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Monday, May 18, 2009

Here's what filthy rich really means-One MP will have claimed for panda food, another for a Rembrandt by Mark Steel

Mark Steel
First published in The Independent on 13th May 2009

By now, 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 Douglas Hogg, who claimed £2,000 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 Oliver Letwin, with his £2,000 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 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 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 £20,000 of panda food, or a time machine, or £3,000 to have a light bulb changed by Elton John. David Davis, the Conservatives' former law and order spokesman, claimed £2,000 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 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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