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British Parliament finds steep cost in 'expense' scandal: credibility

The public is paying for everything from cleaning moats to changing light bulbs. Amid the fury, support for Gordon Brown's party is at its lowest in 65 years.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 13, 2009


Heard the joke about how many politicians it takes to change a light bulb?

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In Britain, voters are less than amused after finding out that the answer seems to be "one," albeit with the help of a team of workmen whose home repair jobs for the same member of Parliament were funded by the taxpayer to the tune of more than $3,000.

The snippet of information is part of a stream of revelations in recent days that have lifted the lid on the culture of manipulation of expense accounts by Britain's political elite and caused deep damage to the reputation of the so-called Mother of all Parliaments.

"This has done enormous damage," says Jonathan Tonge, a professor of political science at Liverpool University. "It also happens to have come at a particularly bad time, when so many people are struggling to make ends meet."

The details on expense claims lodged by members of Parliament (MPs) have been published by the Daily Telegraph newspaper in recent days. The stories are making a mockery of many MPs' attempts to convince voters that they are sharing some of the pain of the recession.

Those tainted by the scandal include a Conservative MP, Douglas Hogg, who lodged expenses claims of £2,000 ($3,025) for the cost of cleaning of a moat around his country estate – not exactly the type of thing that helps his party in its ongoing efforts to jettison an image of being a bastion of the upper classes.

The light bulb gag was inspired by another Conservative MP, David Willets, who billed the taxpayers more than £115 ($174) for workmen to replace 25 light bulbs at his second home in London. The MP, who is nicknamed "two brains" because of his intellect, and who acts as his party's spokesman on innovation and skills, charged another £80 ($121) to "change lights in bathroom," as part of a £2,191.38 ($3,318) invoice for odd tasks that included cleaning a shower head.

From the governing Labour Party, Kitty Ussher, currently a minister overseeing reform of housing benefits for the public, carried out a £20,000 pound ($30,000) makeover of her London home soon after she was first elected, despite already having lived there for five years.

Others lodged claims for gardening and various other costs that were supposedly sustained as a result of their duties as MPs. However, the most damaging revelations relate to MPs who used their parliamentary perks to carry out major refurbishments to properties that were then sold on at a profit.

Damage control begins

Amid a public outcry, parties are rushing to say sorry.

The Conservatives said Tuesday that their MPs would pay back thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money, while a Labour Party government minister, Hazel Blears, said she will repay £13,332 ($20,150) that she claimed for tax on a house she sold.

But the impact on public confidence in politics has already been made.

Mark Garnett from Lancaster University, who specializes in the study of British political culture, says the expenses controversy is unprecedented.

"Obviously we've had major scandals in the past, such as the selling of peerages to the House of Lords in the early part of the last century by the then-prime minister, Lloyd George. But this is unique, for three reasons. First, hardly anyone in the House of Commons is untainted. Even those who haven't tried to make a profit from the system have claimed for items which were not strictly necessary for the conduct of their duties."