Comment: Fresh expenses scandal tarnishes politics

The expenses scandals that have engulfed Westminster continue to cast a shadow over politics in Britain. Picture: PA
The expenses scandals that have engulfed Westminster continue to cast a shadow over politics in Britain. Picture: PA
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A WINTER chill will have settled on the MacShane household as the disgraced former Labour MP and minister was sentenced to six months in prison, to serve a minimum of three months, for fiddling his expenses.

This sad little late chapter in the expenses scandal which engulfed the political world in 2009 shows that it still casts a shadow over our political elite in Westminster.

MacShane wrote invoices to himself totalling £12,900, but he is just the latest of several MPs including former Livingston MP Jim Devine to be locked up for his misdemeanours. Given the enormity of the scandal at the time, many might be surprised that only five MPs have been put behind lock and key.

In the last week we have also seen two peers – Lord Laird and Lord Mackenzie – suspended from the House of Lords for four and six months, respectively, for offering to use their parliamentary privilege for money. Amazingly, Lord Mackenzie expects to return after his term and resume his role as normal, which perhaps shows the lack of self-awareness within Westminster.

Many MPs genuinely felt that, with the phone hacking scandal dogging the press and court trials of former journalists, the focus had moved away from their expenses, which are now largely under control. They claim that the expenses scandal is no longer an issue on the doorsteps. MacShane’s disgrace should prove them wrong.

One of the problems for the political elite is that their behaviour poisons the public view of all politicians – from councillors to MSPs, MPs and ministers – whether the institutions, people and parties are honest or not. The general image is that politicians are simply on the take, even though in the UK we have nobody like a Berlusconi figure.

The issue extends to party funding, which is still unreformed, and despite expressions of good intent by all the party leaders has not seriously changed. David Cameron has his wealthy business donors for dinners at Downing Street, and nobody really believes that the Labour reforms on union funding will actually happen.

It also raises another question for 2014 over what to do with the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) which is the body that decides MPs’ pay and expenses so they have no control of it themselves. This is all good in principle, but its reputation has been damaged by its proposal to give MPs an 11 per cent pay rise in 2015. This has led to party leaders actively considering abolishing Ipsa for being too generous at a time of austerity.

The last Prime Minister’s Questions of the season became a contest over who was the biggest Christmas turkey on the front benches. The truth is that while the political class continues to behave in a way that plays into the image that they are not to be trusted, then Westminster will still be seen as little more than a production line of festive birds for whom the public would gladly vote for an early Christmas.