Sunday, May 17, 2009

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.


Barrie Wood said...

And, in the interests of a balanced approach to these matters, what have you to say about Mr. Steen (one of the bay's two MP's) ? Is it because he is from the 'chandelier and moat' party you say nothing ?

Further, have you not noticed, that your personality based politics is doing you no good. You may say that I've personally challenged you frequently, but then I do not aspire to high public office. That is the crucial difference.

Marcus Wood said...

Barry, the only people complaining about my questioning of the Bay MP's refusal to be open about his expenses are a hanful of his supporters, everyone else knows that what I am doing is right, fair and proper. But even if it was doing me harm I'd do it anyway; what is going on is a scandal - this isn't about party point scoring it's about our democracy. I wouldn't expect you to be able to see that, obsessed as you are with tribal politics.

As to Anthony he will face his executive on Friday - it is for them or the voters of his constituency to judge him.

Barrie Wood said...

So, let me see Marcus, it is for local Tories to decide the fate of Steen and your 'fearless' campaigning on MP's expenses means you say nothing about your party colleague. In contrast, you cannot stop talking about the Lib Dems and Adrian Sanders especially. What mealy mouthed nonsense ! You've no spine Marcus ! Steen milked the system and you say nowt. You'll have no credibility by taking this approach Marcus.

Lets hope your Totnes colleagues have more backbone and send the ineffectual Steen packing.

In the interests of fairness, Cameron was swift to act last week and rightly came out of a difficult situation well. Will strong words be followed by actions though.

Tribal ? To a degree, but this whole business transcends party differences and threatens to bring mainstream parties into disrepute. Heaven forbid, the likes of the BNP or UKIP should benefit - shall we say that have 'form' in these areas too.

It is your lack of even-handedness that I abhor. I offered you the chance to comment on Steen and you've nothing to say. On this matter at least it is you that is being tribal Marcus !

Marcus Wood said...

But you expect me to weigh in on Anthony while quite properly Adrian refuses to comment on his old mate Younger Ross and then moan about even handedness.

I'd give you much more credibility Barry if you would concede that your MP has let you down. I do expect that several Tory MPs may find themselves taking early or not so early retirement.

All I have ever asked of Adrian is openness and he still refuses. Voters have already decided what that means.

Barrie Wood said...

I think the situation of RYR who said ' fair cop' I got it wrong and I think paid the relatively small sum back to the fees office is very different to the lack of humility and arrogance shown by Steen. Moreover, the sum in question is hugely greater and went on the upkeep of this wealthy man's £1m plus home.

Different too is your response if you feel Lib Dems can be perceived as the bad guys. Your 'fearless' campaigning is one-sided, calculating and another attempt at denigrating our incumbent MP.

In the meantime you prefer not to answer questions about issue based politics. Nonetheless I'll ask again. By withdrawing from the influential and moderate EPP group in the EU parliament, which groups do you feel the Tories can align with ? Rumoured allies From Poland and Latvia sound, frankly, frightening.

Charles said...

I am sorry that you think Latvians and Polish people are frightening, Barry. Honestly, I have been to both countries, the people are lovely- you have nothing to fear.

The EPP pull out is the right thing to do, there are millions of people in Europe who do not want or support a federal future and their political leaders are not reflecting that. We think the right way to shape Europe is by reforming from within and by speaking out for the residents of Europe who agree with our vision.

Camerons brave stance has put the wind up the EU establishment because they really do worry about what will happen if his initiative catches on. Perhaps that is why the EU suddenly upped the number of nations who need to be represented to form an offical group in the Parliament from six to seven last year.

Nonetheless Hague is confident he has enough signed up to make the break without resorting to support from extreme parties; and we are very confident that once the Rubicon is crossed there are a large number of other opposition and mainstream political parties who will also then join the group.

Lastly I hope you will now have the good manners and decency to acknowledge that I couldn't comment on Anthony Steens expenses earlier in the week for the very opposite reason to that which you suggest in your posts above.

Barrie Wood said...

I never said there was anything wrong with the people of Latvia and Poland. I've been to the latter and it's people and country are fantastic.

It is parties from those countries, whom it is rumoured that the Tories want to ally with in the EU parliament that I find frightening.

Either way, the question remains which parties / political group can Euro Tories ally with, if not the EPP ? I've asked Marcus a number of times and he's avoided the question. I'm not sure if Cameron knows the answer either.

As for Steen, his erratic responses following the furore over his MP expenses clearly proved as exasperating to Cameron and political opponents alike. In many ways a sad end to his long period of public service to the people of Totnes constituency. His standing down is, however, in the best interests of the constituency and of the Conservative party.

It would be fair also acknowledge that Cameron has handled this issue in a firm, fair and appropriate way.

It would be good if a consensus could be reached amongst the parties to move forward on the issue of MP expenses. As it is, to see politics and politicians pe se being slowly undermined only sows further disillusion with the democratic process, which those of us active politics need to be collectively mindful of.