, and certainly not to be trusted. In fact, rather than observe a uniquely high set of standards, the Political Class often conducts itself in a way that would be utterly abhorrent to respectable British People.74

  • 75 Robert Winnett and Gordon Rayner, op. cit., p. 16.

52This would explain why for Robert Winnett and Gordon Rayner the abuse of the expenses and allowances system was a deliberate act on the part of MPs : “Many of the most senior members of the government, including Cabinet ministers, had been blatantly playing the system for years to squeeze every last penny they could out of the taxpayer”.75

  • 76 Martin Bell, op. cit., p. 12.
  • 77 Ibid., p. 14.

53Furthermore, being disconnected from the “real world” and in a position of authority may also have led to a sense of superiority or prerogative among certain MPs. According to Martin Bell, being an MP bestows the feeling of privilege and power on the incumbent : “Part of the problem was the disease of Westminsteritis – that sense of entitlement that comes with being a big shot in the community”.76 Indeed, for Martin Bell, the fact Douglas Hogg (Conservative MP) claimed on expenses £2,115 for having his moat cleaned : “was the perfect metaphor for the perception of MPs leading privileged lives remote from the rest of us in a world entirely of their own. It was also in keeping with the idea of Parliament as a fortress. The symbol of the House of Commons is a portcullis : now we know why”.77

  • 78 Peter Oborne, 2008, op. cit., p. xix.

54Lastly, being cut off from civil society may have bred a culture of secrecy among politicians which manifested itself in the lack of transparency and lack of accountability of the expenses and allowances system. It suggests that MPs informed each other of the various schemes at work (“flipping”, etc.) in order to milk the system. It seems unlikely that so many MPs could have devised such means individually, all on their own. Trading in “insider information” may have even gone on across party lines, reinforcing the sentiment of “them (the electorate) and us (the politicians)”, with MPs being cut off from reality. Before the expenses scandal was revealed, P. Oborne suggested that MPs from the new political class tend to stick together (whatever the political party) in their own interest.78

55Thus, recent evolutions in the characteristics of the “Westminster Village”, in particular the rise of the professional politician, suggest developments leading to an expanding separation between MPs and the electorate they represent. This growing gulf may have led in part to the abuse of the expenses and allowances system by so many MPs, with completely different profiles and from all political parties. An outlook may have emerged which led to a sense of superiority among MPs that pushed parliamentary privilege into the realm of misuse and abuse, largely helped by self-regulation of the Parliamentary Fees Office whose employees had been pressurised by MPs or conspiring with them.

Conclusion

56When leader of the Opposition, Tony Blair made the following declaration in a speech on the Freedom of Information Act, at the Campaign for Freedom of Information Awards, 1996 :

  • 79 Tony Blair, Speech at the Campaign for Freedom of Information’s annual awards ceremony, 25 March 19 (...)

57It is not some isolated constitutional reform that we are proposing with a Freedom of Information Act. It is a change that is absolutely fundamental to how we see politics developing in this country over the next few years. [...] Information is power and any government’s attitude about sharing information with the people actually says a great deal about how it views power itself and how it views the relationship between itself and the people who elected it.79

  • 80 Robert Winnett and Gordon Rayner, op. cit., p. 219-220.

58Once in Government, the Labour Party went ahead with introducing the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (that came into force in 2005) and information did indeed become power. Due to the Freedom of Information Act, voters were able to discover that over half of MPs had been bending and breaking the rules pertaining to MPs’ parliamentary expenses and allowances scheme. In a few cases, MPs even broke the law of the land. Clearly, a veil of secrecy enveloped MPs’ expenses when the United Kingdom was led by Tony Blair – most of whose own expenses claims for 2004-2008 were shredded in error and so remain unknown to this day.80 The sleaze associated with the expenses scandal was more prevalent and more pervasive than that linked to the previous Conservative administration. MPs from all the main political parties devised and implemented a series of ingenious ways to “milk the system”, in particular the Additional Costs Allowance, seemingly by either putting pressure on the Parliamentary Fees Office or by conspiring with it. Moreover, once found out, a majority of MPs defended themselves by saying they were just abiding by the rules. The misuse and the denial of wrongdoing impacted on the population’s trust in politicians. The degree of the abuse might be connected to the increasing number of professional MPs going into the House of Commons – a political class for whom politics is their entire life and only source of income. This may have led to a disconnect between MPs and the electorate, a gulf which diminished the feeling of accountability and accentuated the feeling of parliamentary privilege.

