A blog post by Evening Standard journalist Paul Waugh caught my eye, in which Brian Coleman, Conservative Assembly member for Barnet and Camden allegedly refuses to publish his expenses.

Much as I would want to avoid disagreeing with a fellow Conservative, some of his comments are astounding.  For a start the assertion that “Politicians with lower expenses tend to be the politicians who do least work. Those with higher expenses are the ones who do most work” is just plain wrong. Expense claims have nothing to do with work-rate, as a politician (lite) with no expenses I’m offended.

But the most telling comment of all is his belief that he shouldn’t have to hand over the details because “it’s none of the public’s business. They have coped well without knowing this kind of detail for more that 75 years. They are not entitled to drool over our personal lives.”

Perhaps we have managed without knowing before. And no, we aren’t entitled to drool over your personal life. But we are entitled to know how public money is being spent – and that’s what you are doing with your expenses.

No Conservative can believe they have the right to spend public money without public scrutiny. I don’t know what Brian Coleman’s expense claims are like, but I hope he comes to his senses and realises that we tax-payers have a right to know how our money is spent.

As someone who could be called a political blogger I should have an opinion on it.  Fact is, I don’t.  Not much of one, anyway.  But as a political blogger it is my right, if not my duty, to drag my tendentious non-opinions out for a few hundred words.

And my opinion is that it just doesn’t really matter.  Can you tell me how your life will change because he has gone?  Is it going to make any tangible difference that we are now counting down the days until he vacates the Speaker’s chair?  I don’t think it is.

A lot of MPs have been caught out on their expenses.  That fact hasn’t changed.

The Commons’ expenses system needs to be reformed.  That fact hasn’t changed.

The Speaker never made anyone clean their moat, or claim for payments on an already paid-off mortgage.  That fact hasn’t changed.

So while we can all talk about how this is a first step in restoring confidence in Parliament, or about the mistakes the Speaker did make, there are far wider issues here.  However you see the Speaker’s constitutional role it doesn’t include absolving individual Members for their misdeeds.  Yes, he might ultimately be responsible for the expenses system, but that doesn’t make him responsible for the claims.  I thought we had managed to move on from the ‘my claim was within the rules’ argument, but the Speaker falling on his sword just seems to reinforce that view.

The Speaker is but one man, the problems here are far bigger.  What we have seen – as we see so often in all walks of life – is the school-yard blame culture.  Something bad has happened, and someone must be to blame, and if we all point the finger in one direction, we might just get away with it.

While this might be the start of rebuilding public trust in Parliament, I’m not sure it’s the start of rebuilding my trust in Parliament, because instead of accepting a collective responsibility for all that has happened there seems to have been a collective decision to find a scapegoat.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Martin has been atrocious as Speaker.  From the day  he was appointed (when Labour failed to observe the convention of rotating the Speaker between parties) he has shown he really wasn’t up to the job and should have resigned three or four times over.  But to really move on Parliamentarians need to show some self-awareness, and you don’t do that by scalping the Speaker.

The whole expenses saga has me yearning for Dave Nellist. Nellist was a left-wing Labour MP, deselected by his party for the 1992 election for being too left-wing. One of his trademark policies was to only take the average wage of a worker in his constituency rather than the full MP’s salary.  As a Conservative there’s something unnatural about me liking him, but I believe in politics (too much of the national debate since the 90s hasn’t been about real politics, but about who would be better managers) so always admire conviction politicians, even – and perhaps especially – when I think their convictions are just daft.

At the time I felt his refusal of a full MP’s salary was a stupid idea, and I haven’t changed that opinion. The simple fact was that he was not an average worker in his constituency, he was their MP. Posturing is all well and good, but I’m guessing the average Coventry skilled worker didn’t have a second home in London. Despite that, you cannot deny that Nellist, by having to live on the same income and means as his constituents was probably fairly in touch with their concerns and problems. The very fact he limited his income gave him some idea of how they had to live their lives.

Now, the argument against all the interest in expenses is that it just really isn’t all that important, is it? And maybe we have all got worked up into a frenzy over nothing. To put it in perspective Peter Andre and Jordan are splitting up, and only last week a good chunk of Croydon was going to die from swine flu, both in their own way more important issues to some.  So why do we worry about expenses?

There’s an interesting interview with the normally sensible Stephen Fry on the Newsnight website, who points out that there are more important reasons to be annoyed with politicians, like the wars they get us into.  And he goes on to highlight that abusing expenses is a fairly old tradition.  Almost as proof, I recently got a receipt from a taxi driver where he’d inflated the journey cost without being asked.  He’d just assumed I’d be claiming for a few quid more than I paid (but instead gave me the opportunity to be pious on my blog, I only claimed for the actual cost – and hasten to add this was not from the council).

But expenses are important.  Can we really say that we want politicians we can trust with the big decisions – on education, the NHS, war – but that we can’t trust when it comes to their expenses?  If you take that view, then you’re essentially saying some corruption is OK.  Actually, what you then need to argue is where the line is drawn.  Looking at recent episodes it would seem using public money to redecorate second homes and escape Capital Gains tax on a subsequent sale (as several MPs seemed to do regularly) is OK, but employing a family member to do very little is totally unacceptable, as Derek Conway discovered to his cost.

And the biggest reason they are important is because politicians shouldn’t live in a totally different world to the rest of us.  The story that annoyed me most was Barbara Follett’s expenditure of £25,000 on private security patrols.  I’m very sorry that she was a victim of crime in London, but unfortunately she is far from alone – most people cannot afford private security patrols themselves and do not have an employer who will fund them.  It is bizarre that instead of using her position as an MP in the governing party to do something about crime or to help victims she decided she would use her position as an MP to help herself.

