Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Stupid rules, stupidly enforced

Some years ago, I wrote a spoof news story about a professor of moral calculus discovering that two wrongs do in fact make a right. This finding has clearly informed Sir Thomas Legg’s decision to invent some precise numerical rules on MPs’ expenses and to apply them retrospectively.

A section of Legg’s explanation is headed: “The need to determine what the rules were”. By ‘determine’, he means stipulate as much as discover.

He says that, when it comes to secondary (i.e. non-accommodation) expenses, “some limits must be regarded as having been in place to prevent disproportionate and unnecessary expenditure from the public purse”. This decree assumes that, by definition, the previously existing rules must in fact have contained specific limits on certain types of spending, even though such numbers were never in any way stated.

Given this, Legg has had “to establish the limits which must be taken… to have been in place at the time”. By ‘establish’ he means conduct some unspecified procedure and then state that second-home cleaning costs of up to £2,000 a year and gardening costs of up to £1,000 a year were fine, but no more.

Following this moment of clarity, he has been able to tell lots of MPs that they did in fact claim more than his imaginary rules allowed and should pay it back. They, having screwed us over, are now screwed over in turn, and the moral balance of the universe is restored.

Back in the real world, it’s obvious that the expenses rules (behind which many idiot MPs had tried to hide) were shoddily drafted, arrogantly manipulated and indulgently applied. But it just adds to the fiasco for Legg to come along and confabulate what he reckons the rules probably ought to have been if only they’d been different.

The party leaders, fearful of a lynch mob, have rushed to insist that their MPs pay back these arbitrary sums in the desperate hope of buying a couple of points on their poll ratings.

I have no sympathy for the well-off MPs who have been milking the system “within the rules”, but this whole mess does tell us something about our political culture: standards of due process will be torn to shreds when it comes to deeply unpopular people. If politicians see the public and the media angrily demanding severe punishment for such a group, then they will do whatever it takes to make those people suffer.

In this case, they themselves are the bogeymen. So how would they treat poorer, weaker groups with no political clout? (Ask an asylum seeker...)

This isn’t justice; it’s vengeance. And hardly anybody seems to care about the difference.


Liam Murray said...

I agree with most of this but still have an issue with the way this story is playing out.

My understanding (which could be flawed) is that the fees office had no authority to make any meaningful judgement on MPs claims - the rules, such as they were, meant negligible scrutiny and most claims were 'nodded' through provided they cleared some relatively low admin standard. That's the context MPs are citing now when they refer to claims being 'within the rules at the time'.

So, the implication in that last sentence that everyone thought this was reasonable at the time and have now simply changed their minds is flawed; no judgement WAS made under those rules and it IS being made now, by definition that can only be retrospective.

Tom Freeman said...

I guess there's a view that the Legg letters are basically the (very late) equivalent of the fees office saying 'you claimed for this but it was too much, so refund it'. But the thing is that this goes back for several years. MPs were being given the impression that claiming such-and-such was fine and dandy, and they will have based their spending each year on their experience of what had been accepted previously.

Under an innocent-until-proven-guilty approach, they were entitled to assume that a lack of negative judgement equated to positive permission. The FO did, after all, refuse or reduce many requests.

Although the MPs were responsible for this useless system, so I'm not rushing to give them a clean bill of health.

And of course in terms of realpolitik, they just have to grovel and accept all the flagellation that anyone wants to throw at them, and hope that we'll hate them a bit less for it...

Liam Murray said...

I'm also uneasy about this 'MPs were given the idea that claiming these things was OK' - reeks of the excuses adolescents offer up when they refuse to 'walk away' from something they later claim to be troubled by.

I understand Widdecombe's point about how wrong this would be if any other employer was doing it but I just think - MPs aren't normal employees and Parliament isn't a normal place of work. Even if they were being actively encouraged by whips and operated entirely in the rules if they didn't have the courage or grace to forego getting the taxpayer to pay for their duckhouse, cleaner or Sky TV then they deserve most of what they're getting at the moment....

CS Clark said...

I agree that it's turning into an exercise in macho hairshirt waving, and may lack a sense of justice, but what employers allow the employees to make their own rules regarding expenses, only exercising comment on the rules by firing them? This is like excusing your conduct by claiming you were only obeying your own orders.

And if there are MPs who are upset by being told what to pay back by a mere unelected official, surely they shouldn't have been taking as gospel the judgements of civil servants in the first place.

Tom Freeman said...

I pretty much agree with that - OK, so technically democratic control of these things is important, but when it comes to them deciding their own standards of conduct then you do need some sort of external check.

I think that, regardless of Legg (whose recommendations aren't legally binding - so all this talk of legal challenges is just bluster), each MP should repay as much as they feel they ought, justify what they feel they can, and then take their chances with their party rules and their voters.

In practice I think that even without threats of deselection from the leaderships, it'd be near impossible for any MP to defy Legg and survive. The man is treating them unfairly, but for them to say so after they've been taking the piss for so long is a doomed tactic.

I very much liked Donald Hirsch's piece on what's regarded as a reasonable expense in normal-land.