LONDON There are titled people in Britain and then there are people who consider themselves entitled. The current scandal here is that the entitled are not the growing number receiving benefits from government, but the many members of Parliament whose highly questionable expenses are jaw dropping, even to the most cynical observer.
In a series of front-page stories last week in The Daily Telegraph, members of the majority Labour Party including Prime Minister Gordon Brown and several cabinet ministers had their expense vouchers published. The newspaper paid an unidentified source for the information, which was due to be released for free this summer.
Ordinarily, one might expect those who have been identified as milking the taxpayers for dubious personal expenses to express shame, or at least embarrassment, but instead the members are unrepentant and fighting back. Given the nature of the expensed items, it is doubtful they will persuade the British public, which continues to struggle financially.
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Barbara Follett, the minister of culture, creative industries and tourism, claimed 25,000 pounds in expenses for security because she doesn't feel safe living in the Soho district. Follett's husband is the best-selling novelist and multimillionaire Ken Follett. It apparently didn't occur to her to ask him to pay for her security detail, or move from a neighborhood she regards as unsafe to one in which she feels more secure.
Immigration Minister Phil Woolas expensed women's clothing and toiletries, including tampons and diapers. Parliamentary rules allow expenses only for items that are "exclusively" for the MP's use. Unless the married Woolas is holding something back, it will be difficult for him to explain how tampons are for his personal use.
Members are allowed expenses for second homes. Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling, however, switched his second home designation four times in four years, claiming the second home benefit each time. Darling recently proposed to increase the income tax to 50 percent. Perhaps he needs the money to help underwrite his expenses.
Margaret Moran, a parliamentarian from Luton South, expensed 22,500 pounds of taxpayer money, just days after she switched her second home designation, to repair dry rot at her and her husband's seaside home, a home located 200 miles from her constituency. Dry rot seems to be a useful metaphor for the condition of Parliament.
As if the outrageous expense claims were not enough, what the Telegraph calls "begging letters" from parliamentarians whose expenses were rejected expose the grip the entitlement mentality has on many politicians.
One Labour MP appealed a ruling against him this way: "From a natural justice perspective I feel a justifiable exception would be the fairest manner to deal with the current situation." He wanted a 3,100-pound reimbursement for a 40-inch Sony TV.
Here's another: "I object to your decision not to reimburse me for the costs of purchasing a baby's cot for use in my London home. … Perhaps you might write to me explaining where my son should sleep next time he visits me in London?" And another: "I would be very grateful if (the expenses) could be paid in the last round of the year on Friday. Otherwise, I might be in line for a divorce!"
Like relatives who overstay their welcome at holiday time, consuming food and drink and soiling your home, politicians in Britain and America come to believe they are entitled to other people's money simply because they win an election. When the relatives leave, the owners usually give the place a good cleaning. That's what Parliament (and Congress) need to do.
The Labour Party might have handed the Conservatives a powerful issue if the conservatives had not also been feeding at the public trough. The Telegraph is following up its stories on Labor with similar reports on the Conservatives. In addition to the second home reimbursements, one Conservative, Cheryl Gillan, the shadow Welsh secretary, claimed an expense for dog food. (She at least promised to reimburse the government). David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader and potential prime minister, (he leads in the polls) apparently escaped embarrassment as his claims have been called "relatively straightforward" by the Telegraph. This might allow him to take on the role of reformer in the coming election campaign.
Conservatives should bring real change to a system that allowed one Labour member to expense the cleaning of his swimming pool. That might be defensible if the member could walk on water.