Monday, 11 May 2009

Hazel Blears

There's safety in numbers in this expenses-exposure business, isn't there? They're all at it, after all. Well not exactly all - David Cameron hasn't been caught out with his hand in the till, neither has Ed Miliband, nor (despite initial excitement) has Gordon Brown, today following his usual practice of only apologising for other people's mistakes. (It's interesting to speculate how things would have looked if all this had been revealed while Tony Blair was in office.) But if they weren't all at it, enough of them were at it to render demands for individual responsibility both exhausting and, in a sense, impossible. If every cabinet minister, and every junior minister, and every shadow minister, with a dodgy expenses claim were forced to step down - well, there wouldn't be many of them left, would there? We would no longer have a government, or many MPs. Of course, there are those who would say that wasn't such a bad thing, especially after watching Speaker Martin's demented performance in the Commons this afternoon.

But if not all, then who? Because, though the important things are apt to get lost amidst the vast, overwhelming welter of information that the Telegraph continues to pour forth, some cases are clearly worse than others. Take Hazel Blears, for example. Here's someone who manipulated the "second home" status blatantly, bestowing it upon three properties in the space of a year. Having used the allowance to furnish her constituency house with an expensive power-guzzler of a TV set and a brand new bed, she then redesignated her London flat as a second home, using the status to avoid capital gains tax which would otherwise have been due.

That's right: a cabinet minister, belonging to a government that has (though only recently, it is true) made much moralistic to-do about tax havens and the kind of creative schemes rich bankers and their accountants dream up to withold money from the Inland Revenue, blatantly manipulates the system so as to avoid paying tax. And then, for good measure, she uses the second home allowance to furnish her new London flat with, among other things, an expensive TV and a mattress. Meanwhile, the constituency she represents, Salford, is among the poorest in the country.

This is pretty shoddy behaviour, is it not? Hazel Blears may not be the worst of the worst, but she's one of the worst. Worse, for example, than David Willetts with his lightbulbs or even John Prescott with his loo seats. She must at least be in, say, the first decentile of Parliamentary badness. One would hope so, at any rate. It would be truly disturbing to think that her behaviour were par for the course.

Oh, yes, it was "within the rules". Which means, presumably, that her profiteering and tax-avoidance, her preference for expensive televisions - including for her London bolthole - when someone with her (I assume) heavy workload can hardly have much time to watch even a cheap set, is all the fault of the rules. Honest, M'Lud, it was the rules made me do it. They practically forced me. Pathetic. Risible and pathetic. She should be hiding her head inside a bucket and refusing to venture out. Instead she appears, chirpy as always, grinning as though she's just received a particularly nice birthday present, in front of the cameras to say, and I quote, "the system is wrong, it needs to be changed". No contrition, no apology, not even the tiniest hint that she may, personally, have done something she oughtn't to.

What is so wrong about the system, Hazel? That it allows people like you to manipulate it to their personal advantage? That might, if true, be a reason to change the system. But it doesn't absolve you of one iota of personal responsibility for your shamelessness and greed. That's your business, not the system's.

The only possible sense I can extract from Blears' "it wasn't me, it was the rules" shtick is that the "rules" function like some sort of drug, and that Hazel (like some of her colleagues, but unlike others) is an addict. As with drink, so with parliamentary allowances, there are some who never touch the stuff; others - perhaps a majority - who manage to consume moderately and within healthy limits; and a hard core of damaged alcoholics who just can't help themselves. They need help, obviously. Perhaps some sort of 12-step programme could be devised to help the likes of Hazel Blears free themselves from dependency. But in the meantime, she shouldn't be running a department of state.

As for whether Blears' manipulation of the system was indeed "within the rules", this must be open to question. "Flipping" between second homes might be allowed technically by the House of Commons, but Blears also told the Inland Revenue that her London flat was her main home at the same time she was telling the House that it was her second home. To make things worse, she insisted at the weekend that her constituency home was always her main one. Which sounds to me like an admission of lying to the Inland Revenue. This is not "within the rules": it is a very serious offence, and I hope the tax inspectors are looking closely at her accounts.

