May 2009

Tax evaders, benefit cheats, British MPs

And the question is: “Name three types of people who regularly steal public money?”

It’s been a quite extraordinary few weeks in British politics. A seemingly endless series of stories has emerged revealing how British MPs have been ruthlessly and systematically exploiting the expenses system in order to syphon public money into their own pockets. Some appear to have spent as much time fiddling their expenses as they have representing their constituents… buying and renovating properties with public money and then selling them on and pocketing the (tax-free) profit. A practice so common they had a name for it… “flipping” they called it.

Completing the phrase with “… the finger at the proles” would hardly be an unfair characterisation of what was going on.

Oliver Letwin: multi-millionaire, director of N.M. Rothschild & Sons, puppy-killer, conservative MP and one of the key architects of the tory plans to slash public service spending when they come into power. Claimed over £2,000 of public money to fix a leaky pipe under his tennis court. You’d really think one of the perks of being a millionaire merchant banker would be that you didn’t have to get your hands grubby nicking money from the till? Wouldn’t you? Still, I guess he can close a hospital ward once he gets into power… he’ll save a lot more than the two grand his tennis court works bill cost the taxpayer. In Letwin’s world, that’s value for money.

One can only assume that Rothschild don’t have quite so liberal an expenses system. Strange, huh? Or maybe they do, but his first instinct was to raid the national treasury rather than his corporation. Either way it’s revealing.

It must make all those firemen, nurses and teachers so angry… they have to pay for repairs to their tennis courts out of their own pockets. And heaven forbid the chandeliers need cleaning!

Jack Straw: textbook example of the corrupting effect of power, from dedicated socialist to viciously reactionary supporter of Blairism, new labour MP and current Minister for Justice. While we rightly hold Letwin in contempt for his sordid pilfering, we can at least assume that there really was a tennis court and a leaking pipe. Jack Straw, on the other hand, claimed £1,500 for Council Tax he never paid. Seriously folks, isn’t that just outright theft? Why are we pussy-footing around this? And how come MPs can claim their taxes back on expenses anyhow? Who decided on that rule? Oh yeah… that’s right…

It’s interesting how many MPs have paid back the dodgiest of their expenses since discovering this was all going to become public. All the while maintaining they’ve done nothing wrong in the first place and they don’t actually have to pay them back, but they will all the same and they would have paid them back even if they weren’t going to be made public, honest. When Jack Straw was home secretary back in 2000 he introduced a series of tough new measures to “crack down on benefit cheats”. I don’t hear him calling for the Serious Fraud Office to get involved in this little bit of nest-lining. When questioned about this fifteen hundred quid he apparently responded; “Accountancy does not appear to be my strongest suit.” I wonder how that defence would work for the average “benefit cheat”.

He once wanted to be Chancellor of the Exchequer you know?

Douglas Hogg: 3rd Viscount Hailsham, voted “Least Likely to Ever Be Known As A Man of The People” at Eton (a great honour for him), lives on a country estate in a castle* called Kettleburgh Hall, believes the public should cover the bills. And what bills they are!

It’s worth mentioning that Hogg denies ever having claimed over two grand to have the moat around Kettleburgh Hall cleaned. You read that right. All the same, it appears on an expense claim which was paid, and he quickly “paid it back” once he learned this would all become public knowledge. But he never claimed it, see?

No. Neither do I.

He also denies that the public is paying for at least one full-time member of staff at Kettleburgh Hall, or that the taxpayer is being generous enough to cover the cost of keeping his grand piano in tune. But they appear on his expenses claim… and he’s paid them back now. They live in a different world, don’t they?

Elliot Morley: First to be suspended. I say “first” with a certain note of hope and expectation. Ex-minister under Blair, strongly in favour of the Iraq War, nuclear stuff (submarines, power stations) and tougher ‘anti-terrorism’ measures. Nice to animals though. Mind you, his respect for living creatures doesn’t seem to stretch quite so far as those who pay his wages; British people.

Of the Jack Straw school of expense fiddling (claim for stuff you’ve never even paid for). But in Morley’s case, he was claiming mortgage payments on expenses for 18 months after the mortgage had ended. That’s £16,000 over a year and a half. You’d think he might have noticed something? I know they get paid alot, and clearly they find it difficult to keep track of all that money, but wouldn’t he have noticed an extra £900 per month just appearing in his account? No?

Well, “sloppy accounting”, says Morley. Shades of Jack Straw once again. It’s lucky these guys don’t have to deal with large sums of money as part of their job or anything. Anyway, Morley has apologised and he’s paid back the sixteen grand. Good to know he still had it lying around.

