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MPs' expenses greed is shocking but we need to get over it

It is clear from the leaked information on the expense claims of ministers in the Daily Telegraph this morning that MPs are in for several weeks of constant, almost humiliating scrutiny of their financial affairs. It is hard to have much sympathy for them because almost any sane reasonable person can see that even these claims, which were apparently within the threadbare rules, go far beyond anything that can be justified by reference to normal practice elsewhere in the public or private sector. There was a real conspiracy at Westminster to keep quiet about the inadequacies of the system so that many (how many will be come clear over the coming days) could rape the system for all it was worth.
Clearly, these people did not enjoy the benefit of the advice I all too frequently received from my headmaster: 'Beware your sins will find you out'. Well, those sins are finding them out big time right now.
It is hard to keep a sense of perspective about this sorry mess: every revelation raises the blood pressure and further lowers the standing of politicians in the eyes of the people they represent. This was already at a low ebb having sunk to the stage where alarmingly high numbers of people are disengaging from the democratic processes: this matters, it really matters. In the toughest economic times for three generations we need a government that can take the (right) tough decisions and in doing so inspire respect so that everybody understands the need to work together to steer through the crisis. We are a very long way from having that sense of leadership and common purpose. We are almost looking at the nightmare of the sort of political vacuum in which extremism can flourish.
One example of the consequences: there has rightly been alot of criticism of many senior bankers for making sure they looked after themselves with excessive bonuses while leaving their institutions and the financial system of which they are a key element hit the rocks. But who is going to hold them to account? It certainly isn't going to be MPs in this Parliament because they are now stripped bare of any collective moral authority to criticise anyone for selfish greed. Maybe a few will be shown to have resisted the temptation to exploit the system and they might come to the fore. If so, we have to hope that they are among the more articulate and well informed breed of politician. But, collectively, they have thrown away any authority on this issue, just one of many.
In the meantime, we will all have to look to the press, with all its flaws and partisanship, to hold banks and politicians to account. Many journalists' expenses claims would occasionally raise a few eyebrows - I do remember trying to explain to my then boss that a helicopter from Nice airport to Monte Carlo was really a cost-effective and efficient way to travel once but at least I had to explain it to someone - but the harsh public scrutiny that the Parliamentary expenses and bankers' bonuses are being subject to by the press is the best chance we have of stopping such abuses.
As I said at the beginning, we need to keep a sense of perspective and mustn't let this turn into some form of mob rule and wild witchunt akin to Chelsea fans and their death threats to referees everytime they lose a high profile European match. We must seek to hold them to account while at the same time allowing both MPs and the bankers to develop better, fairer systems of remuneration because we need good people in both jobs.
There is a danger in this row about expenses and the huge public pressure for reform that we end up with a system that takes us back into the last century when only the wealthy or those with steady second incomes could afford to be MPs. It is an expensive business representing constituencies a long way outside London, especially if they are rural, and we need to ensure that people are properly supported to do this or we will end up with an even more unrepresentative Parliament.
There is a degree of urgency about this but not so much so that we need the Prime Minister to think up a scheme over breakfast again and rush onto You Tube. It needs to be thought through and we should leave it to the inquiry under Sir Christopher Kelly that has already been set up. That has promised to report during the summer and that is a tight enough timetable for such an important issue.
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