But almost more exasperating than the facts of the case is Hazel Blears herself. George Monbiot, writing up a recent encounter with the Communities Secretary in the Guardian, noted her boundless ambition and preternatural levels of self-belief, which he found "terrifying". Like Blair himself, "she appears to be able to persuade herself of a series of improbable but convenient propositions". He wasn't writing of her conviction that her behaviour in the expenses business was "within the rules", and therefore entirely reasonable, but he might easily have been. The worst of this business might be that Blears, like other sleazebound ministers, genuinely believes that she has done nothing wrong.

Chutzpah - or blatant cheek - is a notable Blears characteristic. Just a few days ago she made a splash in the Guardian with her "YouTube if you want to" jibe aimed (it was generally assumed) at Smiler Brown. Even at the time it seemed impertinent, with its assumption that the main faults of Labour were presentational (although they always say that). Labour "need to show we are still in tune and in touch with people" she said. "We need to have a relationship with the voters based on shared instincts and emotions." This from a woman who knew then, even if we didn't, that the world was about to discover how she equipped both her homes with the latest luxury TVs at the public expense. We are dealing, I think, with someone who has ceased to have any contact with normal reality, but who continues to consider herself "in touch" with the ordinary working class from which she sprung. How does she do it?

Another favourite Blears theme is the danger of cynicism. Cynicism among the public about politicians, that is, not cynicism among politicians when it comes to putting their fingers in the public purse. Feb 6 saw her responding to one of Monbiot's regular attacks on the political class. Monbiot's comments, she wrote, were not merely cynical but "corrosive", and amounted to nothing more than "playground taunts". She accused him of basing his opinions on prejudice. "Imagine if cabinet ministers voiced their opinions without any evidence base", she said, once again demonstrating her lack of acquaintance with irony. Her main objection to Monbiot, though, was that he wasn't elected, and yet presumed to criticise politicians who were!

That little rant was, in a sense, a follow-up to her most notorious excursion into the messenger-shooting business, her speech to the Hansard society in November that accused media commentators of operating "without scrutiny or redress", demanded editors free up more space to carry the unedited thoughts of "elected politicians" and, famously, accused bloggers of the twin crimes of being negative and Tory. There were, she conceded, "some informative and entertaining political blogs" - the ones written by politicians, naturally - but complained that, by and large, they were "written by people with a disdain for the political system and politicians, who see their function as unearthing scandals, conspiracies and perceived hypocrisy".

Like - um - fiddling Parliamentary expenses, perhaps?


WoollyMindedLiberal said...

This is what happens when we let the Hoi Polloi into parliament, back when only wealthy gentlemen were MPs this sort of thing never happened. Its deeply ironic to see newspaper journalists, the worlds most notorious expense fiddlers, journalists forsooth accusing others of excessive expense claims.

valdemar squelch said...

A good post, but I detect a slight wish to turn the heat down on the Tories. They don't deserve it. They are in opposition and do not have even the 'pressures of work' as a real excuse. In opposition all you have time to do is think and talk, and perhaps thinking about expense non-fiddling would have been helpful.

Whether I bin my Euro poll card before the end of this week will probably depend on how much I read about these 'honourable' members.

Incidetally, shouldn't that old convention be modified now? They should call each other 'my rule-following friend', or 'the not-actually-criminal member'. Just so we're all on the same page. The bastards.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Blimey valdemar, you're harsh on the poor MEPs who are NOTHING TO DO WITH WESTMINSTER. What other random criteria are you going to introduce? Will you bin your euro poll card if England fail to win the second Test or if it rains tomorrow? Your position makes no sense. Doubtless the Torygraph would be delighted that they have disillusioned you with politics and politicians so much that you've disengaged your brain completely. This situation favours the Tories as an apathetic and disillusioned electorate is hard to enthuse with notions of reform, progress or change. Only the die-hards who cannot stand the idea that the power they feel they deserve to inherit is not theirs will bother to vote while those used to being excluded will meekly conclude that is their lot in life.

Presumably it will be the turn of Lib Dem MPs to squirm when the papers have done with the Tories.

