Monday, May 11, 2009

No expenses spared

How many Tory MPs does it take to change a lightbulb?

None, if you're David Willetts.
He simply hired someone to change 25 lightbulbs on his constituency home, and claimed the 100 pounds back from MPs' expenses. (I'm only the 50000th to crack this joke today).

Is this really something to get exercised about? In times of recession, politicians - who are paid out of public funds - are an easy target. There have indeed been abuses of the system for claiming expenses on second homes (allowable for MPs representing constituencies outside London, and who need a pied-a-terre in their constituency and in the capital), and that obviously annoys voters who are up against the worst recession since the 1980s, or maybe the 1930s.

But does it matter? The sheer amount of money involved is... well, nothing. If David Willetts had put up his lightbulbs himself, it would have saved the average taxpayer a microscopic fraction of a penny (provided of course he didn't topple off the ladder, requiring expensive medical care through the NHS). MPs need to be paid, because if not only rich people or part-timers would be able to represent us. What they are paid - in standard salary - is not an awful lot more than a middle-ranking academic: the princely sum of 64,000 pounds sterling a year. They get perks, sure, but a large part of that is in the line of duty, so to speak. There is probably a case for them not cashing in the capital gains on their second homes, but what if these homes lost value?

What we should really be worried about is corruption - MPs taking free lightbulb fitting or other benefits from private companies in exchange for policy favours. What if an MP got free lightbulbs for life from Lightbulbs Inc. in exchange for pushing through legislation obliging us all to change our lightbulbs for some new specification? Now, that would be a problem. It would be a problem because policy would be subordinated to the private material interest of the MP, subverting the representative process. Politics often involves decisions which may be defensible in terms of the public interest, but will also enrich someone (like massive government spending on a vaccine for a flu pandemic which may not happen). Politicians can be bribed, lobbied and persuaded to adopt some policies rather than others. If MPs are well enough paid for their job, there is probably more chance that they will choose the right policies, rather than the ones which will give them a material payoff from interested parties.

So corruption is something to worry about. But expenses, well, it's not really a story, except in that it shows how clueless MPs are in managing public perceptions of what they do. Now, multimillion pound bonuses for bankers whose trillion pound losses are being covered by us and future taxpayers... THAT is a story. Maybe a story that the Daily Telegraph - the newspaper of record for the stockbroker belt and prime mover behind the MPs' expenses 'scandal' - would rather we all quickly forgot about.