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Friday, 5 February 2010

5 February 2010

Let’s play a word association game. I give you the word “corruption” and then you give me the name of whichever country pops into your head first.

Ready? Go.

Afghanistan? Nigeria? Pakistan?

Britain?

Surely not. The home of the mother of parliaments? The Palace of Westminster, where all members of the lower house are honourable (or even right honourable) ladies and gentlemen, and where members of the upper house are all noble lords or noble ladies?

Corrupt? What can you be thinking?

Yes, I know, they’ve just been ordered to hand back £1 million which they, er, weren’t strictly entitled to. But as Sir Thomas Legg points out in his report, that’s £1 million from a total of £55.5 million that was paid out in expenses and allowances over the five-year period he examined.

So let’s keep all this in perspective, shall we? Even the MP who’s been ordered to pay the most – the local communities minister Barbara Follett (wife of multi-millionaire novelist Ken Follett) – owes only a bit over £42,000. Which, when you think about it, is only about a quarter of what the England football team captain John Terry earns every single week.

And while we’re on the subject of perspective, £1 million – divided among 392 MPs and former MPs, and then divided again over five years – well, it’s little more than small change, isn’t it, when you compare it to what our friends at Goldman Sachs got as their bonuses this year.

But back to corruption. According to the leading anti-corruption campaign organisation Transparency International, if you compare Britain’s corruption reputation with that of its European Union partners, it is regarded as worse than Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, Ireland, and Austria.

On the other hand, it’s said to be better than Belgium and France, much better than Spain and Portugal, and very much better than Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and sundry other east European countries.

So that’s all right then. No?

You could argue – indeed, MPs do argue – that they earn a very modest salary (£64,766 a year) to do a vital job. When they compare their salary with that of their friends and neighbours – lawyers, executives, quangocrats – they feel like paupers. (In fact, they’re in the top 5 per cent of UK wage-earners.)

So over the years, they’ve been doing what any half-way decent accountant would advise them to do – claim every penny they can get away with. Always, of course, staying within the rules, as they interpreted them. Which wasn’t too hard, as it happens, because the people paying out the cash were imbued, according to the Legg report, with a “culture of deference” to MPs.

Incidentally, I suspect you may have got a bit confused about Sir Thomas this and Sir Paul that while you’ve been trying to make sense of all the twists and turns. Let me make it easy for you:

Sir Thomas (Legg) is the former civil servant who was asked to review MPs’ expenses; don’t confuse him with Sir Christopher (Kelly), who’s the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Or with Sir Ian (Kennedy), who’s a lawyer and is now the chairman of a new thing called the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. Or Sir Paul (also Kennedy – isn’t this fun?), who’s a retired High Court judge and has been adjudicating on all the appeals against the repayment recommendations originally made by Sir Thomas (see above).

And if it makes you feel any better, Ben Page of the Ipsos-MORI polling organisation told us last night that back in August 1944, when British forces were battling Nazi Germany and the UK was run by a coalition government, only one-third of British voters thought that their political leaders were making decisions in the national interest.

So maybe it’s part of our national culture. We just don’t trust our politicians – never have, probably never will. What’s new is that politicians are now trusted even less than journalists.

I’d better stop.

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