10 years ago on the 8th May 2009, The Daily Telegraph started to break what would go on to simply be known as the Expenses Scandal. At the time it utterly devastated trust in the political class, whilst simultaneously confirming what we thought we'd known all along , that they were freeloading from the gravy train.
It was an awesome piece of investigative journalism from a paper whose opinions and slant on political events I don't generally have a lot of time for. The sort of journalism that has become a lot rarer in the digital age. Recently I can only think of the Guardian/wikileaks investigations and the NYT/Observer/Cadwalladr Brexit & Cambridge Analytica investigations that are of a similar significance politically in the UK.
The scandal hit all parties, and the bulk of the issues were around how the rules had been set-up to allow for expenses on a second home and how the designation of a second home could be flipped to an MP's advantage. There were other instances where expenses like council tax were over-claimed for, Ultimately the scandal led to a number of MP's and Peers being jailed for a variety of offences like False Accounting (under the Theft Act).
The most memorable and salacious claims generated the loudest complaints and stick in the memory today, and have become shorthand for MP's being out for themselves rather than us. Things like the floating duck house, the MP's husbands' porn film, the 8p car ride. But the scandal as a whole drove the UK to where we find ourselves now. It was the key driver that pushed an "anyone but politicians" attitude that has allowed the far right to infiltrate the mainstream and to game the brexit referendum.
In the immediate aftermath of the scandal there were moves to make the expenses system more transparent and less open to abuse, sunlight is the best disinfectant*. But as we get further from the scandal there have been moves to re-obscure the process. In 2018 MP's voted to allow those under investigation to remain anonymous, a vote which led to the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner publicly calling the vote a cover up and a retrograde step.
In addition to that the information leaked to the telegraph was being legally pursued under the Freedom of Information Act which has similarly come under pressure to allow exemptions and reducing the scope of information that is covered and the bodies that are accountable.
We can't rest on our laurels, we need to push on and take the fight further. We need full transparency in our entire political process and a further push to remove:
- Full transparency on party funding. Every donation and membership fee should be traceable back to the individual/organisation that made it. Organisations that donate need to follow exactly the same rules and be accountable for the money they raise to donate.
- Full transparency on lobbying. Every individual/organisation that lobbies an elected official needs to comply with same rules as above. It's no use restricting party funding and then let the anonymous donors of the ironically named Taxpayers Alliance secretly lobby government.
- Stop MP's paying staff out of expenses, start employing them properly through HoC. Full transparency over hiring of MP staff, no more nepotism.
- Much stricter rules on expenses and interests and real sanctions if they are not followed.
- Rules for Expenses/Interests to be decided and enforced by an independent watchdog - no more MP's deciding their own fate.
I guess, I want you to take three things from this:
- We'll miss papers when there isn't enough money in circulation and advertising for them to be able to large scale investigative journalistic pieces like this.
- We must not forget, and must hold politicians of all side to higher standard and expect them to have our, rather than their own interests at heart.
- The fight isn't over, there is so much more to do to increase the accountability of all of those who seek to represent us and to influence those who represent us.
* Sunlight isn't the best disinfectant, you'd need industrial scale UV light sources so don't just pop stuff out in the sun for a bit to hope it'll sterilise it.