I was called yesterday evening by a reporter seeking my views on yet another story about a Member of Parliament and their expenses. I spoke for a few minutes, but mindful that I am never quoted in full I have decided to elaborate a little here.
I can recall canvassing session right through the expenses scandal in the long run-in to the last General Election. I recall one conversation with a Benfleet resident where I was accused of being a liar and a cheat immediately after I had announced who I was. Liars, cheats, greedy bastards – I have been lumped in with them all. I am also told that I am only in politics for what I can get for myself, that I will promise one thing and do another.
Now, I am far from perfect but am invariably taken aback when called a liar and a cheat by someone whose familiarity with me can be counted in seconds.
Sometimes the conversation moves onto friendlier climes, sometimes no matter how much I protest I cannot convince that my motives are honourable. Somehow the idea of a political class mostly populated by scoundrels has become fixed in some people’s minds. And this is why I get upset with another tale of ill-advised expenses claims.
Politicians must be able to claim expenses, and these expenses should be provable as being incurred whilst doing the job, and be backed up by receipts. I cannot imagine anyone arguing with that. The problem is, no system is fool-proof, and anyone determined enough will be able to benefit when benefit should not be sought.
I live closer to London (and therefore Parliament) than does the MP for Rochford and Southend East, and if I am lucky enough to succeed next May I will almost certainly have some overnight stays in London. However, I will be using cheap hotels, and not using the MP expenses system to acquire a property portfolio. As Matt Dent has pointed out, James Duddridge takes delight in punishing those on benefits, helping to introduce the odious concept of under-occupancy (a per pro the bedroom tax), and yet cannot help but use the expenses rules to enrich himself (expenses which, like housing benefit etc., are ultimately paid for by the tax-payer). I profoundly disagree with Duddridge over the bedroom tax, but would at least respect his position if he was consistent in his objections to taxes being used to provide properties larger than what is really required. If one of my terminally ill residents has one bedroom too many, then owning three homes and still claiming for rent on another is surely wrong.
I do not doubt that this will be mentioned when I next venture onto doorsteps – how can it not be? I care little for Mr Duddridge’s personal reputation, but I care a lot about the reputation of politicians in general. I have even defended Conservative politicians on the doorstep, because despite Duddridge (and Hanningfield) I still believe that most are in this game for the right reasons (even if they are misguided). I want Ian Gilbert to beat Duddridge because he will be a better MP for Rochford and Southend East, because he wants to look after the vulnerable, build more social housing, and do something about the cost of living crisis. He should not be chosen just because he is less greedy. Politics should be about the battle of ideas, not an arena for self-enrichment.
Tony Blair put it thus: “Some may belittle politics but we know, who are engaged in it that it is where people stand tall. And although I know it has its many harsh contentions it is still the arena that sets the heart beating a little faster. And if it is on occasions the place of low skulduggery it is more often the place for the pursuit of noble causes”. At least, this is how it should be.
“Crisis, what crisis” I can imagine the hapless Duddridge saying, because he is clearly not in it with the rest of us. I hope, though, that he realises that he has made the job for the rest of us a little bit harder.
As for the greedy bastard in the title of this post, well it must be me because I am a politician.