Tag Archives: parliamentary allowances

Police probe into Lords fraud should start with ex-cop

The police are said to be launching an investigation into expenses fraud in the House of Lords a year after the Mirror caught disgraced peer Lord Hanningfield claiming £300 expenses before immediately leaving.

This is a year after the Mirror investigation, but the scandal has been well known years before that. My old organisation Unlock Democracy revealed dozens of questionable cases in 2012, and working peers have reported people clocking in and sodding off for years. It’s almost as if they were somewhat reluctant to investigate for some reason.

Allow me to introduce you to the Earl of Rosslyn, aka Peter Loughborough.

For years, the Earl has worked in the Metropolitan police as the head of royal protection. Unlock Democracy uncovered that he had clocked up over £15,000 in daily allowances in 2011 despite not voting at all or being a member of any committees. In fact, up until that point, he had only voted seven times in the Lords in total, five of which in 2007 when democratic reform of the Lords came up. He was, of course, against.

Between April 2013 and March 2014, he claimed a further £8,700. He still doesn’t sit on any committees, and he has not voted at all since 2007. As a senior policeman, he had a full time job, and it’s genuinely bemusing how he can justify these claims. According to the official register he also claimed “Ministerial and Office Holder Secretarial Expenses” (quantity undetermined), but he holds no ministerial or parliamentary office. If his attendance was as part of his police duties, the cost of him walking for five minutes from Scotland Yard to the Houses of Parliament is already covered by his salary.

According to the Daily Mail, earlier this year he left his police role to become the head of Prince Charles’s household. He has not apparently attended the House of Lords since taking on this role (accurate up to June 2014). Clarence House is, of course, much further to walk to Parliament from than Scotland Yard.

I’m sure it is a complete coincidence that this investigation has only started six months after a potential suspect has left the senior ranks of the Metropolitan Police, and I’m sure they will demonstrate this fact by taking Peter Loughborough in for questioning.

MPs just “don’t get” the minimum wage

David Wilshire has been hilariously telling any journalist who will listen that his £65,000 annual salary is “dangerously close to the minimum wage” – which means that he must be working a 30 hours a day, 7 days a week (or 24 hours a day, 9 days a week – take your pick). But he isn’t the only MP who doesn’t seem to know at what level the minimum wage is set at.

Throughout the week there have been noises off about Sir Thomas Legg’s retrospective limit of £2,000 a year to claim on cleaning, with MPs and trade unionists claiming that it would mean MPs being forced to pay their cleaners less than “a decent living wage.” As is the nature of such things, this “well known fact” has started to get parroted in passing uncritically.

This being British journalism, no journo I have come across has yet had the wherewithall to sit down with a calculator for five minutes to determine the veracity of that fact but it isn’t exactly difficult. First of all, what is a living wage? Well, the London Living Wage, as supported by trade unions, is £7.60 an hour. In my unforgiveably middle class household, we pay our cleaner £9.50. From my straw poll of people I know, rates paid have varied significantly. The most I’ve been heard about is £15, which is apparently the going rate in Kensington.

Let’s assume £15 an hour, which is roughly double the living wage and which amounts to more than I earnt when I started my current job even taking into account national insurance (in fact it’s more than I currently earn, but then I’m down to a four day week these days). Let’s also assume that MPs second home is, at most, a two bedroom flat (that’s a reasonable assumption isn’t it? Second homes are meant to be boltholes, not luxurious family homes. Luxurious family homes are first homes, unless you’re on the fiddle).

It takes five hours to fully clean our four bedroom home here; no-one I know with a flat pays their cleaner for more than two hours to clean it. So, even assuming the £15 hourly rate, that would cost MPs £30 a week, or £1,560. And that’s assuming they use a cleaner 52 weeks of the year – despite the fact that for much of the year they will presumably not be using their London-based flat as Parliament will be in recess.

So, after all that, can anyone explain to me how trade unions of all people have managed to establish that £2,000 is too low a limit to spend on cleaning? The problem, I suspect, is that the people at the top of trade unions these days are about as in touch with the reality of peoples’ daily lives as, well, David Wilshire. Unlike the average MP, they don’t even hold weekly surgeries. The rot in the political class is not limited to Parliament.

The BBC, Jo Swinson, and a bloody great big stone wall

To recap, readers may recall that, two months ago (it really was that long), I got my knickers in a twist over an article in the Telegraph about Jo Swinson MP and her expenses. I – and others – complained to the Telegraph – as well as the Guardian and the BBC. We got a response from the Telegraph and a clarification from the Guardian, but nothing, nada, zip, from the BBC.

