Porn on the taxpayer

It’s one of those stories that you couldn’t have made up. But with MPs’ expenses, the scandals come so think and fast you don’t need to. Today we learn that the Home Secretary’s husband claimed two porn films on his wife’s expenses. Richard Timney, who is also Jacqui Smith’s parliamentary aide at a cost of £40,000 to the taxpayer, said he understood why people might be angry and apologised. His wife has agreed to reimburse the taxpayer for the porn (though not volunteering reimbursement for her much larger claim for a second home while living in her sister’s flat).

It’s not the first porn-on-expenses story. I’ve written before about how I began my battle for MPs expenses. It was nearly 20 years ago in Washington State. It was my first job as a reporter and I thought I’d score a great exclusive by asking the statehouse for all my local politicians expense claims. Within days I was given boxes and boxes of flight tickets, postage receipts, restaurant bills, hotel bills – even room-service bills. I was especially interested in the hotel bills. My speculation was that lonely senators had a penchant for ordering up porn in their rooms. Imagine my deflation when I discovered every single claim to be totally above board!

Bad news for a young, ambitious reporter. Good news for the taxpayers and constituents. That’s the beauty of a transparent system. It focuses the mind in a way no Parliamentary Standards Commissioner is ever going to do. Any politician remotely tempted to fiddle an expense claim in Washington also knew that all receipts and claims were open to the public, more importantly to his or her consituents. That’s what kept them honest. I’m sure most of them were honest anyway, but there are always a few bad apples. And rather than penalise the whole lot, the transparent system very clearly highlighted who was on the make.

Is it not obvious yet to the Commons authorities that the only solution is transparency? The spotlight will send a number of ugly creatures running, but isn’t that better than allowing them to remain? The quicker the Commons adopts full transparency, the sooner it will be rid of those MPs who are abusing the system and dragging all other MPs’ reputations through the mud.

How much worse can it get? Are the receipts being kept hidden so dire that this continuous flow of scandal is the better option?

The Commons were supposed to publish all expense claims and receipts in October 2008. All the documents have been photocopied, at great expense. I’ve been told the only thing holding up publication is the political will to do so. The authorities want to wait until the last possible moment; until the last day of parliament. But by then it may be too late. Parliament may not have any reputation left.

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