Expenses Scandal. Has it Sunk In?

Prime Minister David Cameron was asked to repay £680 claimed for repairs on his Oxford home that included the bill for the removal of a wisteria.

The parliamentary expenses scandal of 2009 shook Britain’s political world. MPs resigned right, left, and centre, and a total of six members and peers were sent to prison. Many politicians were forced to repay thousands of pounds. Jacqui Smith, former Home Secretary, has been asked many times to explain her claims amounting to £116,000 since joining the Commons. Hers also included one of the more outrageous claims logged, when she accidentally claimed for 2 adult films. Many other politicians have attracted harsh criticism for their claims, for instance Anthony Steen, former MP for Totnes. Steen claimed over £80,000 for work on his Devon home, reportedly worth over £1 million. He was forced to repay over £11,000. To add to the debacle Steen said in an interview that critics were simply “jealous” of his house.

This is the sort of behaviour that caused politicians to lose much of the trust the people (still) had in them. As the scandal broke parties had to be seen to be punishing those who had stepped out of line while promising to eliminate such fraudulent actions in future. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) was set up to monitor the new expenses system in order to prevent such an abuse of power by MPs and peers in the future.

However, what’s the state of affairs in 2012? Have the lessons of the expenses scandal sunk in? And have those implicated been suitably punished? Of course those are matters of opinion, but here are some facts.

Baroness Warsi, recently cleared of expenses fraud that included allegations of her claiming rent on a property in which she lived for free, has been removed as co-chair of the Tory party and demoted to a position at the Foreign Office. While she may have been cleared, questions asked after her acquittal made her unpopular, and David Cameron is likely to have wanted to put her in a less prominent role.

Many MPs forced to repay expenses are still in Parliament.

So Lady Warsi has been demoted, likely because of her issues with expenses. However, an old face has been re-admitted to the cabinet. Former Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Liberal Democrat MP, David Laws resigned after only 17 days in the cabinet after having to repay £50,000 and being given a 7 days suspension from the Commons after he claimed expenses to pay rent to someone he was in a relationship with. Guess who’s back? The 2012 reshuffle brought Laws back into the cabinet as the new education minister. His appointment has been met with outcry from some members of the public, and this isn’t surprising. Many already felt distanced from members of the government, even before the reinstatement of such a controversial figure.

MPs have recently been defended by IPSA for claiming to pay for accountancy fees, something HM Revenue and Customs thought should come under ‘personal benefits’. So have the lessons of the expenses scandal been learnt? Whatever your opinion, it is clear that this government aren’t winning any popularity awards, however this is to be expected in a recession. A Guardian ICM opinion poll reported that 25% of those asked would vote Labour in their area in a hypothetical election, while 18% would vote Conservative.

How the newly shuffled cabinet will fair and what difference, if any, the new appointments will make is yet to be seen. Many are seeing the changes as a shift to the right. People are also confused over a possible U-turn over plans to expand Heathrow airport. As always, keep an eye on the news.

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