Given British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s reportedly paralyzing fixation on the smallest details of running a government, it is perhaps fitting that he was brought to the brink of his political demise because of a bath plug. Well, that and a toothbrush holder, a box of matches, horse manure, a chocolate Santa, moat cleaning, and a duck house—not a duck blind, a place where hunters conceal themselves while shooting ducks, but a structure where ducks can shelter in case they’re cold. Or maybe wet.
These are among the things that British MPs have charged to taxpayers under rules that permit them to claim for expenses supposedly related to the performance of their parliamentary duties. And while sticking the taxpayer with the bill for an ice cube tray or a souvenir mug from the Tate Modern museum strikes most Britons struggling in the midst of a recession as outrageously miserly, many of the abuses were much costlier.
Members of Parliament are allowed to claim expenses on a “second home” so they have a place near Parliament to work, in addition to a primary residence in their constituencies. Several MPs made tens of thousands of dollars by charging for upgrades and renovations to their second homes and then quickly selling them. Others didn’t live in their designated second homes, but rented them out for a profit. One MP claimed expenses on a “second home” only eight miles from his first. Another charged expenses for a house that is nowhere near her constituency or Parliament. For a time, Gordon Brown charged taxpayers for two “second homes.”
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A few of the expense claims may be criminally fraudulent. But most, however dubious, are not, because MPs didn’t lie about them. As a police source told a British newspaper, “If someone has claimed £10,000 to clean a moat and used the money to get the moat cleaned, that is not fraud.” In fact, given the astonishing number of MPs who filed them, these expense claims appear to have been an accepted and unquestioned benefit of life as a British politician. And this is what has people in Britain so upset.
The British accept that their politicians are human. They will make mistakes, shout and lose their temper, maybe drink too much. But this scandal has lifted the veil hiding a parallel politicians’ world of entitlement, built with the money but not the consent of British taxpayers. A glimpse inside that world has infuriated Britons and weakened their faith in their democratic institutions and the people who run them. “The expenses scandal has been a massive hit to the whole British political establishment—an unexpected, once-in-a-generation, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime hit to the British political class,” Tony Travers, a political science professor at the London School of Economics, told Maclean’s.
“There is a real sense that it’s shaken loose the moorings that hold this place together,” Francis Elliott, deputy political editor of the Times of London, said in an interview. “It’s felt quite scary on occasion. Ultimately, it looks like it might well claim a prime minister.” Already, six ministers have resigned, and another dozen MPs have quit or announced they will not run again. The Labour Party has suffered its worst result in local elections since the Second World War. The racist British National Party has won two seats in the European Parliament. And the speaker of the British House of Commons has been forced to resign for the first time since 1695.
Like so many political scandals, this one started with an access-to-information request.
In 2005, Heather Brooke, a journalist and freedom of information campaigner, took advantage of a recently passed freedom of information bill to ask Parliament to reveal details of MPs’ expense claims. House of Commons authorities objected. MPs voted to exclude themselves from the relevant act—though the amendment was withdrawn because peers in the House of Lords would not support it. More political wrangling ensued. But eventually Commons authorities announced that all MPs’ expenses would be disclosed in July.
Details began leaking out well in advance of the scheduled release. These provoked public indignation and some amusement. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, for example, charged taxpayers for pornographic films her husband rented. But these revelations were only a sputtering stream of water dribbling through a leaky dike—not much on first glance, but a foreshadowing of the deluge to come.