Secondary: Rapid Response Assemblies
MPs and expenses
By Helen Bryant
If necessary, please update this rapid response assembly when you use it. The political situation changes very quickly.
Suitable for Key Stage 4/5 (can be adapted for Whole School)
To understand what is happening in Parliament and why people are so angry.
- As many of you may be aware, over the past few weeks there have been many disclosures about MPs’ expenses, and how their financial claims have outraged the public and led to high-profile ministers, such as Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, to resign.
- To begin with, I’ll quickly explain what expenses are. Expenses occur when you spend money on something for work. Usually, you can claim the money back at a later date. A very simple example is travelling expenses. For instance, if a teacher spends his or her own money on a train fare to get to a course or a meeting, the teacher can claim the train fare back on expenses; in other words, the money is refunded. That all seems quite fair: if you are spending money for work, then the company or institution you work for should reimburse you. So why is there so much anger over MPs claiming expenses?
- MPs are entitled to claim money for purchases as much as any other employee. However, the money they claim comes from the ‘public purse’ or the taxpayer, that is, all the people in the country who work and pay tax.
- You may have heard the phrase ‘second home’. MPs are Members of Parliament for constituencies all around the country, some of which can be hundreds of miles from London, where Parliament is. They need homes in their constituencies and also somewhere to live in London to allow them to do their jobs. MPs are allowed to claim expenses for mortgages and rent on these second homes and for any maintenance on them. They can claim for numerous other things too, but it would take far too long to go into detail here.
- Acceptable, you might say, so they can do their jobs properly. After all, who can really afford two homes? I, as a teacher, can claim expenses and I am sure your parents have in the past, too. The problem has come, however, with the revelations in the news and, most notably, through the Daily Telegraph that these expenses claims have sometimes been for frivolous things or for something as little as a Kit-Kat. It has become clear that some of our MPs have been claiming much more than they are entitled to.
- Some of the most notable examples are as follows:
clearing a moat
maintaining swimming pools
a £1,645 ‘duck island’
a claim to fit mock-Tudor beams to the front of a house
one MP claimed for a house that was neither in London, nor her constituency. two MPs continued to claim for mortgage interest payments, after the mortgages had been paid off
a trouser press
a bath plug
some Hob Nob biscuits
a donation to a church collection-plate
- What has made people so angry is not necessarily the amounts of money involved (although many claims have run into tens of thousands of pounds); it is the dishonesty of the people who are supposed to be our ‘political elite’. We are all human and make mistakes, but the general feeling of people seems to be that they have been let down by those who really should know better. Also, many believe the MPs should have been aware that their actions would be found out and consequences would come from that.
- I don’t think that one single MP realized the strength of feeling and the amount of anger that would come from the public about these revelations. It is very easy to become sheltered from things when you are in an institution like the Houses of Parliament. They now have to recognize their mistakes and be seen to make amends. Various MPs have resigned or have said that they will not stand at the next election. Many of those who over-claimed have paid back the money.
- Is that the point, though? Sadly not. It is true that when people are in positions of responsibility we expect them to behave in a particular way, and when they do not, they are called to account, and rightly so. The general public would not be allowed to get away with such things, and so neither should our MPs. David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party, has said that MPs ought to be concerned about what their constituents think and to worry about the people who put MPs where they are.
- It is also important to point out that not all MPs have fiddled their expenses and that most MPs do a lot of good and valuable work for their constituents.
Time for reflection
Has anything good come out of this row? A renewed interest in politics, hopefully, and the fact that more people will understand that their vote counts and is important. We have the power as voters to change the government and the people who run our country. Here is just a small fact for you to go away with. Approximately 20 million people watched Britain’s Got Talent, and just over 36 million voted in the last general election in 2005. It is important to realize that we have as much of a say in who governs our country as whether Diversity or Susan Boyle wins a talent competition. In fact, our right to vote is one that was hard won by those who campaigned for it. If we are apathetic, do we really have a right to complain when we are let down?
Give those in authority the wisdom and understanding to do the right things, and allow us to see that we have a responsibility and a right to be involved in the political life of our country.
Let those who have erred understand why people are angry, and allow us to see the difference between the good and the bad and to judge them as such.