I have just spoken at Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth on the issue of MP expenses. Here is what I said:
Most people don’t have an expense account, never have, never will. Those relatively few that do are used to proper checking and monitoring as a matter of course. I ran large teams at director level in both the public and private sectors, I used to stress to my teams that every taxi journey, every fancy meal, every overnight was made on the back of some poor person up a telegraph pole or down a hole, driving a truck or sitting for hours at a cash desk. Having an expense account is a real privilege – in the public sector or in the private sector. I also used to say to my staff that if I ever wanted to get rid of them, the first thing I would do would be to examine their expense claims. I meant it. We can now examine MP expense claims thank goodness. This motion rightly demands that if they are found to have committed wrong, they should face the full rigour of the law. But how can a law breaker be a law maker? In any normal job, they’d be out on their ear.
Yet the only way to get rid of an MP is to wait for an election – one law for MPs, one for anyone else. We have to have ways that a majority of voters – 51 percent - can recall their MP and force an immediate by-election. No-one challenges that MPs from distant constituencies need a second home. But it is different for outer London and commuter belt communities like St Albans. For most of my working life I have commuted to London. I do not see that the Palace of Westminster is any more difficult to reach from Hertfordshire than the City, Victoria or Knightsbridge (all places to which I commuted on a daily basis).
With the new more “family friendly” hours at Westminster, MPs often have shorter working hours than people who work in the City or have demanding managerial jobs. Working in the private sector I would frequently come home after midnight – when I would simply charge my employers for taxis from the station to home! I might very occasionally claim for overnight hotel accommodation. That’s how people in the real world behave. And I was quite clear and on the record long before this expense scandal broke that if I was elected as St Albans MP I would never dream of having a second home at taxpayer expense. That just seemed blindingly obvious - as it clearly did to all the LibDem outer London MPs and to David Howarth in Cambridge too – thay are all “saints” on the Telegraph list and we should be really proud of that.
Some politicians can be different. Others are all too predictable. My Conservative opponent followed her Labour predecessor in having a second home – but she had it in St Albans so she could stay in her main home in Beaconsfield. Various matters to do with her arrangements are currently being investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner for standards – watch this space. Her local party has tried to deselect her over the summer. She refuses to see she has done anything wrong. Beams and motes come to mind. There will come a time of judgment at the ballot box. But it’s not just the house at taxpayer’s expense, it’s the gravy train of the food allowance.
Mrs Main claimed £9,500 worth, three hundred pounds a month on average – at least until suddenly, miraculously the monthly claims stopped – that’s a crash diet if ever there was one. You know, I know, normal people pay for their own meals at home and at least one at work unless they are travelling away from work on their business. On the doorstep I have met so many people, often elderly and living in modest circumstances, who are simply enraged – it’s often more than they have to live on and yet it’s just supposed to be the extra cost of food from having a second home. £9,500 worth of shopping trolleys – what an image. Or try filling one with three hundred pounds worth of food, and then talk to shoppers at Sainsbury or Tesco about it. It’s far more powerful than moat-cleaning or duck-houses.
It’s a picture of greed and filling of boots which will live with electors for a very long time. The damage to politics is immense. We are all caught up in the tsunami, innocent or guilty. Greg Dyke yesterday described this as a Berlin Wall moment when a seemingly impregnable structure is shown to be rotten to the core and comes tumbling down We cannot over-estimate the level of rage and disilluson among the public. This motion is a necessary beginning but it is only the beginning and it will take years to put right.