Headless Chickens

I admit that I am not, occasionally, above the odd partisan (or anti-partisan) jibe. So when discussing the failure of the government’s plans for an attendance allowance with a good (…for a member of the Conservative party, of course) friend; goaded by his quick dismissal of the idea (qualified with, in fairness to him, an admission that he needed to know more about the idea to be sure), I predicted that come July the House would sincerely regret forcing Mr. Brown to back down, and not taking some form of action to reform their expenses before their records were released. My prediction was done in a good deal of haste and guesswork, an instinct that everyone had jumped on the bandwagon and hadn’t really had time to assess the idea on its merits, and that it would look good for MPs to have at least tried to reform their expenses before they were caught out thoroughly.

I now believe that the only way in which my prediction was wrong was in how long I claimed it would take. For the scandal broke early – which will maximise damage to MPs in the long-term, as the revelations are emerging gradually, not all at once. And now other people are beginning to recognise that Brown’s idea might have at least diverted attention away from the scandalous claims.

This week Norman Tebbit, of all people, was arguing that it was a mistake to block reform. Because regardless of the flaws in the details of the idea of an attendance allowance (and doubtless there are at least a few), what it would have achieved was the impression that the House of Commons had actually done something about the problem before they were caught with their trousers down en masse. Even if everyone did think it to be a poor attempt at reform, and that even they could have done better, no-one in all probability would have agreed on how they would have done it better, and that subsequent debate would have at least partially overshadowed the original scandal.

MPs could then have said that they at least acted quickly to stop the abuses whilst they waited for a more permanent solution. And flaws or not, the one thing an attendance allowance would have done is to have prevented a lot of potential abuse when it came to 2nd homes.

It should also be made clear that the attendance allowance is not just “as practised by the European Parliament”. The media delighted in saying this because hardly anyone likes the EU parliament, and many think it more corrupt than Westminster. An attendance allowance is, in fact, operated by the House of Lords as well – but this somehow slipped the media’s attention – possibly because it realised that some people have more respect for the Lords than the Commons, possibly due to the fact that it notices some of the poor quality of the legislation that passes out of the orifice of the lower house.

But the real question is why on earth MPs didn’t act long before Brown’s cynical efforts at stealing the limelight with his reforms. Over a year ago it was clear that this was a car crash in action. MPs could have slammed on the brakes then by getting down to reform, and employed huge damage limitation. Instead, they carried on with the childish delusion that they were somehow entitled to fiddle their expenses and brought the public’s wrath upon themselves.


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