Expenses Row. Why did no-one act earlier?
I have been watching the slow car crash that is unfolding before us that is the expenses scandal.
As MP after MP finds the grubby details of their domestic shopping and furnishing habits splashed across out national and local newspapers they trot out the same lame excuse 'it was a rotten system'.
Well it wasn't as if they didn't have plenty of opportunity to change things. Some of us have been telling them it's rotten since 2002.
After the rules were radically overhauled (read that as 'made much more generous') by the newly re-elected chamber in July 2001 my then MP Michael Trend came to see me. I was, at that time, the Chairman of his local Conservative Association in Windsor. He wanted to discuss using the new allowances to improve the constituency operation which, at that time, was run entirely on donated and privately raised funds, about £500 per month of which came from the MP himself towards the costs of work done by our staff on his non-political constituency business. Using what he told us was a new office costs allowance Micheal said we could enjoy the benefit of having another full-time secretary on site, £12,000 towards the costs of the office premisis and a new computer system all on the taxpayer.
However it quickly transpired that he intended the new secretary to be his wife, a proposal which was immediately vetoed by all of us on the management committee, because we felt it could create intolerable pressures if there was ever trouble between the MP's wife and our long-serving agent Jackie Porter and also because it was a practice we all found unacceptable .
This led to a deeper curiosity about how the new rules worked, we were frankly curious about some of the claims Mr Trend was making for the new system and noted that the Government payments would replace the voluntary donations he traditionally made from his own resources. In short, we smelled a rat.
Weeks of wrangling went by as we tried and tried to get legal clarification as to what the rules were - and to be honest we never did. The green book, any record of expenses and the rules were all still completely secret to non-parliamentarians at that time and we were invited merely to accept the advice of hour Honorable Member, whom we suspected had a hidden agenda. Every time we raised questions about how lax the system appeared to be we were fobbed off or even more often told it was basically none of our business.
Two things then happened which broke our trust. One, we were told that the MP had been employing his wife ever since the new rules had come in and two, we found out that he was trying to force his long-serving veteran Parliamentary Secretary to retire from her job, which she did not want to do.
This was in August, the very month when I was in the process of being selected for the job of PPC here in Torbay. Although none of us imagined I would be selected for the first and only seat I had ever applied for we did agree that if I was, I would hand over the chairmanship to my deputy David Hilton and he then took the reins in September.
As some people may remember within weeks of this details were leaked to the Mail on Sunday of Mr Trend claiming for a second home when in fact he lived and commuted from his house in Windsor.
There was an emergency executive, at which I urged members to take a hard line. The Conservative Party was still only five years on from the sleaze of cash for questions and this scandal would, in my view, have gifted the seat to the Liberal Democrats if Mr Trend were allowed to contest the seat in 2005. Others agreed and when the mood of the local party became clear the MP voluntarily agreed to stand down.
His defence was 'but everyone does it' - and not one of the people in that committee room believed him. How wrong we were!
From that point on I have been a vociferous, public and frequent critic of the whole expenses and allowances regime at Westminster. Every time a scandal has been uncovered, about MP's employing their wives, about MP's claiming for non existant homes, about MP's using our money to fund luxury lifestyles I have warned that the system needs changing before trust in politicians is fatally damaged.
Time and again I have askedMP's to be open, really open, about what they have claimed and what they have spent our money on most of them doggedly refused to do so.
Well as the truth slowly and painfully emerges I can see why.