BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND -- On my last visit to the UK three months ago, Members of Parliament were embroiled in a scandal involving outrageous expense claims for such things as moat cleaning, a baby crib and second homes that were sometimes occupied by friends and relatives, or not at all.
For the first time since 1695, a speaker of the House of Commons was forced to resign and Prime Minister Gordon Brown (who also had questionable expenses) saw several of his ministers quit. Brown and Tory leader David Cameron, whose Conservatives were also caught up in the scandal, though to a far lesser extent because they were mostly out of power, pledged to clean up the system. Instead, the just announced "clean up" makes the former expenses system look good -- or at least better -- a seemingly impossible feat.
Ignoring a nationwide outcry against politicians engaged in the expenses scandal, the Daily Telegraph reports that a small committee of MPs charged with reforming the system and restoring public trust, have introduced new rules that allow members to claim twice as much in expenses (up to 9,125 pounds, or a little more than $15,000US) as they had previously. And they don't have to provide receipts. Try getting away with that at your job.
The Daily Telegraph, which broke the initial expenses story, says the new rules were published on a Parliamentary Web page with no public debate and no announcement before members slipped out of town for their long summer holiday.
The new speaker, John Bercow, had campaigned to replace the former speaker, Michael Martin, by promising to reform "the system of Parliamentary expenses." And yet Bercow was on the committee that produced this new and more outrageous system.
What is it about politicians? Do they suffer from a genetic fault that produces such arrogance for the public and ignorance about who they are supposed to serve? So far, no one has had the gall to blame this monumental lapse of judgment on the swine flu epidemic that has gripped Britain, but give them time.
Under the new rules, which are actually not rules at all, MPs have total discretion concerning how the money is spent and they are not accountable to any Parliamentary body, much less the public.
Under the new system, as the Telegraph states, MPs Ann and Alan Keen, who are married, could claim the maximum expense amount per year on top of the generous expenses they are paid for mortgage interest, the local council tax and utility bills, not to mention a large housing allowance of 24,000 pounds (nearly $40,000US), which is a slight increase over last year. No wonder people want to become politicians. With deals like this, why would they mind raising taxes when the public not only has to pay its share, but part of a politician's share as well?
In a major understatement, the Daily Telegraph says, "The fact that such a substantial amount has been agreed by MPs without public debate is certain to anger voters further." Ya think? But these people apparently don't give a fig for what the public thinks or they would have reformed both themselves and the outrageous expenses system, which has angered the public and led to a sharp decline in public approval not only for Labour, but also for politicians in general. Maybe Shakespeare should have written that after "kill(ing) all the lawyers," someone should term-limit the politicians. "Stop them before they expense again!" would be a good rallying cry.
Following last spring's outing of MPs gone wild, Gordon Brown spoke of how "essential" it was to restore public confidence in government. Clearly, this latest fiasco will send what's left of that confidence into the loo.
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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