This note concerns the long running saga of the expenses claimed by British Members of Parliament, the detail of which we, the British public, were not supposed to know anything about, until that is the High Court ruled that the Freedom of Information Act did indeed apply to Parliament, and that its members should have realised this when they passed the legislation in the first place. The net result was that Parliament reluctantly decided to release details of the expenditure claims made by its members, with the publication date originally set sometime for July 2009. However as the House of Commons authorities duly set about the task of compiling the necessary information, it became clear that there was a mole somewhere in the system, as one or two choice details regarding the expenses claimed by the odd member or two leaked into the public domain.
It has been alleged that a disc containing this entire database of MPs expense claims for the past four years came into the possession of a person whose identity is currently unknown, and that said disc was being hawked around the media by a 'businessman' acting on behalf of this individual, and that the Daily Telegraph purchased this disc for the sum of £150,000. The excrement therefore truly hit the ceiling fan on the 8th May 2009, when the Telegraph began getting its money's worth finally began informing the British public as to what its elected representatives had been up to in the recent past.
Now at some point in time, this author may well feel obliged to document the ins and outs of this particular British political scandal, but for the moment let is consider one particular vignette from this long running episode. On the 9th May 2009 the Daily Telegraph gave particular prominence to the expense claims submitted by four Government ministers, amongst who was Phil Woolas the Labour member for Oldham East and Saddleworth, and Minister of State at the Home Office with the responsibility for borders and immigration. Specifically the Telegraph reported that Mr Woolas had "claimed for items of women's clothing, tampons and nappies", and noted that since parliamentary rules only allowed expenses to be claimed for items which were exclusively for MPs' own use, it was "not clear these items were justified".
As it turned out Woolas was rather upset by this story. As far as he was concerned it was "untrue" that he had "claimed these things" and to suggest that he had was "disgusting". It was also said that he was contemplating legal action against the paper, believing perhaps that there was a suggestion of transvestism (or worse) lurking behind the suggestion that the "women's clothing, tampons and nappies" that he had purchased were somehow for his "own use".
Naturally the Sunday Telegraph of the 10th May came to the defence of its sister paper's story, and duly provided the supporting evidence. Being that back in August 2004 Woolas had submitted an expenses claim for 'food' amounting to £210.31, and that said claim was supported by a number of receipts, including one of £69.30 from Tesco, another for £16.69 from Marks and Spencer, £27.33 from Sainsbury's, and two from Somerfield for a total of £96.99. As the Telegraph noted, "He was reimbursed in full from the public purse" for the total amount of £210.31. However as the newspaper then pointed out, the receipt from Tesco, dated the 12th August 2004, "included a pair of women's shoes for £23, two packets of disposable bibs priced £2.98 each, a bottle of nail polish at £5.75, three comics for £5.14, two packs of babies wipes at £1.44 each and a ladies' jumper at £5", and that the total cost of these "impermissible items" was £47.73.
Faced with this clear evidence Woolas replied by admitting that "I take your point and I understand the extrapolation." However he continued to insist that "The original accusation is untrue" and explained that, "The claim is one document and the receipts are another. The fact that they both add up to the same amount doesn't prove anything. It doesn't mean that the fees office paid for the non-food items on the receipt." And in case anyone missed it, let us read that again; "The fact that they both add up to the same amount doesn't prove anything". At least that point is therefore clear; the fact that the receipts totalled £210.31, and that his expense claim was for £210.31, was entirely coincidental, and no inference should be drawn from the fact that these two numbers were identical.
Strangely enough, lurking behind Woolas's warped logic was something that was almost a point. Since, as the rules stood at the time, he didn't "need to submit receipts to back the claims" and he could have claimed up to £400 a month for food without submitting any receipts, and hence he was "being hung out to dry for being honest".
However the one point that had eluded Mr Woolas was this; the fact that receipts were not required as a matter of course simply meant that members were being trusted not to claim for things they shouldn't, and that by submitting his receipts Woolas had simply demonstrated (in his case at least) that he could not be trusted to exercise the necessary self-discipline to do so. No doubt, many of his peers, simply banged in their expense claims for similar expenditure at the nation's supermarkets without bothering with any supporting documentation, leaving everyone none the wiser as to whether or not they had actually restricted their purchases to the permissible 'food', or whether they had succumbed to the temptation to chuck in the odd comic or item of clothing into their trolley as they strolled down the aisles.
That however was no excuse for Woolas who was therefore left in a position akin to that of a burglar, who had conveniently left his fingerprints at the scene of the crime, and was now complaining of the injustice of his conviction on the basis that others had got off scot free by the simple expedient of remembering to wear gloves. Life is sometimes a little unfair that way, but it nevertheless serves as an illustration of the mentality of many of those who profess to represent the British people, in that they viewed the matter of expenses, not as one of seeking reimbursement for expenditure incurred in the performance of the Parliamentary duties, but rather as some kind of fund that they could dip into as and when they saw fit.