Last month, I complained again to the BBC, not just about the specific complaint but the way the BBC handles complaints. That full complaint can be found at the bottom of this piece. Again, for a month, I heard nothing. I phoned them last week to be told that the complaint had been referred and that they would do a little chasing. I was about to start escalating things when this afternoon I finally got a response from the BBC from a Mr Jolly (presumably not this one, and certainly not this one [or even this one]):

Mr Graham,

Thank you for your e-mails and please accept my apologies for the delay in responding. I’ll come to the issue of our complaints process shortly but first your substantive complaint. I have asked our political editor for a response, and this is his reply:

The piece you refer to was where we reported the “Claim” by the Telegraph and, where appropriate, the MP’s “Response”. The Telegraph said receipts submitted to the fees office by Ms Swinson, for reimbursement, included the items. They said she had denied claiming for the eyeliner. We reported both those facts. They published the receipt on their website. Ms Swinson had told them that the eyeliner was not claimed for but had been on a receipt with other items claimed for. The Telegraph said only cosmetics appeared on that receipt.

The page you refer to is a summary page and it is not possible to go into all this detail on it. The redacted version of the expenses claims from Parliament fails to clear the matter up as the receipts in question are redacted so it is not possible to compare the value of the claim with the receipt submitted. There is no doubt about the tooth flosser however as Ms Swinson wrote that herself on to the claim form and it was not redacted when published.

As for our complaints procedure, the page you selected to make your complaint was the General Feedback webform. You should have received an automatic response which said: “We are unable to answer all e-mails individually due to the large amount of feedback we receive.” There is a separate form for complaints, which would have been a better place for your correspondence. This would then have ensured a reply. We would disagree that the options offered on the Newswatch page are confusing; it’s really for senders to determine the nature of their correspondence. To have all e-mails going to one inbox where they are guaranteed a response would mean us replying to several hundred e-mails a day from our department alone. So, your e-mail was read, but it was felt that no action was needed to alter our story and no reply was sent.

Your second complaint was made via the BBC’s central complaints website and was forwarded to us the following day, and then passed on to the political team. I can only apologise for the delay in responding; that is down to us.

Best wishes,

Ian Jolly
News website

This, sadly, is the sort of response I thought I’d get. A terribly polite explanation about why I am wrong in every single way and should just learn to love Big Brother Auntie Beeb. I was further irked to read at the footer:

This e-mail (and any attachments) is confidential and may contain personal views which are not the views of the BBC unless specifically stated.
If you have received it in error, please delete it from your system.
Do not use, copy or disclose the information in any way nor act in reliance on it and notify the sender immediately.
Please note that the BBC monitors e-mails sent or received.
Further communication will signify your consent to this.

So not only is this email confidential, but if I reply to it I am “signifying my consent to this” – this is a fascinating example of Kafka-esque logic (don’t think about it too hard as it may give you a headache. Anyway, without further ado, I have sent them this response:

Dear Mr Jolly,

First of all, I have to say that I do not accept that this email is confidential. There is no reason for it, we are discussing things that are in the public domain and it would appear to go against the principles of the Freedom of Information Act which the BBC is subject to. I will be publishing your response, and my reply, on my blog.

Secondly, thank you for eventually replying to this. I would be happy to accept your apology if you could do me the courtesy of explaining a) why such an extraordinary delay and b) what specific action is being taken to prevent such delays in future.

Working backwards in your email, for the record I did NOT receive a response from your complaints website when I submitted either complaints. I did check my spam box at the time, and have just done so again. Have you checked to see if this facility is in fact working?

You state that “We would disagree that the options offered on the Newswatch page are confusing; it’s really for senders to determine the nature of their correspondence.” I was taken to that page upon clicking the option for “General comment For comments, criticism, compliments and queries about the BBC News website or coverage of an event or story.” At that stage, technically, I was asking for a correction; I wasn’t issuing a complaint.

Instead of merely asserting that you are right and I am wrong, what research have to carried out to ensure that people are not being confused by this? Are you willing to concede that if such research has not been carried out, it should be considered in the interests of providing a good public service?