59However, the extent of the expenses scandal would not have come to light without the persistence of newspaper journalists. For it was journalists who made the initial Freedom of Information requests and who doggedly made appeals on several occasions. This was necessary because MPs – often under the guidance of the Speaker Michael Martin – consistently tried to impede the publication of their expenses. After leaving office and after the Parliamentary expenses and allowances scandal, Tony Blair looking back in his autobiography revealed his considerable disdain for both the Freedom of Information Act and journalists :

  • 81 Tony Blair A Journey, London, Hutchison, 2010, p. 516.

60Freedom of Information. Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them and feel like shaking my head till it drops off my shoulders. You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible, nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it. Once I appreciated the full enormity of the blunder, I used to say – more than a little unfairly – to any civil servant who would listen : Where was Sir Humphrey when I needed him ? We had legislated in the first throes of power. How could you, knowing what you know, have allowed us to do such a thing so utterly undermining of sensible government ? Some people might find that shocking. Oh, he wants secret government ; he wants to hide the foul misdeeds of politicians and keep from “the people” their right to know what is being done in their name. The truth is that, for the most part, the FOI isn’t used by “the people”. It’s used by journalists. For political leaders, it’s like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick, “Hey try this instead,” and handing them a mallet. The information is neither sought by the journalist because the journalist is curious to know, nor given to bestow knowledge on “the people”. It is used as a weapon.81

61But without the subjects of Tony Blair’s contempt – the Freedom of Information Act and journalists – “the people”, the voters, the taxpayers would not have known about the sleaze related to MPs’ expenses that they funded via income tax. Furthermore, the culture of secrecy and the politics of personal advantage that characterised the British Parliamentary system at the start of the twenty-first century would have persisted. Today, the media-scrutinised “Westminster Village” now has a new, far more transparent and accountable parliamentary expenses and allowances system with much less scope for freebies and sleaze.

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Park Alison and Clery Elizabeth, British Social Attitudes 26th Report, London, Sage publications, January 2010.

Parris Matthew and Maguire Kevin, Great Parliamentary Scandals : Five centuries of calumny, smear and innuendo, London, Robson Books, 2004.

Paxman Jeremy, The Political Animal : An anatomy, London, Michael Joseph, 2002.

Pilger John, “Damn or fear it, the truth is that it’s an insurrection, The New Statesman, 18 August 2011.

Rayner Gordon, “MPs’ expenses : Ten ways MPs play the system to cash in on expenses and allowances”, The Daily Telegraph, 8 May 2009.

Rayner Gordon, “MPs’ expenses : Three MPs and peer to face trial as privilege claim dismissed”, The Daily Telegraph, 11 June 2010.

Riddell Peter, Honest Opportunism : The rise of the career politician, London, Hamish Hamilton, (2003), 2009.

Riddell Peter, “In defence of politicians – in spite of themselves", Parliamentary Affairs annual lecture, Hansard Society, 25 February 2010.

Rohrer Finlo, “Just what is a big salary ?”, BBC website, 15 July 2009.

Sampson Anthony, The Anatomy of Britain, London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1962.

Sampson Anthony, Who Runs this Place ? The Anatomy of Britain in the 21st Century, London, John Murray, 2004.

Swaine Jon and Blake Heidi, “Janet Anderson : former tourism minister is one of the most prolific expense claimers”, The Daily Telegraph, 13 January 2010.

Swaine, John, “MPs’ expenses, Ben Chapman says he will quit over mortgage cash”, The Daily Telegraph, 21 May 2009.

Thompson John, Political Scandal : Power and Visibility in the Media Age, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2000.

Watt Holly and Winnett Robert, “Tory MP ordered to repay £1,500 after expenses investigation", The Daily Telegraph, 11 January 2010.

Winnett Robert and Rayner Gordon, No Expenses Spared, London, Corgi Books, 2010.

Notes

1 Tony Blair, acceptance speech outside 10 Downing Street, 2 May 1997, “It will be a government that seeks to restore trust in politics in this country. That cleans it up, that decentralizes it, that gives people hope once again that politics is and always should be about the service of the public. [...] It shall be a government rooted in strong values, the values of justice and progress and community, the values that have guided me all my political life”.

2 Peter Oborne, The Triumph of the Political Class, London, Pocket Books, (2007) 2008, p. 31, “The most notorious Conservative Party liars of the 1990s were rogue agents who exploited or abused their positions. Men like Jonathan Aitken, Jeffrey Archer and Neil Hamilton were acting solely on their own behalf from desire for financial gain, personal ambition or other motives. They fell squarely into a long and dishonourable tradition of villains and imposters, which throughout the twentieth century manifested itself in all parties”.

