Saturday, 16 May 2009

Tam Dalyell's bookcases

More proof today, if any were needed, that the Westminster gravy train welcomed aboard the honourable as well as the dishonourable members. No less a personage than Tam Dalyell, uber-distinguished Labour baronet, the former Father of the House, is revealed as having touched the fees office for eighteen grand to spend on bookcases a matter of weeks before his retirement. Which was a bit steep even for that august body of scrutineers, not generally celebrated for their cheeseparing attitudes to what constituted a necessary and essential expense.

Dalyell, at least until these new revelations, might be said to have put the high into high-minded. He was as noble a crusader for unfashionable causes as the Commons has produced in the past century. Yes, he was boring and obsessive, and through the long years of his service he often ploughed a lonely furrow. He wasted most of the Eighties in an Ahab-like pursuit of Mrs Thatcher over the Belgrano sinking and the Westland Helicopters affair, the latter a convoluted business deal whose principal importance lay in provoking Michael Heseltine's resignation from the Cabinet. I forget what prompted Dalyell to develop his idée fixe for the subject. Dalyell was perhaps the Commons' greatest constitutional nit-picker. His Westlothian question still awaits a satisfactory answer. His mastery of obscure points of procedure exceeded that of any Speaker, and he would have made a fine Speaker himself.

This morning he was on the Radio, explaining how he was "absolutely at ease" about putting in the claim. He was retiring, he said; he had accumulated a lot of stuff, mainly a fine collection of Hansards; and he thought that having some "high-quality bookcases" would provide the best solution to his storage problem. Put like that, it's hard to see much objection to his modest request. Speaking as someone with far more "stuff" than is good for me, I too can see the point of bookcases, perhaps especially of high-quality ones. Indeed, there is sufficient snob in me to feel generally well-disposed towards someone who feels a greater need for high-quality bookcases than for a vast television "home-cinema" system with what is known in the trade as "surround sound", like yesterday's highest profile casualty, Shaheed Malik. I would quite like some high-quality bookcases myself, especially if I didn't have to pay for them. Space might be a problem. Not for Tam, though. The high-quality bookcases make a no doubt handsome addition to his ancestral castle in Scotland.

But here's the thing. Dalyell was leaving. Indeed, that was why he wanted his high-quality bookcases: he needed somewhere to put his Hansards after he had ceased to be a member of Parliament. The expenses regime was supposed to defray the costs MPs might incur while doing their job. By definition, these high-quality bookcases should not have been covered by the rules. Of course, the rules were highly complex, hard-to-follow rules; there is ample proof of that in the fact that so many MPs had trouble understanding them. As, indeed, did the Fees Office. The difference between an essential expense and a discretionary one can be subtle. Exactly how large, or how expensive, does a television set have to be to enable an MP to do his or her job of representing constituents, for example? Even now, no-one really knows. Yet Tam Dalyell was famous, above all, for his mastery of the most obscure points of detail; it was what made him so effective a campaigner, and so intolerable a bore. So he might be thought capable of appreciating that something he intended to use only after he had left the House of Commons was not a Parliamentary expense. Obviously not.

These high-quality bookcases were, in reality, a retirement present. After so long and distinguished career, it might be thought that a subtle hint directed to a colleague might have led to a whip-round to buy him some bookcases. But no: it has to be us. Or he could have done what most people do when they run out of bookshelves and pack the surplus volumes off to Oxfam. He could consult Hansard online, like most mere mortals have to. Or he could keep them in boxes in a cupboard.

Yet Dalyell was, and remains, "absolutely at ease" that he asked the taxpayer for more than many of his constituents earned in a year so he could have somewhere smart to keep his books. If so unjustified a sense of entitlement can infect so upright a character as Tam Dalyell, the rot has spread far indeed.

13 comments:

Matt said...

In my experience, most people will squeeze everything they can out of a system for their own material gain, be it work benefits or anything else. And while some may squeeze more than they are allowed, even the most law abiding and upright (as you put it) will tend to squeeze until they're allowed to squeeze no more.

So wouldn't it be fair to say that what we have here is less a case of corrupt individuals and more a case of a corrupt system, or to be more charitable, at least an ineffective one?

I don't like what's been going on one bit, and yes, it proves that our politicians are a self-serving bunch prepared to play the system for their own ends, but I don't find it very surprising or their behaviour particularly unusual, and it doesn't disturb me as much as the other huge wastes of public money that you rightly comment on here.

I have to sometimes wonder if these micro-scandals serve the purpose of distracting us - the public - from the far worse macro- scandals that are there as their backdrop. Gossip. Sells more papers and is ultimately less damaging than a critique of the issues that really matter?

Sarka said...

Given the endemic nature of this problem, maybe what we need is not so much further and further revelations of sinners, but a white list of MPs who do not have seemed to have played the system in this way.

