Housing minister Margaret Beckett is the latest to be caught in the 'three homes' row. (Well, the latest at the time of writing, but they're coming through thick and fast now.) That's alongside Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon and Chancellor Alistair Darling. She was given a grace-and-favour home in the grand Admiralty House on Whitehall while she was President of the Board of Trade. But she still claimed £106,000 expenses for a 'second home'. Hoon went one further, renting out his London flat while he actually stayed in a grace-and-favour apartment.
Two things are shocking about this. First, I'm sure that these ministers haven't broken the Commons rules. That's because the Commons rules are deliberately written to allow MPs to claim for just about anything, down to barbecues and bathplugs. MPs have always been embarrassed to put up their own pay, so they got round the problem by voting themselves generous 'expenses' instead. But it's not really expenses – it's really under-the-counter pay. What my colleague Dr Madsen Pirie calls 'stealth salary'. And tax free, of course! The Fees Office actually advised MPs how to maximize their cash grab by making their sister's spare room their 'main residence' and suchlike. They thought their expense chits would never see the light of day – which is why they are now so embarrassed.
You would think that MPs would have learnt to live on the front page. Everything they do gets out eventually. And yet they are prepared to act in ways that might be within the rules, but which were dishonourable and underhand, just for money. It's astonishing.
The second shocking thing is the number of 'grace and favour' homes that the Prime Minister can give out to favoured ministers. Such as the palatial Dorneywood, outside which John Prescott was photographed playing croquet when he was supposed to be running the country. He got fired, but he still hung on to Dorneywood! Likewise, when David Blunkett resigned following a shares scandal, he hung on to his government house in Belgravia! These and other examples are cited in my book The Rotten State of Britain. The evil of this system is that it concentrates power and patronage in Downing Street, and it's one of the reasons why MPs are such lickspittles – they all want to become ministers and share in the perks too!