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A Retrospective on Parliamentary Standards

28 May 2012

With Parliament on recess, the upcoming Diamond Jubilee and Tony Blair’s evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, today’s political news has been notably retrospective. It’s quite fitting, then, that Baroness Warsi should have rekindled the 2009 expenses scandal by referring herself to the Parliamentary Standards Committee following accusations that she fraudulently claimed for rent that was never paid. 

The accusations – pursued, as in 2009, with abandon by The Sunday Times and The Telegraph – have increased the pressure on Warsi following a string of perceived blunders. All of which has led to a wide range of comment. Given today’s retrospective feel, however, it is a shame that the links with past scandals are so often missed. Especially as that which emerged in 2009 was the direct descendent of a long running saga that played out during the early 1970s and was immortalised in the 1974 headline ‘MPs for Hire’.

The phrase ‘MPs for Hire’ was coined by the often outspoken Labour MP Joe Ashton in an article that called on plans to tighten rules surrounding ‘registered interests’. It became symbolic of a broader campaign to remove vested interests from Parliament that had begun when Ted Heath set up an independent committee into MPs wages in 1970. Published as a scandal surrounding the controversial Leeds-based architect John Poulson – responsible for designing the much maligned City House whilst giving away almost £500,000 in bribes – broke, it also caught the public mood.

The scandal was incredibly complex and much of it – like Warsi’s expenses – was confined to a wide variety of low level offences. Poulson’s links with the Conservative Home Secretary was the exception rather than the rule. Instead, most of it was intricately linked to the issue of MPs pay – which remained artifically low despite Heath’s actions – and a profound lack of financial support to cover their expenses.  But, it also ensured that the entire issue of political remuneration would remain controversial. It was for this reason that an expenses system was introduced later in the decade as an alternative to another full pay review. Ironically, it was the decision to ‘hide’ such moves for fear of controversy that would lead to such public outrage in 2009 and would continue to haunt Warsi today.

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