3 A much smaller number of peers in the House of Lords were also implicated in the expenses scandal, but this article deals exclusively with MPs in the elected House of Commons.

4 The Review Body on Top Salaries (TSRB) was launched in 1971 as an independent organisation. It was renamed the Review Body on Senior Salaries (SSRB) in July 1993, with revised terms of reference. Its remit included providing information on the remuneration of holders of judicial office, senior civil servants, senior officers of the armed forces, and other such public appointments. It also advised on the pay, pensions and allowances of MPs.

5 For information on the evolution of the Additional Costs Allowance (ACA), see Richard Kelly, “Additional Costs Allowance”, Standard Note SN/PC/04641, Parliament and Constitution Centre, House of Commons Library, 3 March 2008.

6 The Members Estimate Committee was established in 1978 to consider matters relating to MPs’ pay and allowances on behalf of the House of Commons. It has the same membership as the House of Commons Commission which is the overall supervisory body of the House of Commons.

7 Richard Kelly, op. cit., p. 3.

8 The broad categories of all MPs allowance expenditure 2008-2009 can be accessed at http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons-finance-office/hocallowances0809.pdf

9 The Information Commissioner is responsible for regulating compliance with the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and other Acts of Parliament.

10 Prior to the General Election in May 2010 the allowances were administered by the House of Commons.

11 Notes : 1) The Additional Costs Allowance (ACA) was to cover the cost of staying away from main home paid to reimburse Members for necessary costs incurred when staying overnight away from their main home for the purpose of performing parliamentary duties. 2) Inner London Members received the London Supplement instead of the ACA. Outer London Members could choose between the ACA and the London Supplement. 3) The Incidental Expenses Provision (IEP) could be used to meet the cost of : accommodation for office or surgery use ; equipment and supplies for office or surgery ; work commissioned or other services ; and certain travel and communications.

12 The Information Tribunal (renamed the Information Rights Tribunal in 2010) hears appeals from notices issued by the Information Commissioner under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) and other Acts of Parliament.

13 In March 2008, the Commons Members Estimate Committee announced MPs would have to submit receipts for expenses claims over £25 as from 1 April 2008, replacing a previous limit of £250. Furthermore, a new system was introduced (on a voluntary basis until it became compulsory on 1 August 2008) for MPs to register any employed relatives. Almost 150 MPs declared in the Register of Members’ Interests that they employed relatives.

14 It soon emerged that Mr Martin’s official residence had received improvements costing over £700,000.

15 Nigel Giffin QC appearing in the Commons argued that the publication of receipts would be “a substantial intrusion” into the lives of MPs. But the three judges (Sir Igor Judge, Lord Justice Latham and Mr Justice Blake) presiding the case, handed down a written judgement on 16 May 2008 rejecting Parliament’s appeal against disclosure.

16 The Committee on Standards in Public Life is made up of 10 people. The Chair and six other Committee members are independent people, chosen on merit after an open competition. These individuals come from both public and private sector backgrounds.

17 The Daily Telegraph revealed on 25 September 2009, that it had bought the disk for £110,000 from a “mole” working at The Stationery Office (TSO) who was unhappy about the under-funding of British soldiers, especially compared to the extravagant expenses claimed by some MPs. For a full in-depth description of how the newspaper acquired the computer disk and went about printing the details, see : Winnett Robert and Rayner Gordon, op. cit.

18 Anonymous, The Little Book of Big Expenses : How to Live the MP Lifestyle, A & C Black Publishers, 2009, p. 17, “There is no doubt that the single greatest use (and abuse) of the Fees Office’s resources has been on housing of one sort or another”.

19 Robert Winnett and Gordon Rayner, op. cit., p. 17.

20 Sources : Robert Winnett and Gordon Rayner, op. cit., p. 141-142 and Gordon Rayner, “MPs’ expenses : Ten ways MPs play the system to cash in on expenses and allowances", The Daily Telegraph, 8 May 2009.

21 The former Independent MP and journalist Martin Bell emphasises throughout his book on the expenses scandal, the consistent and extensive role played by Michael Martin in preventing expenses information from being released. Martin Bell, A Very British Revolution : The expenses scandal and how to save our democracy, London, Icon Books, (2009) revised edition 2010.

22 The process of blacking out of certain details which took place at The Stationery Office (TSO) was the source of the computer disk sold to the Daily Telegraph.

