Parliamentary Scandals are not new. Parliament has been beset by a number of scandals that have damaged the trust in Parliament and politicians. For example:
Cash for Questions – In the mid 1990s a number of Conservative MPs were accused of accepting cash to ask questions in the House of Commons. The most famous of those accused was Neil Hamilton. He subsequently started a defamation action against the Guardian newspaper before dropping it prior to it reaching court. Hamilton lost his Conservative safe-seat in the 1997 election to Martin Bell, who ran as an Independent.
Bernie Ecclestone Affair – As Leader of the Opposition, Tony Blair had criticised the “sleaze” which he said characterised John Major’s government. However, as Prime Minister he was quickly engulfed in his own funding scandal. Bernie Ecclestone, then owner of Formula One, had donated £1m to the Labour Party. Soon after his donation, the government announced plans to exempt F1 from a ban on tobacco advertising. Although it was never proven that the exemption and the donation were linked, the image certainly existed that they were.
Cash for Access – In 2012 Peter Cruddas, a senior Conservative, resigned as a treasurer of the Conservative Party after an undercover reporter was told that for £200,000 he could be given direct access to David Cameron and George Osborne. Two other senior MPs, Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind, were filmed telling undercover reporters what they would do for cash. Jack Straw, a former Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and Justice Secretary said that he could use his position to gain favorable results for companies that paid him. Hilariously, Rifkind, described himself as “self-employed” and said that “nobody pays him a salary” as he seemingly bartered for business with a fake Chinese company. He seemed to have forgotten the £60k+ that he was paid at the time to be an MP.
However, nothing compares with the damage to Parliament caused by the MPs Expenses Scandal in 2009. There had long been rumours that the MPs expenses were out of control. A number of people had tried to gain access to them through the Freedom of Information Act (2000), but without success. However, in 2009 The Daily Telegraph had obtained the records of MPs Expense Claims that had been leaked to them by a parliamentary employee. In May and June 2009, they began to publish these daily – starting with the government before then moving onto the Opposition and other parties. Some of the most high profile claims for expenses were:
Derek Conway – The Conservative MP was revealed to have paid his son £10,000 per year to work as a research assistant. However, during the three years of the claim his son was a full-time university student in Newcastle.
Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper – The married couple, both members of the government, claimed £310,000 in expenses in 2007-2008 including £24,438 under the additional homes allowance.
Hazel Blears – The Labour MP claimed for three different London properties in the space of one year. She sold one property making £45,000 worth of profit and failed to pay the required capital gains tax.
Some of the expenses that were claimed were bizarre and immediately caught the public attention:
Cleaning a Moat – Douglas Hogg, a wealthy MP who was also a Viscount, claimed £2,000 of taxpayers money to have the moat cleaned at his country seat of Kettlethorpe Hall. He also had work done on his stables and had the taxpayer pay for his piano to be tuned. Hogg was ordered to repay the cost of the moat cleaning and stood down as an MP at the 2010 General Election.
Buying a Duck House – The Conservative MP Peter Viggers claimed £30,000 over three years for gardening. However, also among his claims were £1,645 for a Duck House. He was forced by David Cameron to stand down at the 2010 General Election.
The 0.2 mile car Ride – Ed Vaizey, a Conservative MP, claimed 8p for a 0.2 mile car journey!
The Porn Film – Few MPs must have been as embarrassed as former Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, who had to publicly acknowledge that she had inadvertently submitted a claim for two porn films that her husband had watched via Pay-Per-View TV. Smith lost her seat at the 2010 General Election.
In addition, even the party leaders themselves were caught up in the scandal:
Gordon Brown – The Prime Minister claimed £12,415 for cleaning and gardening costs. Brown was ordered to repay this amount.
Tony Blair – The former Prime Minister claimed £6,990 for roof repairs. He submitted this invoice just two days before he stood down as a Prime Minister and as an MP.
David Cameron – The Leader of the Opposition claimed £1,000 a month for the interest on the mortgage of his second home.
The public were clearly outraged. Furthermore, the defense of many MPs that they were doing ‘what the rules allowed’ made people even more angry. Most famously, Margaret Beckett was booed and heckled on Question Time for making this defence:
The expenses system was set up in order to recognise that MPs have a unique role in which they are required as part of their job to be in two places – Westminster and their constituency. As part of this, MPs were allowed to claim a second home allowance.
At any time, an MP could designate one residence as their primary residence and claim support for the mortgage of that property. However, some MPs were found to be ‘flipping’ the designation of their primary and secondary home and then selling the one which they had claimed taxpayers money to upkeep. More than 50 MPs ‘flipped’ their primary residence in 2009. They included the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, who had twice flipped his home.
Some examples, however, went even further. Eight MPs and Lords were charged with criminal offences, these included three Labour MPs:
David Chaytor (Labour) – Guilty of false accounting of £18,350. Sentenced to 18 months imprisonment.
Jim Devine (Labour) – Guilty of fraudulently claiming £8,385. Sentenced to 16 months imprisonment.
Elliot Morley (Labour) – Guilty of two charges of dishonesty. Sentenced to 16 months imprisonment.
Following their conviction, these three Labour MPs argued that they were protected by Parliamentary Privilege citing the Bill of Rights (1689) that states:
“That the Freedome of Speech and Debates or Proceedings in
Parlyament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any Court or
Place out of Parlyament”
Their conviction was was appealed and eventually went to the UK Supreme Court. The bench, made up of 9 members, ruled out the appeal. They noted that parliamentary privilege does not belong to the member themselves, but to the institution of Parliament. The judgement stated that the fact that Parliament had actively supported the police investigation and made no attempt to assert the members privileges, made clear that the protection did not extend to the three members.
The timing of the MPs Expenses Scandal was even more damaging for parliament than it otherwise might be. It came following the financial crisis when it was clear the public were going to be asked to partake in some form of austerity. It also came following the Iraq War, where the perception that the government had conned the public into war was widespread. The paralysis of parliament following Brexit in 2016 saw Parliament again criticised. The latent anger from the MPs expenses scandal may well have been what produced such a febrile anti-politics atmosphere in 2016. Despite an inquiry called the Legg Inquiry and new rules for MPs expenses, Parliament has never truly recovered from the hit to its reputation it suffered because of the scandal.