|The expenses row may be the best thing for British democracy since 1832 [GALLO/GETTY]|
On May 8, 2009, The Daily Telegraph, a British newspaper, began publishing leaked copies of all permitted allowances and expenses claimed by the UK’s members of parliament (MPs).
The documents revealed widespread abuses of the system, with claims ranging from wigs to ornamental duck houses, and eventually led to hundreds of MPs being ordered to repay $1.7m in claims.
Four MPs have appeared in court over the matter and the reform of parliament’s procedures has been come a pivotal issue in the country’s upcoming general election.
A year ago next month I was sent to the British parliament to cover what was trailed as a “significant protest” against MPs and their expense claims.
In the bright sunshine of the afternoon, from a distance I got fairly excited by what looked to be a sizable turnout.
As we got closer it became clear that most of the people were tourists taking snapshots of the dozen protesters who had come out to have their voices heard.
They attempted a chant, but it died in the throat, and soon the sorry band of protesters wandered off in search of ice creams.
The highlight for me was the sight of three students wandering past carrying a large card bearing the legend “Our student fees pay for MPs’ expenses”.
I pointed out that, perhaps, what was needed was more time with the books and less time with the banners.
Despite the small gathering in London, there was, and continues to be, widespread anger across Britain against MPs and their expenses.
The row erupted in May last year when The Daily Telegraph, a British newspaper, published leaked details of thousands of claims ranging from the purchase of pornographic movies to the cleaning of a castle moat.
I, for one, never thought I’d ever get to use the phrase “fluffy duster” in a news piece.
Thousands of pounds were claimed for MPs’ second homes, despite the fact they were located near to parliament.
Politicians were eventually ordered to repay $1.7m in claims after an investigation into the scandal that tarnished the image of MPs and across the country.
Four MPs appeared in a London court last month, where they pleaded not guilty to charges of false accounting over their expenses.
Abroad, the attitudes of the UK’s neighbours to the scandal varied greatly.
Northern Europeans can’t quite believe what Britain’s politicians have been claiming for.
|Four MPs have pleaded not guilty to charges of false accounting over their expenses [EPA]|
There, the rules about what can be claimed are much clearer.
In some countries, apartments are provided for MPs who have to travel to the capital for parliamentary business.
One Danish politician told me “we feel a commitment to public service and our rules are clear, our expenses are published”.
Breaches aren’t forgiven easily. Mona Sahlin, the leader of Sweden’s main opposition party, had a bar of Toblerone chocolate thrown at her as she gave a Mayday speech.
She charged one against her expenses 10 years ago, and it appears it has never been forgotten or forgiven.
David Heathcoate-Amory, the British Conservative MP who charged bags of horse manure to the public purse, must be very worried.
In Italy, they can’t quite believe it either.
A friend of mine in Rome told me they work on the basis that politicians are in it for themselves and if they do some good for the country then that should be considered a bonus.
Remember this is a country where Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister, has managed to change the law to give him immunity from prosecution.
The British Parliament is often considered “The Mother of all Parliaments”. Systems and procedures used here have been adopted in many places all over the world.
|Michael Martin, the UK parliamentary speaker, quit over the expenses scandal [EPA]|
Yet there is a concern that we’re all partly to blame for this huge scandal.
In an age where contestants in reality shows can get more votes than any of the major parties can expect in European elections, there is a worry we’ve taken our eye off the ball.
There has been a lack of engagement in the political process.
I always cast a vote. I believe it was hard won, even harder maintained and I spend a lot of time in countries where people don’t have the chance to make their voice heard at the ballot box.
But fewer and fewer Britons seem to care enough to do the same. And that perhaps means we’ve ended up with the democracy we deserve.
Wake up call
There is an argument about whether the leaking of the information about expenses was illegal. It may have been, but it was clearly in the public interest.
Unsurprisingly, ahead of May 6, all three main parties have pledged to clean up their act.
The scandal has certainly informed the electorate greatly, energising people to take action and to ask questions of those seeking to represent them.
As the general election election approaches, the people of Britain will be much better informed.
There is a fear that it will make the public so disillusioned with the whole system they will stay away from the ballot box or cast a vote for extreme or traditionally less popular parties.
But, it is the hope of many here that the controversy will make more people turn out to vote rather than less.
The expenses row could be the best thing that has happened to democracy in the UK since the great reform Act of 1832.
Britain may once again get the politicians it deserves.