Mark Steel: What filthy rich really means

May 23, 2009

British comedian and activist Mark Steel discusses the growing scandal about expenses claimed by British members of parliament in the article published below. The scandal is causing widespread outrage and forced the resignation of House of Commons speaker Michael Martin on May 19 — the first time in 300 years the speaker had been forced out. The scandal has engulfed MPs from the ruling Labour Party and the Conservative opposition. This article was originally published in the British Independent.

By now, the husband of Labour Party home secretary Jacqui Smith's husband must be preparing a new apology that goes: "I am now truly sorry for fiddling porn films on expenses. What was I thinking of? Compared to the rest, I could have claimed for King Dong and Chesty Morgan to perform live on the lawn and not seemed out of place."

How do you top Conservative MP Douglas Hogg, who claimed US$3069 in expenses for the cost of clearing his moat? Presumably he thinks, "No politician can represent their constituents properly if they've got a dirty moat".

Whenever there's a debate in parliament about housing estates with squalid conditions, he must think, "Oh, how dreadful, these poor blighters must make do with a communal moat".

Or fellow Conservative MP Oliver Letwin, with his claim for a pipe under a tennis court. Maybe this isn't the main issue, but why does a tennis court need a pipe under it anyway? Is he having Hawkeye video referee technology installed?

So he'll make a statement saying: "As a member of the Shadow Cabinet, I might be asked to entertain senior businessmen with a game of tennis, and if that was to end in a vicious fight over a disputed line call it would be highly damaging to Britain's interests."

And there's all the Labour MP Hazel Blears types, who see nothing wrong in claiming that, on becoming an MP, they moved into a new residence in a litter bin, which meant the home they had been living in for 20 years was now their second home, and it was essential for their kids they employed a full-time snooker referee.

There's nothing that could now be surprising.

By next week, it will turn out one of them claimed for an original Rembrandt, insisting they lived under it as a second home. Another will have claimed for $31,000 of panda food, or a time machine, or $4600 to have a light bulb changed by Elton John.

David Davis, the Conservatives' former law and order spokesperson, claimed about $3000 for mowing his paddocks. Maybe that's why he was so angry with teenage criminals — he was appalled by their lack of ambition.

What he meant to say was: "These thugs should be ashamed of themselves. Instead of mugging people for a mobile phone, they should grab them and say, 'Don't move, bruv, you're surrounded, innit. Now mow my paddock or I'll mash you up.'"

And so many of these MPs have harrumphed with approval at the clampdowns on false claims for housing and invalidity benefits. They've gone along with campaigns such as "Rat on a rat" and "Benefit cheats, we're closing in".

And then they object, as Luton's Labour MP Margaret Moran did, that they had to claim for a house in Southampton (nowhere near her work) because "I can't do my job without somewhere to be with my family".

So that's what to say if you're caught fiddling the dole. Tell the fraud officer you were saving up for a house in Southampton, because these days a house in Southampton is clearly a basic human necessity, like toilet roll.

Surely the Labour Party must set a target that by 2013, every family in Britain will have a house in Southampton.

But, of course, these people don't think they've done anything wrong because both parties now stand for the values of big business. Lord Peter Mandelson declared famously that New Labour was "relaxed about people being filthy rich".

Politicians move in those circles. Their heroes are Murdoch, Branson and Berlusconi. They inhabit a world of clean moats and mowed paddocks.

Bit by bit, I get the impression the way this country is run is not quite right.

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