Just watched Question Time, which this week was all about the sorry state of affairs regarding MP’s expenses. A frequently heard comment from the audience was “Why can’t we have a general election, now”, and this was supported (no surprise!) by both William Hague (Conservative) and Vince Cable (Lib Dem). To my surprise, I was more in agreement with Ben Bradshaw (Labour) who said that to do so would let those who committed the most serious offences to get away with it. I’ll explain why I think this is so.
One of the supposed reasons why Michael Martin didn’t want to depart immediately, as Speaker, was that he would not be eligible for a Resettlement Grant. This is an sum of money given to any standing MP who either loses out to the vote at election time, or chooses to voluntarily stand down at election time. The Resettlement Grant is equivalent to 6-12 months of the MP’s salary (depending on time of service) – in Martin’s case it would have been about 64,000 pounds. However, he would have only got this if he could have delayed his departure until the next general election. In addition to the Resettlement Grant (which I suppose can be viewed as a kind of redundancy payment), there is also a Winding Up Allowance of up to 40 grand, which can be claimed to cover any expenses incurred in the 4 months after the MP’s departure. This is supposed to cover things like the cost of terminating staff contracts and office leases, but I have no doubt that some MPs view it as another source of bunce.
Of course, the same applies to all the MPs who have been found fiddling their expenses. Despite lots of talk of ministers leaving posts, or having the whip withdrawn, all of them still have their seats, and will continue to be MPs. Even those who have agreed to stand down won’t do so until the next election, and will thus be eligible for both funds.
So why do them a favour and hold an election now? It will let them stand down quietly, pick up their golden handshakes and bugger off to whatever directorships they can pick up. While if we wait to hold a general election (one is not actually due for 12 months), then that gives the various committees, scrutiny panels and police investigations time to come to conclusions, and perhaps one or two of these scoundrels will be forced to resign early, making them ineligible for the funds.
On a more positive note, I am sure that at least a few of the MPs who have been mentioned in the press do have a genuinely good reason for their expenses, so surely it is just to give them time to either be vindicated or properly exposed before putting them before the voters. Although the Telegraph expose has been invaluable and necessary in exposing this scandal, it does appear that some of their accusations have been tenuous, and not investigated fully.