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Expensive errors

If the recent fiasco regarding parliamentary expenses had been depicted in a comedy show (Monty Python?) it would probably have been regarded as too farcical and unrealistic to be particularly funny. There is a Hot Chocolate song the first line of which is "It started with a kiss". This particular unravelling of parliamentary expenses on all sides should properly be entitled "It started with a receipt for a pornographic film". It was the issue regarding the Home Secretary including expenses claims for her husband's viewing pornographic films which started this particular ball rolling (and whilst many eyebrows have been raised about the truthfulness of various claims by MPs that they were in error in making certain claims, I think by common consent everyone would agree that it is most unlikely that the Home Secretary realised that she was claiming for viewing of pornographic films by her husband). Soon however attention went to exactly how and in what circumstances the claim had been made for her "second home" expenses with many being utterly astonished at the range of things which were claimed for (down to a bath plug). That then led to the press digging further and led to a whole host of expenses claims by other politicians coming to light. Whether those expenses claims were within the rules or not (and some of them plainly were not) the impression given is that politicians generally have just had their snouts in the trough.

Many years ago, when a young barrister, I served one term as a local councillor. One year one of the local newspapers published expenses claimed that year by councillors. There was never any suggestion that any of the claims were improper, and if I still had the list then by present standards they would probably look ludicrously modest on all sides, but I soon discovered that the question of expenses touched a chord with the public when I received a complaint about expenses I had claimed. This was ironic because I had not claimed any expenses. However in the press report on expenses, instead of putting my name and "nil" against it, my name had been omitted. In some quarters this had led to the suspicion that there must be something so damning about my expenses claim that, being a lawyer, I had succeeded in having it suppressed (defamation action? I know not.).

The point about expenses claims is that they stir up strong emotions. These emotions are not always entirely logical. In the days when I was a councillor the councillors from all parties on the whole put in a considerable amount of work (some more than others) and the amount they were receiving (given that they only received essentially expenses and attendance allowance rather than any sort of salary) was even more modest having regard to the hours they put in. Notwithstanding the modest nature of the expenses claims, the public got very excited about it. If MPs were paid higher salaries and had no entitlement to claim expenses then even if the amounts received were the same as those with the expenses claims those figures would probably not give rise to any issue. (I am not suggesting for a moment that this would in any event justify incorrect claims). However the public feel with the expenses claims that the politicians are essentially profiting at their expense. It is not about the money, it is about the way they go about things. Had this story emerged at another time then there would have been a furore but nothing like this one. The story emerging during the credit crunch, when many people are struggling, has given it much greater impetus. The popular view was probably best summed up by the brilliant cartoonist Matt from the Telegraph, who pictured a man speaking to a shopping laden woman and saying words to the effect of "I'm only a premiership footballer and you are spending money as if I was an MP". (If you would enjoy seeing the funny side of this crisis then you can see his sequence of cartoons here).

The consequences of this fiasco will however spread far beyond politicians and I fear will affect the law. The public have now got the impression that "something is rotten in the state of Denmark". Respect for high office and our institutions is likely to be much diminished. The law and the legal profession, albeit not implicated in these events, is likely also to have to deal with an erosion of public confidence.

What is needed is for MPs who have arguably committed criminal offences to be dealt with in the same way as anyone else. I mean in the same way. It is just as undesirable for some "sacrificial victim" to be offered up for trial to appease the public as it is to brush the whole scandal under the carpet. As so often, justice must not only be done but be seen to be done. If potential offences committed by MPs are considered exactly as would those committed by anyone else (and I am talking about where criminal offences appear to have been committed, not merely erroneous claims or excessive claims) and dealt with accordingly, then not only may the damage to public confidence in politics be mended to some extent, but we are likely to avoid any suggestion that the legal system is in some way institutionally flawed as well.

Michael J. Booth QC