Infamous British Political Scandals: Expenses and the ‘Rotten Parliament’

Houses of Parliament (Corbis/AP Images)

 

With tonight’s final episode of State of Play (10p/9c), we also offer our final installment of Infamous British Political Scandals. For now, anyway.

American politicians aren’t the only ones who get in trouble for abusing government expense accounts.

In 2009, The Daily Telegraph ran a series of articles over several weeks detailing expense filings, from leaked computer discs, of British members of Parliament. The British public was outraged to hear that they, the taxpayers, were, in effect, paying for everything from gardening and tennis court repairs to flat-screen TVs and even pornographic videos for their elected officials. Some MPs used public funds to pay mortgages on their relatives’ homes, or, in some cases, cited by The New York Times, they claimed money for mortgages that had already been paid off.

The news resulted in lengthy investigations, many resignations (including that of the Speaker of Parliament), the implementation of new expense rules and accounting – and a whole lot of embarrassment. The scandal of the “Rotten Parliament,” as it came sometimes to be called, also resulted in criminal charges, convictions and even prison sentences.

The scandal wasn’t limited to backbench MPs – politicians in the ministries were vulnerable, as well as peers of the House of Lords. And the allegations were against members of all political parties. With stories published daily by The Telegraph, the slow drip of new charges kept the issue on the front burner. Adding to the outrage: Britain was in the middle of the recession and Parliament itself appeared to be fighting to squelch the release of information.

Some politicians tried to belittle the scandal, arguing that it was no big deal. Like politicians everywhere, a few had tin ears, like Conservative MP Anthony Steen who suggested that the outrage over the scandal was a result of “jealousy.”

“I’ve got a very, very large house,” he told the BBC at the height of the crisis. “Some people say it looks like Balmoral. It’s a merchant’s house of the 19th century. It’s not particularly attractive, it just does me nicely.”

Steen apologized for the remark, after then Tory leader David Cameron publicly said that he had reprimanded Steen: “One more squeak like that,” Cameron said, “and he will have the whip taken away from him so fast his feet won’t touch the ground.”

A year later Cameron took a somewhat kinder and gentler position when his newly appointed Chief Secretary to the Treasury David Laws showed some contrition upon being forced to resign after expensing the rent on a second apartment for his male partner.

Laws said that he did it not for money but rather to keep his relationship private: “I cannot now escape the conclusion that what I have done was in some way wrong,” he said, “even though I did not gain any financial benefit from keeping my relationship secret in this way.”

From his own coalition government, Laws’ announcement generated the kind of comments one would expect for a defender of civil liberties rather than for a politician tasked with overseeing the nation’s economy who used £44,000 of taxpayer money to pay for his lover’s apartment.

“You are a good and honourable man,” wrote Prime Minister Cameron to Laws. “I am sure that, throughout, you have been motivated by wanting to protect your privacy rather than anything else.”

The Prime Minister also said, “I hope that, in time, you will be able to serve again.” According to the Guardian, Laws continues to be a key advisor to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who has been credited with coining the term “Rotten Parliament” itself.

But it is hard to overestimate the impact of the parliamentary expense episode. Unlike many other scandals, like simple sex stories that appear to have no connection to governance, or allegations of more complex schemes whose details are difficult to follow, the “Rotten Parliament” appeared to line politicians’ pockets with taxpayer money – for items Britons were struggling to pay for themselves. For many, it was hypocrisy at its worst.

Public outrage was symbolized by the viewership for the BBC news show Question Time, which received its highest ratings ever in three decades on the air during a discussion of the scandal in 2009: