Oh expenses, whatever next!

The expenses scandal will go down in political history for one of the worst breaches of public trust in recent years. Before we jump to conclusions though, let’s analyse this a little further. Yes, there were a few cases that can be legitimately described as ‘criminal’ and some of those individuals have started to feel the full weight of the law. The most recent case was of Lord Hanningfield, a Conservative Peer but he was preceded by four former Labour MPs and another Tory Peer who have already been given prison sentences for their actions. If we put these more serious breaches aside for one second though there is one thing that must be said which has been so far largely ignored: whether we like it or not and whether it was morally correct or not, most of the expenses claimed were perfectly legal and legitimate.

Lord Hanningfield

Lord Hanningfield - a criminal but not representative of politicians

This statement is not designed to anger or upset, it is a mere fact. Some were not legal, some were fraud, some were loopholes being  abused and some were ‘accidents’ that somehow were not noticed until the expenses went public but this is not true in the majority of cases. Whether we applaud or detest MPs claiming small amounts that they could easily have afforded themselves on things that were not essential for their role is of little relevance when we consider the rules as they stood.

Now, I ask a hypothetical question of you, you drive down a road you drive every day at 28mph and the limit was 30, you are not doing anything illegal or morally wrong. Tomorrow the law is changed and the new limit is 25mph, this is acceptable and you will, as a law-abiding citizen, slow down in future on this road. How would you then feel to find out that you are being socially discredited because you used to drive at 28mph down a 30mph limit road? I believe it fair to say that the majority of the population would not only feel this to be unjust but would also feel targeted. We do not, as a country, believe in retrospective punishment. I now bring you back to the point in hand, many of these MPs who fight hard for their constituents never broke a rule. The rules may not have been adequate and correct but that is how they stood.

This said it is well known that I am a Cameronite and at the time I was ecstatic with his handling of the situation, he took a strong stance against the whole affair, forcing his MPs to pay back the taxpayer and even threatening removal of the Conservative Whip if they refused. I, along with many fellow Conservatives, saw this as the best possible reaction from Mr. Cameron who was then Leader of the Opposition.

On reflection, one cannot help but feel a little foolish, however. As a Law student, I spend far too much time studying statutes and the presumption that statutes do not apply retrospectively is seen to be fair, just and reasonable. This presumption has never been morally doubted although there have been a few cases where it has been necessary to be rather flexible in this approach – (see R v R, 1992 which criminalised marital rape), the defendant was still convicted although technically it can be seen as legal when his actions were carried out.

This said it does not feel an adequate defence to compare something so deeply wrong such as marital rape with a relatively slight misdemeanour such as claiming unnecessary items on your work expenses. Whilst I do not condone the old expenses rules (ironically themselves a perverse result of media and public pressure) and reform was long overdue, it is undoubtedly time the media stop demonising individuals for accepting the benefits of their job, applaud the fact that reforms are being made and focus on the more pressing issues of the day (i.e. deplorable and unethical journalistic practices).

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Posted on July 8, 2011, in Coalition Government, Comment, Party Politics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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