LONDON – Forget the fat-cat bankers with their million-dollar pensions. The people who have even the most reserved of Brits spluttering with outrage today are the politicians who ordered the moats on their country estates cleaned and who bought hundreds of sacks of horse manure (presumably for gardening purposes) – and tried to charge taxpayers for it.
It’s all part of a snowballing scandal in Britain that is fast leaving promising political careers in tatters. Day after day, new revelations over expenses claimed by elected officials bring fresh shame to an institution once proudly touted as “the mother of all parliaments.”
On Friday, the debacle claimed its highest-profile victim yet when a government minister was forced to resign over his generous taxpayer-subsidized housing allowance.
Shahid Malik, a justice minister and rising star within the ruling Labor Party, stepped down from his post just hours after declaring that he had “nothing to apologize for” and that his claims for reimbursement for items such as a $3,000 flat-screen TV in his London flat were perfectly reasonable.
Fear and trembling now stalk the august House of Commons as politicians brace for each new round of embarrassing revelations in the Daily Telegraph, the newspaper that obtained exclusively the information on lawmakers’ expense reports.
For more than a week, the paper has served up front-page stories, beneath gigantic front-page headlines, detailing the most egregious examples of what appears to be a prodigious talent by some members of Parliament for milking the system.
No political party has been spared, despite the paper’s right-wing leanings.
Take, for example, former Cabinet minister Douglas Hogg, a lawmaker from the opposition Conservative Party who submitted a receipt that included more than $3,000 for clearing out the moat on his manorial estate in the county of Lincolnshire. (Hogg has denied that he actually claimed it as an expense, saying that it was merely listed on a receipt with other expenditures that he did claim.)
Or his colleague, David Heathcoat-Amory, who asked to be reimbursed nearly $600 in taxpayer money for 550 bags of horse manure, apparently to keep his garden in shape.
Conservative lawmaker Andrew MacKay quit his post as an aide to party leader David Cameron after he said he’d been guilty of errors over his expenses claims.
On the Labor side of the house, former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott twice put in claims to have a toilet seat fixed and spent nearly $500 having mock-Tudor beams added to the facade of his house. Another minister, Barbara Follett, claimed $38,000 in beefed-up security patrols around her home after she was mugged.
Many of the claims did not break any parliamentary rules. But that is precisely the problem in the view of voters angry over the generosity politicians have shown themselves, even as thousands of their constituents are losing jobs and tightening belts.
On Friday, prosecutors and police announced that they would begin discussions next week as to whether any of the expense claims warrant criminal investigation.
Malik, the first government minister to lose his job in the scandal, insisted that he had done nothing wrong, describing his submissions as modest and reasonable by comparison, even though they amounted to about $100,000 over three years for outfitting the second home he keeps in London for his time working in Parliament. According to the Daily Telegraph, Malik put in claims for a $1,100 massage chair, a $1,000 fireplace and a $3,000 TV.
“This isn’t a helipad. It’s not a tennis court; it’s not horse manure; it’s not a moat. … It’s not a country estate,” Malik told a reporter before he tendered his resignation Friday. “I have absolutely nothing to apologize for. I’ve done nothing wrong.”
Nonetheless, his position became untenable after Prime Minister Gordon Brown decided to launch an internal inquiry into Malik’s expenses.
Where the scandal will finally stop, and how many heads will have to roll to satisfy an angry electorate and restore the credibility of Parliament, now at a very low ebb, is unclear.
Both the prime minister and Cameron, the leader of the opposition, have apologized for what has happened and vowed to exert tighter control over the exploitation of perks and privileges within the Palace of Westminster, the grand building on the Thames that is home to the House of Commons and the House of Lords.