MPs expenses: why saying that it's in the rules isn't enough

MPs expenses: why saying that it's in the rules isn't enough

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, November 23 2012

No issue has proved more toxic for politicians in recent years than the scandal of their expenses.

Rightly, the disclosures of how the system was being widely abused led to much-needed reforms in an effort to "clean up" politics and restore public faith in our elected representatives.

But the issue is back centre-stage and one of the county's MPs is at the middle of the latest maelstrom.

Maidstone and Weald MP Helen Grant has been left to fend off criticisms of her own arrangements that have left many not just perplexed but deeply irritated.

Let's be clear. Helen Grant's expenses are within the IPSA rules, odd though they may strike many. But that is precisely what causes resentment and prompts cynicism among voters.

As MPs discovered to their cost first time around, that kind of  justification does not wash with the public and is even more tenuous if it appears their claims are regarded as being outside the spirit of the rules.

MP Grant caught up in expenses row>>>

To hear the same 'yes-but-it-is-in-the-rules' justification trotted out after the latest set of revelations involving not just Ms Grant but others suggests that particular lesson has not yet been learned.

And it is even less credible at a time when MPs are - rightly - incandescent about the very same justification that large corporations are using to account for their evasion of corporate tax bills in the UK.

There are several aspects to the situation that Helen Grant is in that make it especially damaging.

The first is that her principal home is in a constituency - Reigate - where the sitting MP is disqualified from claiming a second home allowance because it is deemed to be near enough to Westminster for an MP to commute to.

On top of that, it has struck many as strange that she herself no longer has a home in her own constituency, especially in the light of her pre-election declaration that she intended to maintain one.

Constituents are very sensitive - some may say too sensitive - about this sort of thing. 

While they may tolerate their MP living just outside their constituency, they are reluctant to countenance the idea that their MP should live in an entirely different county miles away. It has not helped that the disclosures follow the news that the Maidstone MP is considering closing her constituency office.

It has allowed the impression to be created - and it is one vigourously denied - that the MP is neglecting her constituency.

Equally pernicious is that a large number of her constituents have to endure a daily commute to London to work and pay heavily for the privilege.

To discover that their MP is able to claim for a flat in London to help her with her duties, and that they are, as taxpayers meeting those costs, has unsurprisingly stirred up further resentment.

Plenty of those commuting from the County Town do jobs that involve irregular and unpredictable hours and late-night travel and have to do so because they have no alternative - much as they might like to have one.

And the claim that MPs are often detained at Westminster by late night sittings is over-egged. True, they sometimes do but much less than they used to because of reforms designed to make their working hours more sensible.

I accept that MPs do work long hours and are genuinely committed to the job. So, too, do people in many other professions.

The issue is that perceptions matter in politics. MPs cannot afford to be seen to be out of touch with voters. And rightly or wrongly, this episode has created a perception problem for Mrs Grant for all sorts of reasons.

She has certainly forfeited some goodwill among her hard-pressed constituents that may take a while to recover.

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Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis

News, views, gossip and analysis on Kent's political scene, from County Hall to Westminster.

Welcome to my blog. As KM Group's political editor, I keep an eye on the county's corridors of power.

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