George Austin examines the nature of integrity and political consequences of the parliamentary expenses scandal, and finds that there are important lessons not just for politicians but for society as a whole
The scandal raised by the Telegraph revelations on parliamentary expenses is hardly unexpected but no less outrageous for that. Of course there are those who claim everything they can extract from a careless system -as there always will be in any profession, even if it would not be possible for most to claim for a duck house or the cleaning of a moat. Even among the bishops, only Bath and Wells has a moat, and anyway, like the occupant of No. 10 Downing Street, he is a merely a tenant.
If the estimate is correct that 324 members will not stand at the next election (including the ones who intended to retire anyway) then those at least who have been found out cannot be much less than half the total number of the ‘honourable’ members of our parliament.
Even David Cameron was accused by the Mail on Sunday of allegedly taking out a mortgage of £350,000 for his second home in Witney in 2001, for which he could then claim the interest payments ‘under the now-infamous Commons Additional Cost allowance’. Then four months later he was able ‘to pay off the £75,000 loan for his Kensington home’. It was of course all above board and no rules were broken.
Moreover, the report goes on to claim that ‘mortgage experts say that if he had taken out £75,000 less on his Oxfordshire property, taxpayers could have been saved more than £22,000 between 2002 and 2007′. Surprisingly (or perhaps not surprisingly!) this did not receive the publicity that others suffered. Nevertheless in spite of this in a poll no less than 83% believed he should pay the money back
Stretching the rules
Nevertheless many – of all parties -seem to have stretched those rules to the utmost and even beyond, now paying back some of the outrageous claims for which they collected the booty. And it is easy to be careless when under the kind of stress suffered by some MPs, and it would be callous not to feel sympathy for the member who did so when caring for a dying wife.
When still serving as Archdeacon of York, my expenses were of course covered by the diocese, and the scrutiny was strict. I used to record my daily car mileage with details of the journeys taken (though I cannot recall if I had to submit these). But it used to strike me that if a journey from A to B one day was 35 miles and another day – because I had perhaps had to make a detour to avoid heavy traffic or to make an extra visit en route – was 45 miles, could that have been judged as a false claim, bringing into question all my expenses?
So it must be with Members of Parliament: some will have made false or exaggerated claims, but logically that does not imply that all are corrupt, and nor does it mean that none have made genuine mistakes, even though sorting the wheat from the chaff is inevitably difficult.
Every year the 30Days column in New Directions reveals beneficiaries of the Commissioners’ Golden Mitre awards for the most expensive bishops and the Wooden Crozier awards for the least expensive, and those for 2008 should soon be released (unless there is a fear of criticism). It is fun – but it does too reveal a potential scandal.
Perhaps the Telegraph will be able to extract the details of these as it did with MPs’ expenses. Unfortunately it is probably the case that the Church is exempt from the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.
Effect on elections
Writing in The Times, Archbishop Rowan Williams rightly pointed out that the question ‘What can I get away with without technically breaking the regulations?’ is not a good basis for any professional behaviour that has real integrity. But he also asks whether the point has not been adequately made by now, and adds that ‘the continuing systematic humiliation of politicians itself threatens to carry a heavy price in terms of our ability to salvage some confidence in our democracy!
It is difficult if not impossible to make judgements about the results of a parliamentary general election on the basis of local and European elections. In those for town councils there are inevitably local issues for voters to take into account, and, rightly or wrongly, there is a general apathy or lack of interest in what happens in Europe.
Of course in the recent voting there was the added issue of the expenses scandal, which may have driven some voters away from the two main parties, and that in itself is a good enough reason why a general election should not take place until the dust has settled. Otherwise there would doubtless be more Monster Raving Loony parties being created and some candidates even finding themselves in Parliament. (I know, I know, all parties have a few of these already, masquerading as Tory, Labour or Lib Dem.)
A test of virtue
Perhaps the most important point made by Rowan Williams in his article is on the matter of integrity. ‘Integrity’ he says, ‘is about what we value in ourselves or our work for its own sake.’ He sees public life as ‘a task you perform because you find yourself in the doing of it’, and without that sense of vocation it is all too easy to ‘slip back to the shabby calculation of what we can get away with’ and that has a cost ‘to my moral health, the person I am.’
Once integrity has been damaged it can never be restored – and this applies at all levels of society, whether it be politicians, bankers and bishops, husbands and wives, or those who put promotion or preferment or pleasure before principles or morals.
At the end of his article the Archbishop reminded readers that ‘we trust volunteers in various settings because we sense that they act out of gladness to be doing what they are doing, never mind the rewards’. That should be a sure test of virtue in every area of life, and was always in the past the understanding of vocation by those who accepted God’s call to service in his Church or in society.
It is not just Parliament that needs to rediscover the meaning of integrity.