Thursday, 14 May 2009

LibDems have been unfairly treated by Telegraph

Alan Whitehead MP, the Labour MP for Southampton Test, has intelligently decided to release all of his rather sensible and mundane expense claims and receipts. (The Telegraph news desk won't be feeling they missed any scoops).

I still don't understand why many more MPs have done so, and why the House of Commons itself has not put out the information in whatever form is currently possible. Meanwhile, the Daily Telegraph surely ought to release the full documents about any MP once they have reported on them, as it is otherwise impossible for there to be fair scrutiny of both the MPs own behaviour and the allegations against them.

As tonight's Question Time looks like turning into a lynch mob, fuelling the public perception that "they are all at it", the question of the overall proportion of MPs involved in abuses or misdemeanours is entirely impossible to judge, as Ben Brogan of the Telegraph has acknowledged.

There has certainly been shocking egregious and extravagant behaviour - by the Hoggs, Morans, McKays and others - and there are valid causes for the disrepute into which the political system has fallen.

But there have also been unfair stories against several Conservative (including Gove), Labour (Brown, Bradshaw) and Liberal Democrat MPs (George, Reid), where the initial stories simply do not seem to stand up to scrutiny.

I think the LibDem party as a whole has a good claim to feel pretty aggrieved - if it is that the revelations in Wednesday's newspaper about 11 out of the party's 63 MPs are the worst of what is to be revealed about LibDem MPs.

My initial reaction was that the allegations against the party's MPs were fairly minor, with nothing in anything like the same league as the most egregious or extravagant claims - except for the story which they led on about Andrew George MP. Like most readers, I got the strong impression that he had in effect used his allowance to provide a student flat for his daughter, which seemed a pretty shocking case.

Yet, by setting out facts not offered in the report, Alix Mortimer makes a strong case that the paper owes the MP an apology, and similarly suggests that it is far from scandalous for Alan Reid to have stayed in B & Bs within his own constituency when the various islands of Argyll and Bute covers about one-twelfth of Scotland.

It might be that there is more to come out. But one of the difficulties Nick Clegg faces in a competition between leaders as to who can crackdown on errant MPs is that he - so far - has very minor misdemeanours (if that) to deal with.

I would highlight another LibDem MP who was unfairly treated: Chris Huhne.

Mr Huhne submits meticulous claims for office expenses, numbering his receipts and including a typed breakdown of what each one is for. His incidental expenses provision claims, which cover the running costs of his offices in London and in his constituency, include a single receipt for semi-skimmed milk (62p), and others for chocolate HobNobs (79p), tea bags (89p) and a bus ticket (£3.20). Among the items carefully crossed off on the receipts are a cheese muffin (99p), bacon flavour Wheat Crunchies (28p) and Ready Brek (£1.81).

That seems like pretty good practice.

Yet the headline was "Chris Huhne, a millionaire but you buy his chocolate HobNobs".

I simply can not see why Huhne's personal wealth has anything to do with it being out of order for him to have tea-bags and biscuits in his office. If every receipt is published, of course there will be many very small items involved.

That is typical of how the trivial has been mixed up with the important in this investigation.

1 comment:

Alex said...

I think Huhne's behaviour as recorded by the Telegraph not only exonerates him, but also rams home the point that the system is completely broken: not only does it allow people to overclaim within the letter of the law, it is a hindrance and annoyance for those who choose to stay within the spirit of the law.