Letters From A Tory said...

She really does have one of, if not THE, most punchable face in politics - and I'm not usually the violent type.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Not while David Cameron is alive she doesn't .... not by a long, long, long way!

valdemar squelch said...

Woolly, I'd agree with you if it weren't for one fact. The people who are standing for Brussels are components in the same party political machines as those buggers at Westminster. There is a point where guilt by association makes sense. We passed it a while ago. Wake up and smell the corruption. It is our political parties, not the peculiar institutions of Commons or Lords, that are the problem.

'Why don't you form your own party, then, bigmouth?'

Yes, I'll just get a few million quid from all my billionaire tax exile buddies and storm the citadels of power. It was once possible to form a party that was an association of ordinary voters. Now it is not. Today a British political party that wants to win more than a handful of seats doesn't waste time on ordinary people.

The facts are plain enough. The collapse in Tory party membership during and after the Thatcher era has been matched by the collapse of Labour activism since 1997. And this decline has mirrored the drop in the numbers voting at general elections. The masses - oddly, in an age of mass culture - are increasingly excluded from political life, and they know it.

Would the Tories be worse? You assume so as an article of faith. Once I would have done the same, but I suspect they might be a little better, if only because (on any remotely credible swing) they would be unable to rely on a huge majority consisting of backbench timeservers asking 'which lobby do I file into this time?' A government with a majority of, say, thirty is a government on its toes - a governnment that's actually forced to bloody well think, debate, and justify its actions. Remember that sort of thing? It was all the rage once.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

valdemar squelch said... Would the Tories be worse? You assume so as an article of faith.Its something I've learned from long experience. Technically it is an article of faith that the sun will rise in the East tomorrow morning and that just because it has always done so in the past does not guarantee that it will in the future. Similarly the fact that the Tories have been worse for the last few hundred years does not actually guarantee that they will be next year but you'd be very unwise to bet against it!

Remember that a majority of just 1 is sufficient to give electoral dictatorship to Cameron. The unlamented Major Government had a small majority but was not a beacon of probity or excellence - remember Jonathan Aitken and Jeffrey Archer? Cash for questions? Back to Basics? The Cones Hotline? The Dangerous Dogs Act?

It was once possible to form a party that was an association of ordinary voters.When exactly was this? Name the year. Any year. It is just as possible today as it always has been to form a political party and no harder than it always been to win power. New parties did not spring up out of nowhere in the C19th or the C20th you know. The new kids on the block, the Labour Party, was a mass movement that took a couple of generations to win power.

The problem is the lack of any consitution, the lottery of an electoral system and the fact that MPs are in reality chosen by a few people like me - party activists - and not by the voters.

All these things are reformable, they are fixable and all it takes is some self-belief and confidence that change is both possible and desirable. It might not be easy, few worthwhile things are.

The Heresiarch said...

Blimey, Woolly, after twelve years of Blair and Brown you still think the Tories were worse? You are quite beyond help.

valdemar squelch said...

Woolly, name three good measures introduced since 1997 on any of the following: foreign affairs; crime; education; health.

I don't mean three good policies on each of course. Let's confine ourselves to the realms of the possible.

I agree with you about a lot of things, but not about the supposed moral duty to vote Labour, or indeed at all. A decadent, failing system should not be shored up. But we're not going to agree so I'll let it drop. Tell yourself you've won if you like. History will be the judge, and all that.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Kosovo and Sierra Leone for starters.

Health - waiting lists of 18 months or 2 years are a forgotten horror of Tory Government. When Pa WML got cancer he was getting surgery and radiotherapy in weeks. He's alive and in remission. If it had happened before the Labour Government I expect he'd have died.

Education - remember the days of not enough books to go round, leaking schools, not enough teachers, overflowing classes? Schools have had money lavished on them which was exactly what they needed

Crime - well your risk of being a victim of crime is at an all time low. That's probably a result of a strong economy and high employment.

And that's from a sworn enemy of the Labour Party who doesn't go round collecting their achievements in a scrap book and is more interested in picking holes. I'm far better on what they've done wrong!