23 For a list of the amounts repaid by MPs, see : http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/8493634.stm?table=repay&order=asc#mprepayments

24 Peter Riddell, “In defence of politicians – in spite of themselves", Parliamentary Affairs annual lecture, Hansard Society, 25 February 2010.

25 Peter Riddell was also more optimistic regarding the scale of MPs expenses prior to the Daily Telegraph revelations. Peter Riddell, Honest Opportunism : The rise of the career politician, London, Hamish Hamilton, (2003), 2009, p. 134, “The total of remuneration and perks for the majority of MPs is less than that for many middle-ranking business executives”.

26 Conversely, a few MPs made no second homes claims at all after 2005, including Adam Afriyie (Conservative), Tom Brake (Liberal Democrat), Susan Kramer (Liberal Democrat), Ed Davey (Liberal Democrat) and Geoffrey Robinson (Labour).

27 Martin Bell, op. cit., p. 17, “It was like the start of the hunting season, with MPs as the quarry. Not just a few, but a substantial number of them – at first 100, then 200, and in the end at least half – were named and shamed and vilified as never before, at least since the 18th century. There were so many of them that honesty seemed an exception”.

28 “MPs’ expenses : Blears writes £13,332 cheque to Inland Revenue for Capital Gains Tax avoided on ‘second home’”, The Daily Mail, 12 May 2009.

29 Holly Watt and Robert Winnett, “Tory MP ordered to repay £1,500 after expenses investigation", The Daily Telegraph, 11 January 2010.

30 “MPs’ expenses : Kitty Ussher’s resignation letter”, The Daily Telegraph, 17 June 2009.

31 Evans Martin, “Expenses MPs and their sentences : how long they each served”, The Daily Telegraph, 20 September 2011.

32 Parliamentary privilege is codified in May Erskine, Treatise on the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament, London, Charles Knight & Co, 1844.

33 Rayner Gordon, “MPs’ expenses : Three MPs and peer to face trial as privilege claim dismissed", The Daily Telegraph, 11 June 2010.

34 Sir Christopher Kelly, Press conference, 4 November 2009.

35 In the Ipsos MORI poll, the public were asked about some ideas for improving public confidence in the political process. Six in seven (85 %) supported the idea of an independent judicial body scrutinising MPs’ activities including expenses, and four in five (79 %) supported MP “recall", which would allow constituents to force by-elections. Three in five (59 %) supported a public inquiry to investigate expenses.

36 Alison Park and Elizabeth Clery, British Social Attitudes 26th Report, January 2010.

37 Hansard Society, Annual Audit of Political Engagement, 7th report with a focus on MPs and Parliament, The Hansard Society, March 2010, p. 3, “While the MPs’ expenses scandal has affected the public’s satisfaction with and perception of MPs and the Westminster Parliament, there has not been a collapse of trust in politicians or politics”.

38 “MPs’ expenses : Kitty Ussher’s resignation letter”, The Daily Telegraph, 17 June 2009.

39 Peter Riddell, 2010, op. cit., “It has been the reaction of many MPs to criticism [...] the refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the demands both for disclosure and reform. Even now, too many MPs are in denial, reluctant to see the need for change, not only on expenses but also on procedural reforms”.

40 Ben Leapman, “My four-year battle for the truth over MPs’ expenses”, The Daily Telegraph, 10 May 2009.

41 John Pilger, “Damn or fear it, the truth is that it’s an insurrection, The New Statesman, 18 August 2011.

42 Ed Miliband, “Full transcript, Ed Miliband, Speech on the riots, Haverstock School", The New Statesman, 15 August 2011.

43 The introduction of an annual salary can be partially explained by the creation of the Labour Party at the start of the twentieth century. The party encouraged the Liberal government to give a sum of money to enable MPs to do their job following a judgement in 1909 that had made the trade union levy to support Labour MPs illegal. There were concerns that some Labour MPs – who tended to be less rich than Liberal and Conservative MPs – would not be able to finance the expenditure incurred (travel and accommodation, etc.).

44 However, MPs are not paid as much as many other comparable professions, according to the BBC, “Recruitment firm Reed’s salary report for 2009 suggested the average salary for finance directors of financial services firms was £94,000, for pharmaceuticals firms £89,000 and for manufacturing firms £78,000", Finlo Rohrer, “Just what is a big salary ?", BBC website, 15 July 2009.

