Hamish Macdonell: True cost of expenses row may be public service
IT IS 11 November, the clock strikes 11 and the nation falls silent. Dignitaries, civic and military, pause for two minutes all over the country and then step forward to lay commemorative wreaths at war memorials. It is solemn, it is respectful and it is official.
It is official, that is the key. As MSPs from a selection of parties get castigated for claiming back from the taxpayer the cost of the wreaths they laid at the memorials last year, that is the word we should remember.
For an MSP, the role of laying a wreath is part of his or her official duties. All MSPs take the responsibility seriously and some lay three, four, maybe half-a-dozen wreaths every year at memorials around the area they represent – and these are official Scottish Parliament wreaths too, not something the MSP has picked up at a stall somewhere.
Labour MSP Helen Eadie claimed 170 for wreaths she laid at various war memorials around her Dunfermline East constituency last year. With the wreaths costing about 20 each, that represents quite a few ceremonies and quite a lot of official duties, respectfully carried out.
Yet Ms Eadie and 14 of her MSP colleagues have been hounded into repaying the money they claimed for those wreaths. This is perverse. Ms Eadie, and her parliamentary colleagues should not be "shamed" into repaying the money. She should be applauded for her diligence in taking her responsibilities so seriously by taking part in so many official commemorations around her constituency.
Laying a wreath at a war memorial on Remembrance Day is something we ask MSPs to do on our behalf. This is not a matter of personal choice, like buying a poppy, and the moment we as a society start telling MSPs they have to pay for this sort of expenditure out of their own pockets we will have lost sight of what public service is all about.
There is a world of difference between MSPs claiming back the cost of wreaths used in official events and Labour MP Frank Cook claiming back the 5 donation he made to charity. The first is not only legitimate but also entirely reasonable, the second is inexcusable.
Mr Cook was suitably embarrassed over the weekend when details emerged of the claim for 5, which was made on his behalf. He understood, rightly, that such a claim not only looked appalling, but also was appalling.
Anybody, including an MP, can make a donation to charity at any time. It should be private, individual and personal. That is not the case with the official duty of laying wreaths.
But, by bracketing the 15 wreath-laying MSPs and Mr Cook together and lambasting them all, we are in danger of missing the whole point of this expenses scandal. We have to be able to identify those who have really done wrong, morally and financially, otherwise there is a danger of missing the target completely.
The real worry is that, with the feeding frenzy now at its most zealous, and the claims of every MSP and MP being scoured to find the slightest whiff of sleaze, the focus has shifted away from those who deserve it and on to those who do not.
Moreover, the damage being done to British democracy, to the body politic and to public life in general is so great that it is more important than ever to ask whether the target is legitimate before letting fire with public outrage.
The rules should be simple and straightforward, for MSPs and MPs. Anything which is done for an official, parliamentary, reason should be allowed and anything that is not, should not.
Our representatives have to have constituency offices and if they want to claim back the cost of toilet rolls and pints of milk to run those offices, then so be it. However, if they want to take a taxi to the parliament from Waverley station when they arrive in Edinburgh each morning, then they should pay for it themselves – in the same way as every other member of public does when they go to work.
Shadow Scottish secretary David Mundell has been ensnared in the expenses row and is mentioned in the same breath as Elliot Morley. Mr Morley claimed 16,800 for interest on a mortgage he had already paid off. Mr Mundell spent 65 a month on photographers and software so he could post pictures of himself around his constituency on his website. Mr Mundell's claim undoubtedly reveals a little more vanity than perhaps he would care to admit to and a worrying lack of judgment, but he doesn't come close to Mr Morley's offences.
But by bringing so many cases from the greyer edges of this issue into the scandal, the whole picture becomes confused.
It is the same with MSPs and their wreaths. The level of public anger is so fevered at the moment that no elected representative can be seen to be doing anything which, on the surface, looks even slightly like it might be inappropriate. In any normal time, the MSPs would have had the courage to defend their right to claim back wreaths used in official events. However, these are anything but normal times. Once the mob starts forming, thundering at the doors of an MSP or an MP, it is very difficult for any of them to stand up against it.
The Scottish Parliament has the most transparent expenses system in the world. Anybody anywhere can check online to find out what any MSP has claimed for, yet this furore over the wreaths has made it appear as if they too have been on the take, lowering them into the same trough of opprobrium as their Westminster colleagues.
We desperately need to get a sense of perspective here. As a taxpayer, I am delighted to fund the wreaths laid by my MSPs at war memorials on Remembrance Day. The more they lay, the better. What I will not do, however, is willingly cover the costs of lining Mr Morley's pocket or covering Mr Cook's charitable donations.
There is a difference. Not all MPs and MSPs are guilty of taking all they can get and the sooner we realise that the quicker we can concentrate on those who really deserve our wrath.
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