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

The system is not decadent, failing or beyond reform. I'm never going to tell anybody to vote Labour. If you choose not to vote then you leave it to others to decide on your behalf and have absolutely no right to ever complain about our choices or their actions.

If you want to act like a spoiled teenage brat then that is your right : its a free country after all. Just don't expect anything but contempt though.

The Heresiarch said...

Education - remember the days of not enough books to go round, leaking schools, not enough teachers, overflowing classes? Schools have had money lavished on them which was exactly what they needed.

Yes, I remember those days. I also remember tough exams that were possible to fail and actually learning something. Oh, and no tuition fees. Most of the money "lavished" on schools has gone on buildings. And there's little correlation between the size of classes and the quality of education. Labour money has ruined educational standards and produced a generation with indistingushable and meaningless A grades, that has been worked and tested harder than any before them but, for all that, has learned less. What Labour has done to education is tragic. Spending money is not a virtue.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

I remember well the times when the education system failed a large proportion of those who entered it. In my time it was a competition against my peers so some were doomed to fail no matter how hard they worked.

As you say the current system is not finely tuned to identifying the top 0.5% and directing them to Oxbridge any more. It has gone too far towards coursework, the grades aren't comparable with those of the 70s in any way.

Spending money where money needs to be spent is a virtue. There is a strong correlation between money spent on health and life expectancy after all. I like being alive. I like my relations being alive. I think spending money on this is an excellent thing. You don't - that is your right.

The Heresiarch said...

You write that "there is a strong correlation between money spent on health and life expectancy". Actually, the correlation is rather weak. More money is spent - not by the state, of course - on health in the US than anywhere else, and the US is quite a long way down the league table for life expectancy. There is, no doubt, some sort of relationship between spending money on health and the outcome in respect of operations performed, lives saved etc. But it by no means a direct one. The money spent by New Labour on health has been out of all proportion to the gains made in terms of improvement. A vast amount of it has been wasted. It has not been spent, by and large, on "keeping people alive". Some of it has been spent on making doctors rich. Some of it has been spent on baroque PFI schemes which will take generations to repay. Some of it has been spent on enforcing "targets" which displace effort away from important but unsexy or politically overlooked areas. The mismanagement of health under Labour has been a scandal only minimally disguised by the fact that, among all the money wasted, some of it has inevitably produced improvements.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

You are right that simply enriching GPs for not doing any actual medicine has not been a benefit - its a blunder certainly.

The targets have worked, they did focus hospitals and staff on reducing waiting times. Ma WML having long worked with the mentally handicapped could tell you all about the unsexy, unloved and unprioritised sectors of the NHS.

I agree it could and should have been done better. It would certainly have continued to be done worse had the Tories not been out of power for a decade. It will be done worse when they get back into power - history has taught us that.

Luckily I will be able to afford to go private when Keep-It-Real Dave and Boy George start running down the NHS next year. Fortunately for Mrs WML her prestigious cancer department has been expensively upgraded and expanded so should still be continuing to provide a good service even when it gets neglected for a decade. In about 2020 it will be in as bad a state as it was in 1997 I fear but with luck she might have retired by then.

For those in parts of the country who didn't get their treatment centre brought up to scratch in the last decade, well I fear for you. Move house is my advice.

I forgot to mention NIHCE. That has been an excellent development in UK healthcare, a very sensible policy indeed. The QALY does help focus spending on quality of life not just keeping people alive for a few weeks instead of doing hip replacements or physiotherapy.

Physiotherapy. Now there is a neglected sector ...

Martin said...

It is actually hard to believe that the Conservatives would have been worse. I think this is because we assume that they would have had some sort of opposition.

NuLabour have been able to do what the Tories could not dare, simply because NuLabour banked on getting away with no opposition from the Tories (it was called triangulation wasn't it?) and being allowed to sneer at the Liberals.

Disgracefully, much of the media was complicit.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Martin said...

It is actually hard to believe that the Conservatives would have been worse. I think this is because we assume that they would have had some sort of opposition.
I take it that you are too young to remember the 1990s? Well listen to those of us that were there when we assure you that, unbelieve though it may sound, the Tories were actually worse.

