Posts Tagged ‘expenses’

Tale of two benefits cheats.

February 2, 2010

Without wishing to take all my blogging inspiration from last night’s TV show, I have been thinking more about Tower Block of Commons and specifically the bit when Tim Loughton was being harranged outside a cornershop in Birmingham.

The harranger was expressing to the Tory Shadow Minister his disgust with MPs and their expenses fiddling. He was of the view that politicians were on a different, more privileged legal level and could get away with things that most people couldn’t.

Tim Loughton tried to insist that this was false; that everyone is equal under the law etc. Of course this is true in principle but in practice…?

MPs recently agreed to withhold Harry Cohen’s resettlement grant when he retires after the Labour MP was exposed as yet another expenses cheat. Mr Cohen failed to notice he had accumulated £60,000 of public funds to which he was not entitled. Whilst acknowledging that this was a serious breach of the rules, MPs noted that Cohen had apologised and that his wife’s illness may have been a mitigating factor.

Then there is another benefits-fraud scandal that has been discussed in the Commons. Natascha Engel yesterday brought attention to the plight of one Zoey Smith:

Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab):

My hon. Friend the Minister is aware of the case of Zoey Smith, who, when she was pregnant, worked as a volunteer in a welfare rights office. She wrongly had her benefits stopped, and as a result gave birth two months prematurely. She could not cope, and she has disappeared off the face of the earth. The child has gone into care and the whole sorry story has been a disaster from beginning to end. Does my hon. Friend agree that the benefits regime for pregnant women is incompatible with meeting our child poverty targets?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Helen Goodman):

I am aware of the unhappy experience of my hon. Friend’s constituent, which in essence came down to poor administration in her local benefit office.

The only other mention I can find of the case is in the newsletter of Derbyshire Unemployed Workers’ Centres.

Zoey Smith’s life appears to have been utterly devastated because she was mistakenly thought to be a benefits cheat. MPs like Harry Cohen – as humiliated as they will be and as difficult as it may be for them to find post-parliamentary employment – will probably not suffer so much. Simple juxtapositions like this make it easy to see why people are turned off politics and have so much contempt for their democratic representatives.

Grateful for UKIP

May 15, 2009

Never thought I’d write that.

But given a choice between UKIP and the BNP, Farage and Griffin, EU-bashing and immigrant/homosexual/leftie/etc-bashing, I’d have to go for UKIP. And I suspect that a not inconsiderable number of voters will be choosing between the two when they’re in the polling booths in June.

None of the mainstream parties have been able to escape the ongoing expenses scandal. Our MPs are currently associated in the public mind with taxpayer-funded massage chairs, moat clearing, and swimming pool maintenance. Against the backdrop of rising unemployment, repossessions, and social inequality, as well as regular reports of British troops dying in foreign fields, disenchantment with the political status quo seems inevitable.

‘A plague on all your houses’-thinking might therefore be expected to aid the party most identifiable as the political outsider: the BNP. However, although the BNPers do appear to be especially energised and optimistic about their prospects in the upcoming European elections, the polls suggest that it is the UK Independence Party that is profiting most from the situation.

A plonker, but at least hes not a Holocaust-denier

A plonker, but at least he's not a Holocaust-denier

Obviously it is deeply depressing to see Labour apparently on the same level of support as the Lib Dems and UKIP. Yet for as much I vehemently disagree with the UKIP programme, and think it is ironic that they are doing well out of an expenses scandal considering their own experiences in this area, I’d still prefer them to be the protest vote beneficiaries of this situation rather than the BNP.

When I attended Labour conference in 2004 as a delegate I remember a trade unionist making a speech in which he claimed that “UKIP are the BNP except they’re wearing suits”. Even back then this statement was completely misguided. For one thing the BNP have been wearing suits for a good few years now and they can no longer be easily characterised as neo-Nazi skinhead thugs. It was also ridiculous to equate UKIP’s eccentric hatred of Europe and its staunchly right-wing policy positions with the fascist history of the BNP and its fundamentally racist constitution.