Andrew Mackay: First tory resignation of the scandal — will he be the last? Let’s hope not. Was a parliamentary aide to tory leader, David Cameron, now just a backbench MP. Still got access to those expenses forms, then. Turns out he was claiming for mortgage payments on two separate properties. Uh-huh, that’s right, the taxpayer was buying this guy two houses. Just to remind ourselves, he was taking home an MPs salary of £63,291. And that’s the minimum… I assume he got a bump for being Cameron’s aide, and whatever else he brings in on the side. But at a minimum he’s earning close to three times the national average wage.

Yet he’s still spending his time working out how to get the public to buy him two houses on expenses. Other than MPs, who else could be discovered surreptitiously funnelling their employers money into their own bank-accounts and not get fired? And not get arrested?

Mackay had to know that claiming a “second home allowance” on two homes not only managed to contravene the most lax set of expenses rules ever devised (impressive in a way), but was just wrong. From any moral or ethical standpoint you choose. How can he possibly remain an MP? Why the hell isn’t he being questioned by police?

Benefit cheats and embezzelers don’t generally get to escape criminal sanction by saying “sorry I’ll pay it back” when caught.

Shahid Malik: biggest claimant of all, junior justice minister, tax-dodger, landlord, safe to say not a traditional socialist. We could talk about the fact that this guy claimed more than any other MP in 2007 and racked up an astonishing £66,827 in “second home allowances” over three years (all the while renting out his “first home”). We could talk about the publicly-funded home-cinema system (apparently those stingy taxpayers would only cover half the £2,500 cost). But what caught my eye was the £65 he got the public to cough up for his court summons for non-payment of council tax.

Incredible when you think about it. Jack Straw, Minister for Justice, claiming back taxes he never paid. On expenses. Meanwhile a junior minister in his department is not only failing to pay his taxes but is getting the public to cough up for the penalties. Justice is blind. And a bad accountant to boot.

He’s agreed to pay back the £65 though. No word yet on the £1,250 for the home cinema system.

Hazel Blears: delusions of being Britain’s second female Prime Minister, objectively the most irritating woman on the planet (which makes her objectively the second most irritating person… Jay Leno just pipping her to first place), recently appeared to diss the Prime Minister by scornfully writing “YouTube if you want to. But it’s no substitute for knocking on doors or setting up a stall in the town centre”. Given that the British Prime Minister and Barack Obama are the only two politicians who’ve been in the media recently for their use of YouTube, Blears seems to be suggesting that the best use of the British PM and US president’s time is setting up a stalls in Scunthorpe or Bakersfield?

And maybe it is. Anything that reduces the number of times I see Gordon Brown’s face on my screen can’t be entirely bad, after all.

But for the first time in her entire political career — perhaps her entire life — Hazel has felt the prod of conscience. In a bewildering recent interview with George Monbiot, Blears came across as having absolutely no self-awareness whatsoever. None at all. It was a little unsettling.

And that utter lack of self-awareness was evident again when — upon hearing that her expenses might become public knowledge — she decided to wave around a personal cheque for the pesky £13,332 of capital gains tax she’d avoided by “flipping” her second home just before selling it for a healthy profit. Not that she’d done anything wrong, you understand? It was all legal and above board. But she’s paying back anyway. Now that we all know about it. And here’s the cheque to prove it.

As has been pointed out, that £13k represents “nearly three years of the state pension”. But Blears saw fit to wave it around on TV and discuss it as though it were something trivial.

That’s why I’ve taken this personal decision to send this cheque which is the amount that would have been paid had it been liable. Which it wasn’t. But so what?— Hazel “Loadsamoney” Blears

Salt of the earth, she ain’t. Thirteen grand? But so what, indeed.

David Cameron: Leader of the tory party, voted “Least Likely to be Held to Account for Minor Criminal Offences Because of How Upper Class He Is” at Eton. And again at Oxford. Deserves a slap, quite frankly.

The glorious leader of Her Majesty’s oppostion has claimed £82,450 over five years. On top of his salary. And on top of being really really rich already.

I realise this is naive of me, but wouldn’t you imagine that when very wealthy people enter public service they might consider using that wealth to minimise their cost to the taxpayer? It’d demonstrate… I don’t know… principles or something? I know, I know. Naive.

Still, he’s paying back £680 of the eighty-two thousand. Not that he’s done anything wrong. Not that he didn’t deserve every single penny of that £680. He bloody well did, you know! But he’s giving the British taxpayer a discount on his services.

Now that they’ve found out how much he’s charging.

* I’m not 100% sure of the technical definition but in my book, if it’s got a moat then it’s a castle.

Posted in: Opinion