And don't forget that Cameron was in Downing Street, in a junior advisory position, during those dark days. I see no reason for optimism about his administration of Old Etonian Bullingdon Club types. Yes I know he allows public schoolboys in who weren't actually at Eton but only if they are the type who might well have been....

Martin said...

Well I remember the god awful eighties, with its wanton destruction of UK's manufacturing base and, admittedly, due to lack of imagination, I could not think of anything worse. I even voted Labour once (but never again) thinking I might help unseat the ghastly Angela Rumbold .... then there was the Lady Horrible Maitland just down the road. Nonetheless, Blair has carried on where they left off. Yes they have spent money, but most of it has been siphoned off to the city and to Blair's cronies.

NuLabour have done much the same, little better, but often worse and with more cynicism.

To have squandered so much and achieved so little.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

I'll always be proud that I played a part, however small, in ridding Sutton & Cheam of the ghastly Olga.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Money siphoned off to Blair's cronies. Oh dear me, you're one of the Tin Foil Hat brigade. I won't waste any further time on you.

The Heresiarch said...

For what it's worth, Woolly, I believe that John Major's government, especially in its later stages, was one of the best this country has ever had. There were some isolated examples of dodgy practice, but nothing like the wholesale, institutionalised abuse of power that the Blair-Brown years have brought. No government should be in power for too long, obviously. But the replacement of the moderate, rational, restrained and civilised regime of the last Conservative government with the cynical, blundering, intrusive and fundamentally dishonest Blair administration was a national tragedy of historic proportions. We will still be playing the price as a nation when you and I are both dead.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

The Major Administration 'one of the best'? The effects of the botched Rail Privatisation are still with us and despite the untold billions poured down the drain will be with us for the foreseeable future.

I'd agree that in its dog days it was too weak and riven with in-fighting to do anything much. This was by far its best phase, when it stopped making things worse and let the country get on with healing itself. Often the best thing a government can actually do is to stop shaking up, reforming and redirecting education or health - "A policy of masterly inactivity" Lord Salisbury used to call it.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

For shocking cynicism no Prime Minister has come close to John Major when he abandoned the Northern Ireland peace process simply to win the support of the unionist MPs so he could linger on a few more months.

He had the opportunity to achieve something that would stand for generations. But he far preferred to cling on to the trappings of power instead.

John Major still has the Midas touch in reverse, every golden thing he touches turns to shit. Just look at what the once mighty all-conquering Surrey CCC has become thanks to him. My only consolation is that he is wrecking my beloved county cricket team instead of the whole country.

Martin said...

Woolly, I don't know what the "Tin Foil Hat Brigade" is, but I do know that bast amounts of money have been siphoned off to the city courtesy of PFI scams. Perhaps you do not think they are scams, perhaps you consider it money (and lots of future money) well spent.

Perhaps you do not believe that Blair courted cronies in the city. When it comes to "untold millions poured down the drain", Major is not alone!

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

And doubtless you 'know' that the moon landings were faked, that the CIA killed JFK, the US Govt was behind the collapse of the twin towers.

Whether PFI turns out to be a good thing or an expensive mistake remains to be seen. My money is on the latter but then again that is what I said about Thatcher's privatisation program and having been proven wrong once I'm not in a rush to repeat the error. Your wild-eyed claims that Blair or Brown benefitted from it personally or did it simply to make friends rich really are hilarious.

Please go and post such nonsense on CiF as they love that rubbish there. This blog by contrast does have some standards to maintain.

The Heresiarch said...

Ah, Woolly, I didn't know you cared.

Martin said...

Of course, I did not write that Blair or Brown (did I mention Brown?) benefited personally, but apparently this is something you thought. As to the question whether any of Blair's friends benefited personally, I think that who is involved in PFI is on public record.

Let me reiterate your position, which is that the likelihood that any of Blair's friends have benefited from the implementation of New Labour policies is a s likely as "that the moon landings were faked, that the CIA killed JFK, the US Govt was behind the collapse of the twin towers".

Standards to maintain?

curly15 said...

Hazel Blears, isn't she out of control?