Take Geoff Hoon, for example. As far as I can see, there can only be one explanation for the quadruple redesignation of his second home. And the reason can only be for financial gain. Similarly with Alistair Darling. They played the system. Apparently they even have a name for it. it's called "flipping", as in flipping between your main home and second one. You spend money on one, then redesignate it so you can then spend money on the other. And it's all within the rules. Nice, eh?
It always used to be the case that an MP's second home was the one they used while in London. Even then, the allowance system was abused, but at least it was clear which home was the second home. Nowadays, MPs can choose, which also means, they can change their minds, seemingly at will. Jacqui Smith is a blatant example of this, but following today's revelations there are clearly others - Gordon Brown among them. No doubt there are many Conservatives too, as we will no doubt find out in the next few days.
It is very easy to define what constitutes a main home and it shows how broken the system is that one MP's definition can be completely different to another's and they are still within the rules.
Looking through the different examples cited by the Telegraph I think the following need further explanation...
- Gordon Brown's decision to redesignate his second home
- Why did Gordon Brown pay his brother for cleaning bills?
- Why was Geoff Hoon allowed to redesignate his second home four times?
- How can Peter Mandelson justify billing the taxpayer for £3k after he resigned as an MP?
- Several Cabinet ministers seemed to have bullied the Fees Office into submission.
- Would Jack Straw have discovered his council tax error if it hadn't become apparent that these things would be published?
- Why did Hazel Blears claim for three properties within twelve months?
- How can Alistair Darling justify his "flipping" of properties?
I am not making a party political point out of this as I have absolutely no doubt that over the next few days Conservatives, LibDems and MPs from minor parties will be shown to have done similar things. So yes, we can all condemn and be outraged. And we all are, especially those of us who try their hardest to defend politicians and politics as a noble cause. So yes, condemn, get it out of your system, but then think how best to change the system and try to restore some sort of order.
There are two simple reforms which could be made immediately. Ban MPs from claiming food costs. You can only eat in one place. Secondly, ban them from buying any furniture or fittings for their second homes. They would then each get a one off £5k grant at the beginning of their parliamentary career, or a similar grant once every five years. They could then only claim for rent/mortgage interest and utility costs.
We can all think up different solutions, but in the end it is Sir Christopher Kelly's committee which will be tasked with doing so. I do wonder if they have the resources and capability to complete the task, though. The three political party representatives have withdrawm from the committee on this issue, but surely the committee needs to call on expert advice from serving politicians.
We are about to enter a very murky few days for the reputation of politics.
Still, plenty to talk about on my radio show tonight! I'll be posting details of how you can take part later on.