MPs fiddle while the banks burn

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With bank shares plunging, the economy reeling and bail-out plans faltering, on Thursday we will see the launch at Westminster of a financial initiative that many politicians regard as a top priority: a government-sponsored cover-up of MPs’ expenses. There have been rumours that some MPs might be seriously embarrassed if plans go ahead to reveal full details of their “exes” – second homes, decorators, new furniture, first-class travel, hot and cold running dinners, dry cleaning etc, all paid for by the taxpayer. (Gordon Brown, the prime minister, whose “exes” have already been published following a court battle, seems to have been spending £520 a quarter on dry cleaning alone.) Now ministers have been persuaded to exempt MPs retrospectively from the Freedom of Information Act.

Earlier efforts to do this, including a legal case, failed miserably amid huge public opprobrium. Now the plan is to ram through the exemption by the end of the week using a quaint manoeuvre known as a statutory instrument, or SI. (These enable the government to push through detailed changes to the law pretty much on the nod in most cases and there are more and more of them – 6,550 pages of SIs in 1990 but 12,083 by 2006.)

The impetus for this blatant bid to let MPs carry on spending our money with no detailed accountability seems to have come from the Labour whips’ office (insiders talk of a “shop stewards’ mentality” there) and from members of the Tory backbench 1922 committee. (Snouts-in-the-trough issues tend to be cross-party.) The plot has been hatched under the aegis of Harriet Harman, the Commons’ leader (she wants to close the gap between rich and poor except, of course, where MPs are concerned), and Jack Straw, the justice minister.

“They must be mad,” says Tom McNally, LibDem leader in the Lords. “People have a bad enough view of politics already, thinking we are all in it for what we can get and all on the fiddle. This is one law for parliament and another for the rest. It is shabby and the LibDems will vote against it.” Lord McNally expects the move to pass in the Commons despite the LibDems having a three-line whip against it. The Tory front bench will also vote against, but Tory backbenchers will have a free vote. Yet he hopes the scheme will come to grief in the Lords.

If the plan succeeds there will be an extra whammy for taxpayers. For more than six months, clerks in the fees office have been toiling to put MPs’ receipts online in preparation for going public. On the advice of the Commons’ resident MI5 man, they have also been electronically blacking out all details that might threaten MPs’ security. These include not just addresses and bank details but details of where they shop for minor things such as newspapers. The fear is that villains could hack into the IT system of a corner shop with comparative ease and find an MP’s details that way. The cost of this exercise is huge – no change from £1m. Yet if the government cover-up goes ahead, all that taxpayers’ cash will have been wasted. And for what? After all, the more secretive MPs are, the more the voters are going to wonder what it is they have to hide. Outraged? You should be. MPs are as bad as the bankers.

Whitehall’s hurt

Calls by that old goat (government of all the talents) Digby Jones to sack half the civil service have left officials at the business department feeling “gutted”. Lord Jones was briefly a minister there. I am told his officials liked him and felt they had given him good service. “They did much to rescue him from his own big mouth,” says one insider, adding that Lord J “clearly found the discipline of the diary and consulting with colleagues difficult”.

Yet he knew the rules when he took the job and officials who protected him when he spoke out of turn felt “hurt” by his outburst. Why did he do it? “Well,” says another senior figure, “he was appearing before MPs on the public administration select committee and, given the choice between saying something eye-catching with a big number or not, he’ll do the former. Digby is Digby.”

What of Lord J’s claims that officials are never sacked – only redeployed? “Well of course – what sensible system doesn’t redeploy people when it’s so much cheaper than making them redundant?”

Going nowhere

According to rumour control, Treasury officials are considering a new scheme for cutting costs: until further notice, the light at the end of the tunnel will be switched off.

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