And this is where we could learn from Dave Nellist.  Being a Conservative it’s not natural to put myself in his shoes, but I have tried, and I can’t help but feel he wouldn’t think about getting private security, or silk cushions.  I rather imagine he’s used to budgeting so takes care with his toilet seats because he knows they aren’t free.  He knows that the people he represented don’t get their gardening done, moats dredged or food bills paid, he lives in the same world as them.

The common response from all the MPs named (except those claiming innocence) is that their claims were all within the rules.  I wasn’t me, guv, the system’s broken.  But do we honestly believe a broken system absolves them of their personal responsibility?  Each and every one of them submitted their claim, and each and every one of them should be able to justify it; we should, and must, hold our elected leaders to a higher standard.  They all go there to change things for the better.  If they can’t change things in their own House, what hope is there for the rest of the country?

I’ve tried to resist, I really have.  But I can’t help but post on Jacqui Smith submitting a claim for her husband’s porn.   But it’s just too good a story to let pass by.  And it isn’t just a case of taking the high moral ground, although I did oppose the government’s attempt to conceal MPs’ expenses.  Nor is it a case of believing that MPs’ should wear hair-shirts.

If anything, I’m a bit uncomfortable about the whole row because I think MPs are entitled to expenses for second homes.  What’s more, I have no problem with them using it for a bit of luxury.  If you are expecting most of them to divide their lives between two homes I do not see how they would be made more effective if one was a ‘home’ and the other the political equivalent of a monk’s cell.  People need a degree of comfort.

Where the line is drawn is a matter for debate.  What I might consider a perfectly acceptable comfort might be a luxury too far for someone else.  Indeed, I don’t think I’d object to a media package, why shouldn’t MPs be able to unwind with a bit of mindless TV or a movie?  But even having said that, paying for porn for the other half is surely a step too far.  What really gets me on this is that the Home Secretary submitted this claim nearly a year ago.  Only now it’s in the news has it become a problem.  But didn’t she check the claims made in her name?  Didn’t she spot the curiously titled items on her Virgin Media bill?

To me, the worst sin here is not a husband who likes porn when his wife is away, but the culture in which an MP can claim for anything they want without any sort of moral check.  Now it might be that Jacqui Smith doesn’t do her own expenses claims, and that would be even worse; you then have people in her office (and I know her husband is one of them) who don’t check the claims, or if they do, don’t feel they can challenge what is a blatant abuse of public money.  Whatever way you look at it the whole culture around MPs expenses in corrupt.

The whole episode of MPs’ expenses has been an interesting one, many will concentrate on the government’s reaction, which has been a typical Brownite dither, bottle it, try and blame the Tories.  What I think is more interesting, though, was the initial attitude.  Having passed the Freedom of Information Act, the government then decided it shouldn’t apply to MPs.

Initially I wasn’t a great fan of the Freedom of Information Act.  The great majority of applications that come through the council fall into five categories:

  1. Someone appealing against a parking ticket, asking for all the information they can get in the hope of supporting their appeal.
  2. Headhunters and recruitment consultants, looking for organisation charts, names and contact details to help them find and place candidates for jobs.
  3. Political researchers of all parties, who are compiling information for a current campaign or cause (and probably making the same request to every council)
  4. Journalists, hoping to find something embarrassing for a headline (again, probably making the same request to many councils)
  5. People genuinely seeking information, but not realising that looking around the council’s website or using Google would have found the information already published.

There are very few requests from members of the public for information they couldn’t get any other way.  This is because Wandsworth has always operated as openly as possibly, with the principle always being that unless there is a compelling reason information should be placed straight into the public domain.  The number of confidential papers seen by councillors is very small, and limited to those containing sensitive commercial or personal information.

On that basis we could probably have a great case for saying that Freedom of Information legislation should be changed, after all, why should the council tax payer be helping recruitment consultants who are already being paid by their clients.  Maybe we should be able to decide what is a ‘legitimate’ request, or decide the format in which we will provide the information so we can cut down on these requests.

But that would go totally against the the spirit of freedom of information.  Given that power, what would there be to stop us, or any public authority, picking and choosing the requests we answer, or the information we release.  It is a very very dangerous path when, as happened here, the government decides it doesn’t like the rules and that the best course of action isn’t compliance, but using Parliament to change the law.

The simple fact is that while the Freedom of Information Act is a pain a lot of the time, it does change behaviour.  Public bodies are more open to begin with knowing that private individuals have the power to see information even if they try and hide it.  It makes for an empowered public and better government; we let the state remove that right at our peril.

Everyone who joined the campaign, and especially MySociety who organised it, deserve congratulations in standing up against the government and Harriet Harman’s ridiculous proposals.

My expenses
It is only fair I reveal my expenses.  It’s fairly simple.  I haven’t claimed any – my total for the year is £0.00.

A councillor doesn’t get an allowance for a second home, nor does it buy any furniture, clean my windows or do my gardening and I’m expected to fund my own travel around the borough.

The nearest I get to expenses is being part of the council’s ‘Computers for Members’ scheme which provides IT related equipment to councillors to help them do their job.  I have a printer (I bought my own computer) and broadband access under the scheme and pay the council £12.35 a month for it.  Given that you can get broadband for free from a lot of places, and how cheap printers are, it’s probably not a great deal.