Scandals involving Parliament are not new. Parliament has been beset by a number of scandals that have damaged trust in Politics these often involve money. So what other scandals have their been and why was the MPs Expenses Scandal so singularly significant?
What are some other scandals that there have been?
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 favourable 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.
Owen Paterson Lobbying Scandal – In 2021 former Government Minister Owen Paterson was investigated by the Commissioner for Parliamentary standards for breaking the rules in lobbying. The rules say that MPs are forbidden from taking payment to raise issues in the Commons or with Government Ministers. However, the Commissioner found that Paterson ad been taken payment from companies, including Randox Laboratories, and then lobbying on their behalf. The issue was exacerbated by Boris Johnson urging his MPs to vote against punishing Paterson, before reversing this after huge political pressure. Paterson subsequently resigned as an MP.
What happened in the MPs Expenses Scandal?
Despite the seriousness of these other scandals, nothing compares to the damage done to Parliament by the MPs Expenses Scandal in 2009/10. It had long been suspected that the MPs expenses system was out of control however a number of Freedom of Information Requests had failed to gain access to information relating to them. For example, in 2008 a request was made but was challenged by the House of Commons because it would be overly intrusive. The case went to the High Court who ruled in favour of releasing the information. The House of Commons began the preparation for releasing them but said they would redact sensitive information. However, before they could do this the information was leaked to the Daily Telegraph by a parliamentary employee. In May and June 2009 the paper began to publish the unredacted documents daily – starting with the Government before moving onto the Opposition and other parties. The revelations were horrifying for MPs from across the House of Commons.
Some of the most prominent claims were:
Derek Conway (Conservative) – Conway was 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 (Labour) – 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 (Labour) – 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 so 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.
David Cameron – The Leader of the Opposition claimed £1,000 a month for the interest on the mortgage of his second home.
Nick Clegg – Liberal Democrat Leader claimed the full amount of second home allowance and for long-distance personal phone calls to places like Columbia and Vietnam.
What was the public reaction?
The public were clearly outraged. Furthermore, the defence 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 scandal had a significant impact on trust in Politics. A 2013 Ipsos Mori poll that 33% percent of Britons believed MPs used their position for their own personal gain and 27% believed that this was the case for most MPs. In addition, 72% of respondents said they did not trust MPs to tell the truth.
Many parts of the expenses system were set up to enable MPs to do simply do their job. For example, stationery, postage and staffing costs are something that no reasonable person would expect an MP to fund out of their own salary. However, the system also recognised that MPs have a unique role in which they are required as part of their job to be spend significant time 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 or rent 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. The public could simply not countenance this behaviour, nor the fact that this was not against the rules that MPs themselves had made.
How did some MPs try to defend their behaviour?
Some examples, however, went beyond simply an abuse of the rules and amounted to criminal behaviour. 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 in R v. Chaytor 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 and therefore made clear that the protection did not extend to the three members.
What did the Legg Inquiry find and recommend?
In 2010 the Legg Inquiry was set up to investigate the issue of MPs expenses and to make recommendations for the future. The inquiry was led by retired civil servant Sir Thomas Legg. The reported concluded that that 390 MPs should repay some of their expenses. The total repayment would be £1.1 Million and the average for each MP was £2,872. The PM Gordon Brown would repay £13,000. In addition the report recommended a number of things to make the expenses and wider remuneration of MPs more transparent.
A new expenses system was established following the report and importantly expenses are now regularly claimed online. They can be easily viewed by visiting the following independent website: https://www.mpsexpenses.info/#!/search
In addition, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority was set up to administer the pay of MPs, including any pay rises. Prior to this MPs had made decisions on their own salary.
What was the significance of the MPs expenses scandal?
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 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.
Whilst there have been scandals that have impacted the reputation and trust of Politicians before, there has been nothing quite like the MPs Expenses Scandal. There were a number of reasons that it was damaging in public perception – but one was simply that so many MPs were implicated. Whilst the bizarre nature of the public claims caught public opinion, it was the incessant number of them that were so damaging. The legacy of the scandal rumbles on and more than a decade later the reputation of Parliament has not truly recovered from it.
MPs Expenses Scandal – A scandal that emerged in 2009-10 in which most MPs were implicated. MPs were seen by the public to be abusing their right to reasonable expenses and some MPs were even found to be behaving criminally.
Parliamentary Privilege – The right of MPs to speak and act freely without being liable to civil action launched against them.
Legg Inquiry – An inquiry set up to audit MPs expenses and to recommend MPs pay back amount that had been over claimed.
R v Chaytor – A court case revolving three Labour MPs who had claimed expenses fraudulently but tried to escape their conviction by relying on parliamentary privilege. The Supreme ruled that this defence had no legal merit.