In terms of the complaint itself, you state that “the page you refer to is a summary page and it is not possible to go into all this detail on it.” This may be so, but that is no excuse for inaccuracy. Your piece – and your response – IS inaccurate. You state that “the Telegraph said receipts submitted to the fees office by Ms Swinson, for reimbursement, included the items” but the Telegraph article (whatever other issues I may have with it) goes to great length to make it clear that NOT all the items on the receipts were submitted for reimbursement.

As for the argument that this subtle nuance could not be included due to the need for brevity, the Guardian article (which they have accepted WAS misleading, but for other reasons) stated: “Cosmetics included in her receipts” – that is strictly speaking accurate. You could amend your article along similar lines of:

“The Dumbartonshire East MP, the youngest in the Commons, submitted receipts to the Fees Office for a number of items including eyeliner, a £19.10 “tooth flosser” and 29p dusters.”

That is 29 words, as opposed to the original which was 26 words. If you are really worried that this makes it too long, you could remove “the youngest in the Commons” which is entirely irrelevant (and could be inferred as innuendo in any case) and would save you 5 words.

What I find most outrageous of all however is your refusal to even take action on changing the name of the constituency. There can be no argument here. Her constituency is called East Dunbartonshire or Dunbartonshire East. There is a seperate constituency called Dumbarton. Do you think it is unreasonable of me to surmise that given your failure to even make this correction, you aren’t taking this complaint seriously?

There are a number of questions there. However, given how long it has taken you to reply to my formal complaint, I feel it is reasonable that you answer them.

Yours sincerely,

James Graham

Sadly, I think my chances of getting anything out of these – even for them to correct the name of the constituency – are pretty remote. There is a wider issue about how the BBC handles complaints. As a public service, it ought to be better than the typical newspaper; instead it is considerably worse. I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently and can feel a campaign percolating in my brain.

Finally, I should belatedly link to this article on journalism.co.uk, with full marks to Stephen Tall for taking Andrew Pierce to task.

On 23 May 2009, I wrote a complaint to the BBC regarding the above mentioned article using the BBC News’ Newswatch service (http://news.bbc.co.uk/newswatch/ukfs/hi/newsid_3990000/newsid_3993900/3993909.stm). To date I have received no reply.

On the same day, I issued similar complaints to the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian, both of which were replied to within seven days. I am therefore writing to complain about two matters:

a) The content of this specific web page.

b) The way in which the BBC handles comments and complaints.

THE CONTENT OF THIS WEB PAGE

See NOTE 1 regarding my original complaint, and NOTE 2 regarding my complaint to the Daily Telegraph. Since writing these complaints, I have had a reply from the Daily Telegraph who wrote the following:

“Thank you for your email of 27 May 2009, which was addressed to telegrapheditorial.

“While we note your comments, we believe that the above article was written and in a way that will be readily understood by our readers. The facts are not in dispute and Jo Swinson was given full opportunity to respond. Following publication we were contacted by a Liberal Democrat press officer on Ms Swinson’s behalf. This was only to draw our attention to part of a headline on the website version of the article, whichwas then modified as requested. The matter was resolved amicably and no other issue was raised.

“We are satisfied that there has been no breach of the PCC Code of Practice.

“Yours sincerely,

“Rhidian Wynn Davies
“Consulting Editor”

The Guardian also issued the following correction regarding their own coverage of the story (http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2009/may/27/corrections-clarifications):

“In the category Cheapest claims, we stated without qualification that cosmetics were included in receipts submitted by Jo Swinson, Liberal Democrat MP for East Dunbartonshire (23 May, page 6). Jo Swinson has denied claiming for these makeup items, telling the Telegraph, which originally reproduced one of her receipts, that the cosmetics appeared on a Boots receipt for other items she was claiming.”

The nature of my complaint to the Telegraph and Guardian was different to that of the BBC in that, while I assert the newspapers had both written misleading articles (something which the Guardian now acknowledges), neither of them had issued factual inaccuracies, the BBC article was factually wrong. To reiterate: the BBC story states that Jo Swinson claimed for “eyeliner, a £19.10 ‘tooth flosser’ and 29p dusters” while the original Telegraph article merely states that they appeared on receipts that were submitted. Indeed, the Telegraph makes it clear that not all the items on the receipts were claimed for.

I would still object to the BBC using the same precise wording in the Telegraph article as it is misleading (why is it newsworthy that an MP purchased makeup out of her own pocket). But the BBC, to date, have not even gone that far.

