Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Runaway Gravy Train

George Reid, the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament in an interview yesterday called for a radical overhaul of MSPs allowances; he's about to retire from his position and leave the parliament. Good news? Yes, but will anything happen? Doubtful. There have been scandals throughout this parliament and despite even Joke Macdonall saying something needs to be done, nothing has been.

The big money fiddle is in the amounts that MSPs can claim for accommodation in Edinburgh. Mr Reid chose to save the taxpayer money by staying in a hotel; many choose to buy second homes in the city. Three MSPs in the last six months have shown how much money is to be made and how easy it is to do it. John Home Robertson who lives in the Scottish Borders, where many people commute from, and represents East Lothian, which is right next to Edinburgh, pays rent on a flat in the city that is owned by his teenage son.

Tavish Scott, the Transport Minister and Lib Dem, is another that’s leapt aboard the gravy train. He first of all lived in his sister's Edinburgh flat, bought it and then sold it for a profit of over £30,000 Mr. Scott now has a mortgage on a 'substantial' Morningside property that he apparently shares with a BBC journalist. When questioned Mr Scott has used the 'no comment' defence, probably hoping that things will blow over. Why should they? Why should he operate within the letter of the code but clearly sit outside the standards of behaviour that we expect from our MSP's. We have so far paid over £50,000 towards Mr Scott's properties, he's pocketed a decent sum of money, is potentially in line to make more and he can't even be bothered to say anything other than, "I'm not going to comment on anything to do with this." Even Mr. Home Robertson managed to say. “There is no question of any financial advantage to anybody,” concerning his own rental arrangements at the flat his son owns.

Mr. Home Robertson confirms that he isn't just 'anybody'. Does that make him a 'nobody'?

Then there's the case of sanctimonious Nicol Stephens, the Deputy First Minister, and another Lib Dem. Mr Stephens saying he acted "in good faith and with no financial gain". Does that mean he will give back the profit on the sale of his Morningside residence if and when he comes to sell it? If this situation were not so serious it would be laughable. He claimed thousands of pounds on a house jointly owned with his wife; the rules state the MSP must be the sole owner. Of course without his wife's salary in the mix he wouldn't have been able to buy such a home.

In the Lib Dems pre-manifesto Mr Stephens says. "I want to see the government consultation process reformed...we should give them (the people of Scotland) the facts, meet them face to face, ask their opinion and then tell them the truth." It's hypocrisy - nothing more, nothing less. He, like many of our politicians, has lost sight of what they are there for. It's not self-advancement or anything about self. It's all about service. And as for truth, what was given to the allowances office was not a true statement of his mortgage arrangements.

It's not about whether or not MSPs have followed the rules, it runs much deeper than that; it shows contempt for the electorate. It's no longer good enough for MSPs to say, it’s a new parliament and it takes time to work through these situations. Surely Mr Stephens checked his expense claims to ensure that he was absolutely clean on this? We entrust Mr Stephens to help in running Scotland, yet he appears unable to keep his own house in order. The unstoppable gravy train that ordinary people perceive as running rampant amongst MSPs is a depressing comment on the state of our parliamentary democracy.

It's good that George Reid has raised it but I'm not holding my breath. The fact is that unless the pressure is kept up nothing will happen. The Executive is not in that much of a hurry to resolve it, despite the First Minister's many assurances. They are part of the problem, not the solution.


rosie said...

Have you noticed that whenever MPs are questioned about their huge expense claims, they always say "It's in the rules", and never "I'm just claiming for what I've spent" - which suggests to this taxpayer that they haven't spent the money and are guilty of what in any other profession would be regarded as fraud.

As I'm not Scottish and don't live in Scotland I don't know too much about MSPs and their claims - but considering what a young institution the Scottish Parliament is, I find it rather depressing that its members have jumped so enthusiastically on the gravy train.

Richard Havers said...

Rosie, a prominent thrust of the new Scottish parliament was to do away with the sort of gross expenses claimed at Westminster. The fact is MSPs have grasped the concept of expenses with relish