I have a confession. Once upon a time, I underpaid my service charge for almost two years. I don’t remember the precise details, but I think I was paying about £27 per month when I should have been paying £100 per month. This lasted about 20 months.
I had been paying what I was asked to pay and I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong. Sound familiar?
When my landlord informed me that I needed to start paying my latest bill, along with arrears of £1,500, I was very angry. Why? Because they had my direct debit instruction and I expected them to take care of my payments.
I shouldn’t have left the matter entirely to my landlord, no more than many MPs should have left the decisions on their expenses entirely to the fees office.
For me there are some awkward questions to answer:
- Q. Did I know how much my service charge was?
A. Yes, I knew it was about £1,200.
- Q. Did I know how much I was paying my landlord?
A. Yes, I knew it was about £27 per month.
- Q. (in the style of Jeremy Paxman) Did it never occur to me that I was systematically paying less than a third of what I owed?
A. No, it didn’t. Honestly, Mr Paxman, it really never occurred to me until almost two years had passed.
I was mighty angry when I realised I’d been allowed to fall so far behind. Not with myself. I was angry with the landlord. My error should have been spotted earlier. Or, as I still maintain, they should have adjusted my direct debit to match their bill.
I was a little angry with myself, but only just.
I expect a lot of MPs are feeling a similar frustration. Some of them were knowingly milking the system for all it was worth, but others were taking only what they believed they were honestly entitled to. They did not expect the fees office to pay more than this.
The fees office has tended to govern expenses by the letter of the rules. There are some cases where claims have been refused for breaching the spirit of the rules, but they are few and far between.
Personally, I believe I would ruthlessly obey the letter of the rules. Any failure on this would be a genuine oversight. But what right do I have to judge MPs for their adherence or otherwise to the spirit of the rules? The tone of my article on The Thieves of Westminster clearly does.
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?
So what is my ‘plank’? Under the expenses system, I would no doubt have been tempted by certain financial scenarios.
I have some sympathy for Francis Maude’s indulgence. After a series of expenses negotiations, he eventually bought a second second home in London because he could not claim any allowance on either his first second home nearby (which he owned outright), or his main home in Horsham (which he still had a mortgage on).
He has been criticised for this behaviour and, along with other members of the Shadow Cabinet, ordered by David Cameron to stop claiming expenses on the mortgage interest. In the current climate, that is probably the right decision, but I fear that in Mr Maude’s position, I too may have done the same.
This week I’ve been wondering about the case for an immediate election. I hadn’t imagined it would be something Mr Brown would favour, but perhaps the call to do so would become impossible to ignore. However, I have changed my mind. I do not believe an election in the near future would be a good idea.
The public do need to have their say on every apple in the Commons, rotten or otherwise. But the dust needs to settle, and perhaps the MPs deserve a real opportunity to explain themselves to their electorates.
Some MPs do deserve to be turfed out, but not all of them, or even most of them. The trouble is, there is now a widespread perception that “they’re all at it”. I don’t believe that’s true. I do think that these revelations have been valuable, but we need to allow some time to pass before we pass judgement on the defendants. We need to understand more clearly who deserves our wrath and who doesn’t.
So, as I recently suggested, the election is still almost a year away. I believe we need the time between now and then to grasp some perspective on what we’ve learned.