THE WAY THE BBC HANDLES COMPLAINTS

I have always been critical of the way the BBC handles complaints. At the top end of the scale it has programmes such as Points of View and Radio Four’s Feedback which appear to exist for no better reason than to provide BBC producers and opportunity to condescendingly explain why viewers and listeners are wrong to complain about their programmes.

Since the rise of the internet, the BBC has failed to use this opportunity to make itself more accountable and responsive to complaints, even ones of a purely factual basis.

To take my specific complaint as an example, as a minimum I should have right to the following basic service in terms of handling my complaint:

*

If a direct email address is not an option, I should have been able to upload supporting documents.
*

I should have received an acknowledgement that the message sent via the web form had been sent, including a copy of the original complaint for reference (I anticipated this on this occasion).
*

I should be able to track the progress of the complaint online and be able to see if it is still being processed and what the conclusion has been.
*

If any correction is made, the website in question should include an acknowledgement that it has been revised.

Most decent complaints services in the commercial sector provide this level of service as a matter of routine.

In my case, I have no evidence that my complaint has been dealt with at all. While the picture of Jo Swinson has been corrected (which I only mentioned as an aside), the fact that her constituency name has been wrongly listed has not. While I would content that all of my complaint is purely of a factual nature, the question of her constituency’s name is surely beyond doubt (for the record, there are three similarly named constituencies: Dunbartonshire East, Dunbartonshire West and Dumbarton)? I certainly have never received any acknowledgement.

It is not clear from the website whether I should use the “Newswatch” section in the first instance or use this service as a matter of course. I assumed that Newswatch should be used in the first instance while a formal complaint such as this should only followed if I was not happy with the initial response. The BBC website does not clarify this and it is most confusing. It would appear that complaints issued via “Newswatch” are not dealt with at all. I can only hope that complaints made via this route will be treated with more respect.

So, irrespective of the conclusion of my specific complaint, I am asking you to look into how the BBC might better handle complaints in future.

Yours faithfully,

James Graham

NOTE 1

Original Complaint Submitted on 23 May 2009:

I am writing with regard to your section on MPs expenses, and specifically your coverage of Jo Swinson MP’s alleged claims (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8047390.stm#swinson_jo).

I have already written to the Telegraph about this story (see below). Your article goes significantly further than the Telegraph article. The Telegraph at all times are careful not to actually claim that Jo Swinson MP claimed cosmetics on expenses, merely that cosmetics had appeared on receipts that had been submitted to the Fees Office (nonetheless, I would still contest that this is highly misleading – and almost certainly mislead you).

By contrast, the BBC article baldly asserts – without any substantiation whatsoever – “The Dumbartonshire [sic] East MP, the youngest in the Commons, put a series of small claims on expenses, including eyeliner, a £19.10 ‘tooth flosser’ and 29p dusters. ”

It is wholly unacceptable of the BBC to republish – and indeed embellish – claims made by a commercial newspaper without seeking to substantiate them first. This isn’t journalism, this is engaging in a game of Chinese whispers. I would therefore ask that you publish a retraction to this story, together with an apology to Jo Swinson.

If I do not hear from you within seven days, I will take this matter further with the BBC Trust.

Yours faithfully,

James Graham

PS As an aside, I should point out that Jo Swinson’s constituency is called East Dunbartonshire and that photograph you are illustrating this story with is of Alan Beith and Diane Maddock.

NOTE 2

Complaint to Daily Telegraph, 23 May 2009:

Dear Mr Lewis,

With regards to your article “Tooth flosser, eyeliner and 29p dusters for the makeover queen” (page 6 of Daily Telegraph #47,888, Thursday 21 May 2009):

First of all, I would like to remind you of the Press Complaints Commission’s Code of Practice – of which the Daily Telegraph professes to follow:

“Accuracy

“i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.

“ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published.”

The aforementioned article contains a number of misleading statements. A superficial reading of the article would lead the casual reader to assume that the record of Jo Swinson MP’s expenses claims demonstrate that she had claimed for makeup and dusters. However, a more careful reading reveals the following information:

1 that although receipts containing those items had been submitted, there is no actual evidence that these specific items had been claimed for. Indeed, this claim is explicitly denied by Jo Swinson herself and no evidence has been brought forward to give us cause to doubt this whatsoever.

2 furthermore, that in at least one case the items which had been claimed for were clearly marked by an asterisk. In the case of the eyeliner and dusters this was not the case.

