British MPs should learn from us
by Virendra Parekh on 21 Jun 2009 0 Comment

It has been a hot summer for British politicians, especially the Members of Parliament. Prime Minister Gordon Brown almost lost his job last fortnight. Several ministers have been forced to resign. So has the Speaker of the House of Commons, the first time such a thing has happened in 300 years. Leaders of the three main parties apologised to the people for abuse of the system. A poll showed that 85 percent of the people think MPs are “self-serving and out of touch.” That shows that crows are black everywhere, not just in India.

At the centre of the political storm is the expenses system for MPs. MPs are entitled to recoup expenses that are incurred “wholly, exclusively and necessarily” in pursuit of their parliamentary duties. As is only to be expected, quite a few of them stretched the rule a little too far and padded up their expenses recoverable from the exchequer. They are now having a hard time justifying the use of taxpayer money to buy black-glitter lavatory seats, clean swimming pools, clear moats, and adding fake Tudor beams to their homes.

The purchases dubiously claimed by MPs ranged from dog food and toilet brushes to thousands of pounds’ worth of home improvements. Much of the nest-feathering took place under the so-called second-homes allowance, worth up to £24,000 ($36,000) a year to MPs who require accommodation in both London and their constituencies. Some “flipped” the designation of their first and second homes in order to be reimbursed for work done on both. A few profited by sprucing up a second home on expenses before reclassifying it as their main residence, to avoid capital-gains tax when they sold it. 

The more enterprising ones among them went a bit further. Some of those who resigned or lost marginal seats in 2005, have since made tens of thousands of pounds selling or renting out flats that had been funded by the taxpayer. Other departing MPs passed subsidised properties to their children. Some, who had already announced they were stepping down, spent thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money furnishing or redecorating homes.

For example, Lord Kirkwood, a Liberal Democrat, sold his Westminster flat to his daughter for £100,000 – half the market rate. He claimed £5,000 for refurbishments in his final year as an MP. Lord Tyler, another former Lib Dem MP, also transferred his flat to his daughter.

As champions of women’s emancipation, we were happy to know that women MPs did not lag behind their male peers in this productive enterprise. Some headlines say it all: Alice Mehon’s £20,000 loan for new doors paid off by public; Anne Campbell ousted at election sold flat to son; Anne Cryer and son John both claimed expenses for flat owned by (Anne’s) daughter. 

The media raised a hue and cry, as is its wont. “These are troubled times, and the government is looked to for leadership. How can it crack down on tax evasion and benefit cheats, or muster support for cutting public services, if MPs themselves are seen to be on the take?” asked the Economist.

We are deeply appalled – not by what British MPs have done – but by the public reaction to the disclosures. We in India, who have borrowed our political system from Britain but have vastly improvised it, wonder what all the fuss is about.

The amounts are paltry, even by Indian standards. Why create a scene over a few thousand pounds on refurbishing the home, a couple of thousand quid for a flat panel TV, home clearing material, driveway repairs, utensils, bedroom furniture, carrier bags etc.? One MP even claimed rental for an X-rated DVD. So what? Do MPs not need relaxation?

Our politicians, we are proud to say, are made of much sterner stuff. Anyone making an issue of their expenses would be just laughed out of court. Surely, public servants deserve these little perquisites, which amount to a pittance compared to the hard work they put in to serve the nation. Overall, the Mother of Democracy is setting a very bad example to the rest of the democratic world.

British MPs should learn from our politicians, the true successors to Robert Clive and Lord Hastings. They tried to make extra money officially and within the rules. That was a big mistake. Even the meanest neta in India would have told them that a far better way is to make off-balance sheet money and keep it in Swiss banks.

There is a fundamental issue. Why cavil if politicians use office to make some money? After all, they invest crores of rupees to get elected. And it is a high-risk investment, as results of recent elections showed. Surely they deserve commensurate reward for their labour, capital and enterprise.

We suggest a delegation of British MPs should visit India immediately to learn ways and means of damage control in such situations. Even if they pay for such a visit from their own pockets, they would feel richly rewarded with the returns. Alternatively, a team of Indian MPs should immediately visit Britain and educate its media and people on correct democratic values. We owe a lot to Britain. Let us repay a part of our debt.

The author is Executive Editor, Corporate India, and lives in Mumbai

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