Perhaps we can rest assured that all the anti-politics anger will be channelled into UKIP. John Rentoul certainly thinks so and argues that Labour is deliberately playing up the BNP’s prospects as a desparate means of motivating its supporters to turn up at the polls. But Rentoul appears to have overestimated the difficulties involved in getting a BNP MEP elected. They only need to get around 7.5% of the vote in the North West to have a good chance of winning an MEP (this is where Griffin is standing). In 2004 the BNP got 6.4% in that region.

I would additionally like to learn more about how accurately polling companies measure BNP support. Rentoul confidentially announces that the vast majority of Brits would not consider voting for such an avowedly racist and unpleasant outfit as the BNP. Although I agree that most people see the BNP for what they are, is there not a danger that some people aren’t admitting their BNP voting intentions when being surveyed because of the social stigma attached to the party? Remember that only a few thousand extra BNP votes on a low turnout will see them win their first MEP, so the margins of errors in these opinion polls could make all the difference.

I thus find myself in the perverse position of hoping that UKIP’s strong showing in the polls accurately reflects the public mood. Labour’s kicking in June is probably unavoidable, but crumbs of comfort will be drawn if the BNP fail to capitalise on voters’ anger.

Just what the doctor ordered

May 14, 2009

I’m glad that, amid the clamour of the past month or so, a group of comrades has got it together to start the Wage Concern campaign, lobbying to have Tory MP Christopher Chope’s bill to destroy the minimum wage thrown out of the Commons when it is debated on Friday.

It appears to have some of the best usual suspects from Labour’s online presence behind it: Alex Hilton seems to be co-ordinating a large part of it, and born-again-blogger John Prescott is (of course) right where the action is. The facebook group already has nearly 4,000 members.

This is important, I think, for two reasons.

First, the national minimum wage is one of our greatest achievements in government. Millions of the worst off are its direct beneficiaries. It tells everyone exactly what a Labour government is meant to be about. Its defence should be an absolute concern for any good Labourite.

Secondly, it shows that – notwithstanding the bashing we’ve had over the past week/three weeks/three months/three years (delete depending on how many antidepressants you’ve started taking) – there are still good Labour causes worth fighting for, and good Labour people there to fight them.

It’s easy to lose track of what politics is meant to be about sometimes, especially when the narrative is all process driven. That’s not to say that the items of process being focussed on (expenses, Smeargate) aren’t important or serious or worthy of criticism; just that, fundamentally, we’re meant to “believe” in politicians not because of their personal morality, but because of their political principles and the policies they enact.

Anyway, don’t take my word for it – Stephen Fry agrees.

MPs expenses – debunking the myth

May 12, 2009

I have decided to leave my revision and break my silence on the expenses issue following an interview on the Today Programme yesterday. Bob Marshall-Andrews was running an argument which I believe to wholly without merit in relation to this issue. He is not the first and won’t be the last to make this point, however, given the devastating impact he has had on the reputation of Labour barristers from Kent, I feel obliged to pick on him.

 bma

The argument runs as follows…’Don’t take away all the perks of being an MP otherwise children from poor backgrounds will be deterred from running.’ I find this argument absurd. I would advise Mr Marshall-Andrews to ask the poor children in his constituency what they think of a base salary of over £64,000. Now I concede that for the work they do and the salaries many of them could earn in other careers, the salary of an MP is not high. But this is not the perspective which resonates with working-class children aspiring to become an MP.

Whilst it is disgusting to hear members of the press gleefully taunting MPs on this issue, MPs like Mr Marshall-Andrews are descending to the sort of desperate defences of the indefensible they so often criticise. Listening to Mr Marshall-Andrews reminded me of recents pleas by the bankers not to deny them their £1m bonuses lest they sell up and move overseas . Or the prophecies of doom that increasing taxes on people earning more than  £150,000 would cause some great exodus.

Frankly, a financier might turn his nose up at a base salary of over £64,000, but don’t pretend that tackling this wanton avarice would deter people from poor backgrounds from entering Parliament. All the reforms propsed so far would go a long way to deterring those robber barons intent on squeezing the system for every penny it can give up, but would do nothing to deter people from under-privileged backgrounds. Given the scale of abuse the current system has been subjected to by MPs over recent years, I would advise people like Bob Marshall-Andrews to keep his tail between his legs and his arguments to himself.