This week, MPs escaped expenses investigations after House of Commons authorities destroyed all evidence of claims prior to 2010. It formally brings an end to the investigation into the scandal that began after The Daily Telegraph exposed leaked CDs in 2009.
After the broadsheet exposed the leaks, The High Court ruled against a motion by Commons authorities to prevent the release of further documents and the public outrage that followed brought several high-profile resignations. The reputation of Parliament was badly damaged and is, arguably, yet to recover. Today, members of the public who write to Parliament concerned about their MP’s claims will be told there can be no investigation due to lack of evidence.
Overseen by John Bercow, records of MPs expenses claims will be destroyed after three years in a move that’s apparently necessary to comply with data protection laws. Yet, the pay, discipline and sickness records of Commons staff are kept until their 100th birthday. This inconsistency certainly won’t restore faith in the integrity of Parliament and, at the very least, suggests underhand motives. The public, quite frankly, doesn’t trust politicians any more but they’re not making it any easier for us to change our minds.
Public disillusionment with the established political system is there for all to see – just ask Russell Brand – and if contemporary polls are anything to go by, the result of the next general election will produce another hung Parliament. The rise in popularity of the likes of UKIP and The Green Party show that none of the established parties seems capable of catching the public imagination. People are looking for alternatives. It won’t be hard for Nigel Farage to portray this decision to destroy expenses records as blatant, underhand corruption. At a time where UKIP’s surge in popularity is striking fear into the Westminster establishment, the mainstream parties have handed a potent political weapon to them on a plate.
The referendum on Scottish independence was perhaps the most powerful piece of evidence yet that the population has lost faith with its ruling elite. The referendum campaign was engaging, exciting and a wonderful exhibition of the democratic principle. The turnout was close to 85%, astonishingly high and comfortably the highest level of participation in a modern British election. The English looked on in awe at a campaign that inspired a generation with a positivism not seen in Westminster for years. The result, in the end, was ‘no’ but the legacy of ‘the 45’ will live on because the campaign proved that there’s an alternative to the status quo. The Scottish referendum highlighted mass disaffection with the Westminster establishment not just in Scotland but in England too. So how does Parliament respond? By making sure MPs’ personal expenses are in order. How inspiring.
If the move to destroy expenses records really is to comply with data protection laws, it is hard to argue with the decision. The timing, however, is dreadful. As a PR move, the decision to destroy expenses records at a time of such disaffection seems, if nothing else, infuriatingly stupid.