For the past three years Britain's ever-diligent public service the BBC has been fighting a Freedom of Information battle over the expenses of MPs, specifically those of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, John Prescott, Charles Kennedy, Jonathan Sayeed and Menzies Campbell. This week, following a statement from the Information Commissioner's office that such information is "clearly a matter of public interest", a breakdown of some MP expenses were finally released by the Commons speaker, Michael Martin.
The highlights are a £116 TV license for Mr Blair, a £4000 food bill for Mr Prescott, Mr Howard's record "additional costs" (including mortgages, utility bills, council tax, phone bills, cleaning, food and provisions and household repairs, totalling £20,347).
All six of the MPs covered by the BBC request claimed mortgage interest payments on their second homes and five had their council tax paid.
Neil Duncan-Jordan, spokesman for the National Pensioners' Convention, said: "most people have to wait until they reach 75 before they get a free TV licence, and pensioners will be furious to learn that the former prime minister was getting his paid for by the taxpayer."
The results of a second FOI request revealed the second home costs of nine senior politicians from 2005/06, as well as a number of controversial claims on council tax, food and home repairs. It is not yet clear whether or not politicians are allowed to keep the proceeds from second home sales, despite the fact that then Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy's £12,869 additional costs claim all went on mortgage interest payments.
The most damning part of it all is that despite such blatant frivolity in "public" expenditure, there is no evidence that such expense claims breach any rules or laws whatsoever. According to Parliament, the current annual salary for an MP is £61,820. According to the 2007 Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE), the average national salary hangs around £26,000. So why is it that MPs are able to so brazenly spend the money of hard-working citizens, who earn less than twice their salary, on private liberties?
It should be noted that the information provided did not consider all MPs. Labour MP Ann Cryer complained, "we are all assumed to be wrong 'uns.". Liberal Democrat transport spokesman and anti-sleaze campaigner Norman Baker admitted, "this is public money we are talking about and we have to be accountable for it."
But clearly there is a problem with the current system that allows what could be seen as abuse of the governmental expenses system. At a time when the country may be going into economic recession, for MPs to be splashing out on second mortgages and claiming food for free whilst they earn some of the highest salaries in the country beggars belief.
As always, the BBC "Have Your Say" forum filled up fairly quickly with angst-filled comments in the wake of the release. But this time it may all be justified. Here's a pick of them:
One question I'd love to ask a politician; can you name another job in any other sector, in any country, at any point in recent history that allows you to put state taxes, a TV licence, utility bills or household repairs on an expenses form, and if not can they finally understand why politicians are almost universally despised by society?
Some are humourous:
£4,000 for food … at least now it is officially confirmed just exactly who ate all the pies.
And some are downright anger-ridden:
Get these thieves out of the government!! thats OUR money your spending on yourselves, i'll be sending my tv license, mortgage and council tax to gordon brown to pay and claim it as my expenses!!!
Others draw real-world parallels:
MP's shop at the top store John Lewis. Those on benefits shop at Argos. Those of us who work hard for a living cannot afford to shop at either!
In no other job could you claim your TV licence through your company expenses – why should an MP be allowed too?
And back to the anger:
So tell me again, why are taxpayers paying for anything other than business costs? I can understand paying for transportation, even if it is abused, but paying for private home mortgages?!
And on to some hypothetics:
MPs need to start living in the real world. If they had to pay their own council tax, mortgages, utility bills, fuel costs and so on then maybe they'd rethink burdening us mere mortals with ridiculous tax hikes.
Finally, the best idea I've heard all year:
Am I not right in thinking that, as of next week, the lowest earners will start paying MORE income tax. It must be reassuring to know they are contributing so much of their hard earned cash to such a worthy cause. I think it's time for every worker to unite in a national strike and bring this parasite government to its knees. And the condition of returning to work must be that the expenses system is reformed so that MPs make NO profit from the taxpayer.
It's pretty standard for the "Have Your Say" forums to be overwhelmingly populated by comments in opposition of an article or a proposition (in this case, "are MPs' expense claims too high?") because those in favour generally find less reason to bother arguing, but on this topic it's hard to imagine that many hard-working British citizens would have read about the expense claims and not gawked in horror.
An anonymous poster quipped, "makes you think about Guy Fawkes in a completely different way doesn't it?" It's hard to disagree.