Has the tipping point been reached?
The crisis in confidence which is evident in regards to the public's view of Westminster is a direct threat to the stability of our democracy. It is a long standing tradition in the UK to have mistrust for our politicians and to consider them liars, but the expenses debacle has taken this to a new depth. Unlike problems of sleaze in Government ministers (cash for questions etc), the current situation has demonstrated a systematic abuse of expenses which effects every political party and tarnishes the entire political sphere.
It is evidence of a disconnection between our elected officials and the people they represent. At a time of economic hardship, it is impossible for the public to have confidence in the ability of any of the main parties to respond to challenges if their representatives are seen to be making small fortunes for themselves, at the tax payer's expense. MPs complain of not being paid enough and it is true that they are paid less than many other public servants. However, a starting salary of roughly £65k p.a. cannot be described as small by any standards, particularly when the average salary in the country is in the mid 20s and unemployment is rising.
Likewise, the absurdity of many of the expenses claims is an insult to the public. I, as with any one else working in the voluntary, public or private sectors, must submit detailed receipts for all expenses I claim, and can only claim those expenses necessary for the delivery of my role. The rules for MPs agrees with this position, but the reality has been completely different. Expenses have been treated as an entitlement and part of the pay for representatives, and a huge percentage of them have been inappropriate if not downright appalling. When the Government and Opposition are both continually going on about 'efficiency savings' and when the Government refused pay rises for the Police and other services, it is the height of hypocrisy for MPs to be claiming money to pay for moats and manure, and to be indeed profiting from their expenses claims.
I am fundamentally an optimist and without a doubt I am a democrat, however I have been left scunnered by this entire situation. In my work I spend my time convincing people why it is crucial that they vote - my job has certainly been made a lot more difficult with these revelations. We also now run the very real risk that it will be groups like the BNP that will benefit from the debacle - the reality that we could have one or more BNP MEPs after the European Elections this year if terrifying and would be a national embarrassment. Yet they are in a position to argue that they are not contaminated by this scandal, billing themselves as a realistic alternative or protest vote.
The main parties have to take immediate and drastic action, and it is disappointing that Cameron has managed to take the initiative on the issue so far. Candidates should pay back claims that are indefensible, and those who seem to have been deliberately manipulating the system should be investigated and disciplined by their parties, up to and including expulsion. All Constituency Labour Parties should also have the option re-open selection contests for MPs who have let down their constituents - the General Election could throw up some very interesting and surprising results across the country as incumbents are punished, and it is imperative that CLPs have the opportunity to remove MPs who have let them down and who represent a liability to holding the seat.
The system itself must be firmly policed, with allowable expenses made completely transparent and regularly published. Punishments for breaking the rules must be clearly laid out so that the electorate can be reassured that those milking the system will not be allowed to get away with it. And ultimately it will probably require a General Election where the public are given the opportunity to dispose of some of the offenders before any trust can start to be restored.
In regards to the Speaker's position, I think that Nick Clegg's decision to go after him was grandstanding and counter productive - the mess goes well beyond his position and is largely related to individual MPs. I think it is clear that the Speaker is drawing to the end of his time in office, however forcing him out now would not help or change the situation, other than by temporarily providing a blood sacrifice to the indignant public - his resignation would not be enough to sate their anger. However, he does need to start actively taking a lead on reform - defending the status quo is utterly indefensible now.
This mess will go on and on, with the end result being a deterioration of democracy in the UK. It is imperative that all of the parties work to resolve this situation, to remove all cause for concern and to demonstrate that the culture of Westminster has changed, otherwise we may find ourselves with some very unwanted and unsavoury characters claiming to represent our country.
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