45 David Cameron, BBCRadio 4, 4 February 2008, “For many years, a culture grew up in Westminster where allowances were added because pay wasn’t increased - and I think what we need to do is unwind and change that culture”.

46 On 3 July 2008, the House of Commons agreed to a government motion that provided the mechanism for the settling of MPs pay to be independent of the House of Commons and the Government, so that, in future, members will not vote on their own pay (House of Commons Information Office 2009).

47 Robert Winnett and Gordon Rayner, op. cit., p. 33-34, “Successive governments had shied away from the idea of giving MPs a large pay rise to enable them to shoulder the expense of two homes, and so an alternative system was devised to allow them to claim the costs of their second home – including the interest on their mortgage – on expenses, in the same way Joe Public might claim a train fare or a lunch”.

48 Martin Bell, op. cit., p. 33, “Many regarded it as their due – a common argument that embezzlers make of themselves – since they were only making up in allowances what they had been denied in salary”.

49 Robert Winnett and Gordon Rayner, op. cit., p. 40.

50 Emma Griffiths, “Expenses details ‘intrude’ on MPs", BBC News website, 7 February 2008.

51 John Swaine and Heidi Blake, “Janet Anderson : former tourism minister is one of the most prolific expense claimers”, The Daily Telegraph, 13 January 2010.

52 Martin Bell, op. cit., p. 29.

53 Robert Winnett and Gordon Rayner, op. cit., p. 17.

54 Ibid., p. 43.

55 The Committee on Standards in Public Life is an advisory non-departmental public body of the government. Its original terms of reference were,to examine current concerns about standards of conduct of all holders of public office, including arrangements relating to financial and commercial activities, and make recommendations as to any changes in present arrangements which might be required to ensure the highest standards of propriety in public life”.

56 Committee on Standards in Public Life, First Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, 1995, London, HMSO, p. 14.

57 Martin Bell, op. cit., p. 29-30.

58 Ibid., p. 32-33.

59 Ibid., p. 30.

60 Ben Leapman, “My four-year battle for the truth over MPs’ expenses”, The Daily Telegraph, 10 May 2009.

61 Martin Bell, op. cit., p. 38.

62 Martin Bell, op. cit., p. 38, “The relationship between the MPs and their accountants was too close for comfort, including a degree of unwitting or unwilling complicity”.

63 Sir Philip Mawer, Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, evidence to the Kelly Commission, 29 June 2009.

64 John Swaine, “MPs’ expenses, Ben Chapman says he will quit over mortgage cash”, Daily Telegraph, 21 May 2009.

65 Martin Bell, op. cit., p. 74-75.

66 Ibid., p. 38.

67 Anthony Sampson, Who Runs this Place ? The Anatomy of Britain in the 21st century, London, John Murray, 2004, p. 8.

68 Peter Oborne, 2008, op. cit., p. 6.

69 Ibid., p. 62.

70 Anthony Sampson, op. cit., p. 10, “In the twenty-first century nearly all MPs are full-time politicians who have left their previous job. The old amateur ideal has almost vanished, and the level at which members’ ever growing salaries and expenses are set assumes that they have no alternative income”.

71 Peter Riddell, 2009, op. cit., p. 3.

72 Ibid., p. 28.

73 BBC news, “Cameron warns ‘jealousy’ MP Steen”, 22 May 2009.

74 Peter Oborne, 2008, op. cit., p. 63.

75 Robert Winnett and Gordon Rayner, op. cit., p. 16.

76 Martin Bell, op. cit., p. 12.

77 Ibid., p. 14.

78 Peter Oborne, 2008, op. cit., p. xix.

79 Tony Blair, Speech at the Campaign for Freedom of Information’s annual awards ceremony, 25 March 1996.

80 Robert Winnett and Gordon Rayner, op. cit., p. 219-220.

81 Tony Blair A Journey, London, Hutchison, 2010, p. 516.

Auteur

Université Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3
Maître de conférences à l’Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle - Paris 3 en civilisation britannique contemporaine et membre du Centre de recherches en civilisation britannique (CREC) et du Centre for Research on the English-speaking World (CREW) EA 4399, de l’Institut du Monde Anglophone à l’Université Sorbonne Nouvelle - Paris 3. Ses recherches portent principalement sur la jeunesse britannique (les politiques publiques de jeunesse, les jeunes et la politique, la culture des jeunes) et les institutions britanniques. Elle a publié notamment : Sarah Pickard, Civilisation Britannique-British Civilization (bilingue), Paris, Langues pour tous, (2003) 7e édition révisée, 2012.

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