3 the claim that Jo Swinson is ‘known in Westminster for the attention she pays to her appearance’ is entirely unsubstantiated and innuendo-laden. There is nothing remarkable about a Member of Parliament not wishing to look unkempt; indeed they would be open to criticism if they did so.

4 the headline epithet ‘makeover queen’ is equally unsubstantiated. No-one appears to have called Jo Swinson this apart from the article’s author, Rosa Prince, herself.

5 the page design is clearly intended to convey the idea that Jo Swinson has had numerous ‘makeovers’ – yet the photographs provided are merely pictures of her looking slightly different over a period of eight years.

The article, ostensibly about MPs’ expenses, is clearly intended to convey the impression that Jo Swinson has been buying makeup and charging taxpayers. Given that the article itself contains no evidence whatsover to indicate that this might be the case, the article is certainly misleading. Including a denial by Jo Swinson does not go anywhere near to correcting this as it works on the ‘no smoke without fire principle.’ Furthermore, nowhere in the article do you state Jo Swinson’s impeccable record in calling for MPs’ expenses to be published and for the system to be reformed.

The ultimate effect of this article is to smear an MP with a strong track record of reform with the same brush as some of the worst offenders. This is a complete distortion.

I must ask you to publish a retraction of the article, making it clear that there is no evidence that Jo Swinson MP has claimed the cost of her makeup on expenses. If I do not receive a response from you within seven days I will take the matter further with the Press Complaints Commission.

Yours sincerely,

James Graham

Jo Swinson and those complaints

Rob Parsons commented:

OK, I have a nice letter from the Telegraph. What now?

It looks as if Rob got the same letter I did, which read as follows:

Thank you for your email of 27 May 2009, which was addressed to telegrapheditorial.

While we note your comments, we believe that the above article was written and in a way that will be readily understood by our readers. The facts are not in dispute and Jo Swinson was given full opportunity to respond. Following publication we were contacted by a Liberal Democrat press officer on Ms Swinson’s behalf. This was only to draw our attention to part of a headline on the website version of the article, whichwas then modified as requested. The matter was resolved amicably and no other issue was raised.

we are satisfied that there has been no breach of the PCC Code of Practice.

Yours sincerely,

Rhidian Wynn Davies
Consulting Editor

The Telegraph response is as innuendo-laden as the original article. “We believe that the above article was written and in a way that will be readily understood by our readers” – yeah, I believe that too. Just as journalists took it to mean that she had claimed cosmetics on expenses (without actually saying so), I’m sure the general readership drew the same conclusion. And as for “the facts are not in dispute” -that’s only because the issue is not the facts but the way they were presented. More to the point, the fact that they were reported at all given that the story itself contains no explicit allegations of wrongdoing, merely the suggestion of the possibility of it.

To answer Rob’s question, and having spoken to a number of people about this, by response is a grudging “not much.” My understanding is that Jo herself is wary of taking the matter further on the reasonable grounds that a poor ruling by the PCC, whose independence is questionable at the best of times, would simply make things worse. She has a point. It is hard to see where to go from here given that the Telegraph are unlikely to admit any wrongdoing and ultimately have taken steps, however cynical, to stay on the right side of defamation law.

The response from the Guardian was rather more positive. In case you missed it, they published the following in their corrections and clarifications column on 27 March:

In the category Cheapest claims, we stated without qualification that cosmetics were included in receipts submitted by Jo Swinson, Liberal Democrat MP for East Dunbartonshire (23 May, page 6). Jo Swinson has denied claiming for these makeup items, telling the Telegraph, which originally reproduced one of her receipts, that the cosmetics appeared on a Boots receipt for other items she was claiming.

Perhaps this isn’t the apology Jo deserves, but it is at least an acknowledgement that they had no factual basis for the story.

Finally, there is the matter of the BBC. I wrote to them on the same day as the Telegraph and the Guardian yet to date have had no response whatsoever. The offending article is still there. They have corrected her picture, but have not even corrected the name of her constituency which surely even the most arrogant of journalist would have to accept is beyond dispute.

The BBC case is actually more serious than the Telegraph one. Where the Telegraph have published innuendo, the BBC have made a specific allegation despite not even having access to the original expenses records that the Telegraph have access to. They haven’t responded in a timely manner. They are bound by law to be impartial and they are funded out of the public purse.

So the next step, which I will be doing tomorrow, is to issue a formal complaint to the BBC Trust. Watch this space.