It would certainly be interesting and instructive to see what sort of profile of the non-expenses-fiddling MP emerges...even if the sample was small.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

There is no sight less edifying than the English in one of their moral panics when the almost the whole nation goes bonkers and loses all sense of perspective and proportion.

Last year it was teenage knife crime. We've got bored of that, teenagers are still being stabbed by the way but we've gone back to ignoring it.

I wonder what it will be next year. The MPs are always much as they have been, mostly very good hard-working and honest people who are definitely not in it for the money but instead to help others. The Scottish had a similar expense hoohah not so long ago and the fuss dies down after a bit as it will here. This time next year I doubt anybody will even remember this. Just like nobody remembers that teenagers get stabbed with knives when it was a burning issue not long ago.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't disagree more with Matt and WoolyMindedLiberal. MPs are taking money from the public purse. They have been allowed to police themselves on the assumption that they are honourable. We should expect and demand the very highest standards from our lawmakers, and if we don't get them they should be fired and if necessary prosecuted.

This goes way beyond expenses, to the integrity of our parliamentary institutions. It's symptomatic of the sloppy thinking and disregard for truthfulness that allowed the House of Commons to vote for a war based on a tissue of lies.

Edwin Moore said...

I think you're wrong Woolly, it goes beyond a hoohah.  The past Labour leader in Scotland, Henry McLeish, had to resign after financial 'improprieties' came to light, but is now regularly quoted by the media as if he were some kind of elder statesman. But that's as much down to the appallingly low quality of 'serving' Scottish politicians as anything else.

Ming Campbell - once seen as a model of probity - looked like a hunted rabbit on Question Time. That's new, that's different

People in Glasgow used to (mildly) speak up for Michael Martin but not any more. I doubt if he could walk safely through his Springburn constituency at the moment - that's also new.

As for Dalyell of the Binns, the man is an oldfashioned Scottish artistocrat and really doesn't care what anyone thinks about his claim for bookcases. Dalyell would regard himself as beyond questioning on probity and simply wouldn't understand the notion that anyone could consider him venal (Ming Campbell lives in our world and understands it very well).

(Tam's West Lothian Question was once a good question but has been dealt with quite simply; no one bothers asking it any more.)

Oh and the SNP - be it noted - are coming out of all this as badly as the other parties.

Matt said...

@Anonymous

I agree with your sentiments, but don't you think it ironic that thousands of pounds wasted on MPs home improvements and the like will elicit a public heckling on Newsnight, whereas billions of pounds wasted on killing other human beings doesn't?

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

In 12 months time we'll know whether this is just another passing media frenzy like the teenage knife crime panic. If I'm right I probably won't even have the satisfaction of telling you as we'll have moved onto something equally trivial.

And trivial is exactly what it is. The big talking points should be that the armed forces have just thrown billions away on air superiority fighters that can be turned into ultra expensive but not terribly good bombers. Meanwhile the troops on the ground are short of cheap kit and helicopters.

But why worry about people dying needlessly when you can have a good old moan about MPs eh? The problem is this constituency link, people expect their MP to be in two places at once, at every vote and speech in the chamber as well as acting as a sort of ombudsman come social worker for their constituents. We should send our MPs to Westminster and not expect to see them back home more than once or twice a year until the next election.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

I haven't bothered with Question Time in years, its become increasingly tedious and more like a radio phone in than a discussion program.

Ironically Ming really is a model of probity as anyone who has bothered to look at the facts knows full well. But of course why would you want to let boring old facts get in your way?

Edwin Moore said...

Ach Woolly, the facts are that claiming for soap and (oh the symbolism) a shit brush -

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article6276925.ece

not to mention 'pleated fabric blinds worth £538, bedside shelves costing £1,420, a new £1,024 king-size bed and a decorating bill of £1,515' tends to lower one's level of public esteem.

Mind you, he's going to pay back the decorating bill

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article6272805.ece

so that's all right.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Divide that £10k by 20 years and Ming has been very abstemious costing the tax payer only £500 / year plus his rent.

He gets no profit from his rented flat, he does not trouser a few hundred thousand thanks to the tax-payer paying the mortgage.

Like I said, the facts are that he is a model of probity. It takes quite some cheek for journalists to portray him otherwise. There are no consequences when journalists lie sadly.

Anonymous said...

The absolute costs involved are completely irrelevant. It is precisely because they are responsible for life and death decisions, for allocating 10s of billions on public expenditure, that we expect there personal use of public funds to be beyond reproach.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

The absolute costs involved are completely irrelevant.Quite so. This is further evidence of a system sense of proportion failure in progress. The sums involved and the number of lives lost really should be completely relevant.

RavingMad said...

Meltdown at Westminster!

Let's have all the crooks standing in a line. Then let's shoot them one by one as a reminder to future generations that we, the people, will not tolerate such odious behaviour from those elected (supported) to serve us.