In defence of Eric Pickles

Longtime readers of this blog will be aware of my glowing record of defending Conservative politicians – especially Party Chairperkins. But I do think there is a danger in going overboard in criticism of Eric Pickles after his car crash performance on Thursday’s Question Time.

I do actually think that an MP with a constituency 37 miles away should be entitled to have a place to stay overnight in central London. MP’s do often work very long, very unsociable hours. Most companies that expect their staff to work in such a way do allow them to claim for overnight accomodation.

There is a danger that by concerning ourselves too much with Pickes’ lamentable performance that we end up with a more iniquitous system which would shrink the pool from which MPs are likely to be drawn. As I have written several times now, there is a very simple solution: allow MPs to buy second homes on their allowances as at present, but ensure the equity is owned by the taxpayer. That way, if they sell up the money (including any profit) goes back to us. It might give them a roof over their head but never again could it be claimed that they were simply doing it to fiddle the system. What’s more, it is already established practice for certain categories of public sector staff.

It is a very simple reform and I have yet to come across a serious argument against it. From the tax payer’s point of view it is actually better than forcing MPs to only rent property or this crazy dormitory idea that people talk about from time to time (just think of the additional cost of security). Indeed, I believe it was actually discussed by MPs themselves last year – and rejected.

This gets to the heart of the problem. The political class appears to have become incapable of reform, even if it is in their direct interest to do so – enlightened self interest has been trumped by immediate self-gratification. This is just one example, and it is linked to the cheapness with which they are prepared to sell our liberties. There is a word for that sort of thing – decadent – and throughout history we have seen what happens when a country’s elite becomes so chronically out of touch. The courts of Louis XVI and Nicholas II spring to mind.

Revolution is an idea that excites the puerile imaginations of socialists and anarchists – many of whom will be taking to the streets today and next Wednesday. The truth is though, they generally hurt the most vulnerable in society as much as the most powerful, and the insurgent political class is typically far worse than its predecessor. Fortunately, we aren’t at that point yet and there is still time to turn it around. A few more years of recession though and things might be very different.

But every time an MP puts in a preening, arrogant performance like Eric Pickles did this week, it enrages yet more people. This wasn’t so much a case of “let them eat cake” as “who ate all the cake?” If Cameron has any sense he should slap him down hard.

If you’re not cop, you’re little people.

With the Convention on Modern Liberty now less than a week away, the Sunday papers have been filled with revelations about MP’s making extraordinary claims on their Additional Costs Allowance. I can’t help but feel the two are inextricably linked.

I’ve spent pretty much my whole career defending politicians – first as a paid party organiser and, more recently, working for a cross-party pressure group. I still believe in representative democracy (although I’m aware it has its limitations), I still believe that political parties are necessary (ditto). I defend the right of MPs to draw out of pocket expenses (indeed many ‘expenses’ are in fact office costs); I would even defend ministers having access to the car pool. But I find it extraordinary at how the political class, as a whole, seems to go out of its way to render itself indefensible (and while there are plenty of honorable exceptions, it does appear to be the class as a whole – why else is it that when we hear about the latest scandals about a few bad apples, no action seems to get taken?). The key question is why?

The main problem appears to be a total disconnect with the public. Has this always been the case? I think it probably has, but as the age of deference has come to an end, politicians have only discovered the values in mouthing platitudes about being the servants of the people. Making the actual changes necessary to make it a reality still escapes them.

So it is that Michael Ancram, the 13th Marquess of Lothian and Earl of Ancram, can claim that painting his mansion is “an additional expense which wouldn’t normally occur” if he wasn’t an MP and keep a completely straight face (my other favourite line is ‘He said he was “very careful” and had always taken “satisfaction” in not claiming all his expenses.’ – as if it is okay to fiddle expenses so long as you do it slightly less than somebody else). So it is that Jacqui Smith can max out her expenses paying for her sisters home and be completely nonplussed over what everyone is so annoyed at her for.

The most outrageous thing about the ongoing scandals over Additional Costs Allowance is that the solution is not only simple, but largely government policy. We already operate a scheme whereby ‘key workers’ such as nurses can have a proportion of their new homes bought by the government so that they can afford to live in areas where they are needed but property prices are sky high. When they sell up, the taxpayer gets the equity back (and makes a tidy sum if the property doubles in value). There is nothing – absolutely nothing – to stop MPs from operating a simily equity scheme. Indeed it was actually suggested by a number of MPs as part of a review run by the Speaker last year. Yet the suggestion was rejected out of hand. What possible reason did they have for doing that, other than simple greed (if MPs think they should be better paid and that in lieu of that fiddling expenses is adequate compensation, then let them say so)?

When you are so disconnected from reality, when you have reached a point where all this sort of thing seems normal, is it really any wonder that they value civil liberties so cheaply? If you regard the public as proles who need to be protected for their own good and regard yourself as something else, then why wouldn’t you?

In short, we have reinvented feudalism while no-one was looking (the subservient role local government plays in relation to national government is another aspect of this). Part of the reason it has happened is rooted in our electoral system. Listening to MPs talk about the “constituency link” in semi-mystical terms is extremely reminiscent of how a squire might talk about his God-given stewardship of his fiefdom. Indeed, this is a relatively recent phenomenon; a century ago, MPs generally regarded the constituency as, at best, an inconvenience. These days, MPs seem to be obsessed with casework, at the clear expense of performing their constitutional role as a member of the legislature. MPs then aren’t just condescending about their constituents; they end up with less time to actually scrutinse legislation.

The problem with all this is it isn’t sustainable. With the economy in the parlous state it is in, there is a faint whiff of revolution in the air which looks set to grow stronger as times goes on. Revolutions rarely end well for anyone, and most in reality get pre-empted before they actually happen, yet the political establishment appears to have losts the flexibility which it is famous for. We aren’t getting reform; we aren’t even being given the illusion of reform.

I went to see Mark Thomas live on Thursday. I enjoyed it, but I couldn’t help but notice that after years of being a cuddly national institution, pulling crazy stunts for the entertainment of the chattering classes, he had a regained certain edge. I have a feeling this is what he was like in the eighties before Channel Four took him under its wing. At times, he simply descended into swearing tirades. Now, I seriously doubt that Mark Thomas will become a latter day Cromwell or Lenin, but it was notable at how indulgent the audience was of this.

As a professional campaigner, it is my job to whip up a bit of revolutionary zeal. I’m proud of the part I played in forcing Parliament to back down over its attempt to exempt its expenses from the Freedom of Information Act last month. But I’m aware that with such anger out there the chances of it resulting in actual riots (such as we saw in Greece at the end of last year) are starting to increase. The one thing violence on the streets is unlikely to result in is the a government u-turn on its anti-civil liberties agenda; quite the reverse. And the public; already whipped into a frenzy about crime, terrorism and immigration, will probably go along with that.

My big hope is that the Convention will wake people up to the wider agenda. If the agenda is purely negative – i.e. to stop the government attacking civil liberties and to scrap its existing agenda for a database state – then it will a) be less effective and b) fail to connect with this wider sense of dissatisfaction. We need to link the two, which means both talking about constitutional reform and a more engaged, proactive citizenry.

The Wintertons aren’t abusing the system – the system is the problem

So, let’s get this straight. Nicholas and Ann “ten a penny” Winterton have used the Commons’ Additional Costs Allowance to buy an expensive Westminster flat and, having bought it, have passed it onto a trust to which they now pay rent – via the Additional Costs Allowance.

Shocked? Horrified? Well, you should be, but not at the Wintertons. They are just taking advantage of a fundamentally flawed system. This trick is played by middle class families across the country on a daily basis – the Mail on Sunday commenter claiming that “One rule for all of us, another for MPs” could not be more wrong. And would it really be any less of a waste of taxpayers money if they had never used it to buy a property and instead enriched a private landlord, as a number of MPs self-consciously and piously do? In that respect I have to take issue with Dr Pack over at Lib Dem Voice: the system is most certainly not “reasonable enough.”

If MPs were serious about reform, they’d scrap the ACA and replace it with a trust which MPs could use to buy or subsidise accomodation. If that asset were ever realised, the equity purchased by the trust would simply revert to the trust. This is hardly revolutionary – it’s how the government’s own shared equity scheme for key workers operates. Instead of blowing £20,000 per MP every year, that money would be recycled every time an MP vacated their seat. Given the nature of the housing market, the taxpayer would probably end up making a tidy profit.

But of course, that would mean admitting that the wealth accrued from such investments is fundamentally unearned and a drain on the economy. MPs dare not admit that as it could be the thin end of the wedge. Next thing you know, people would start demanding we tax this unearned wealth in exchange for tax breaks elsewhere. Revolution!