Since when has corruption not been compulsory?

Updated Tuesday, 12th May 2009
With MPs' expenses hitting the headlines, Richard Skellington asks whether Britain is fundamentally corrupt.

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Two millennia ago the great Roman historian and senator, Tacitus, advised the world that in a state where corruption abounds, laws must be very numerous indeed. In the seventeenth century William Shakespeare’s Cardinal Wolsey confided that ‘corruption wins not more than honesty’. A century later Edward Gibbons told us that corruption was the most ‘infallible symptom of constitutional liberty’.

And in the last century Mahatma Gandhi declared that corruption ‘need not be an inevitable product of democracy’, while former Prime Minister Anthony Eden thought that corruption had ‘never been compulsory’ and that there was always another way. All these wise sagacious words over the centuries, and yet, pardon me for observing, isn’t the scandal over politician expenses rather too predictable? We should have seen it coming.

Britain is perceived as becoming more and more corrupt according to the anti-corruption group

With increasing sleaze enveloping the Brown Government during 2009 at the peak of the recession, it is worth reminding ourselves of the findings of the corruption league table for nations, as produced each year by Transparency International. Their latest report was published before the scandal broke over the Prime Minister’s advisor’s email crisis in April 2009, before the controversy around MP second home allowances and before the fall out from the politician expenses furore this month.

Britain is perceived as becoming more and more corrupt according to the anti-corruption group. As examples Transparency International referred to Britain’s ‘wretched and woeful record’ in prosecuting business executives for paying bribes to foreign politicians and officials to win contracts, the plethora of political scandals about ‘cash for honours’ and the government’s decision to drop the investigation into allegations that BAE paid bribes to Saudi royals. These events contributed to a significant increase in the perceived level of corruption in Britain, with a corresponding fall from 12th to 16th place in the world corruption rankings between 2007 and 2008. This is the UK’s worst performance since 1995 when records began.

The survey, which focused upon how we are perceived by people in other countries, revealed that Denmark, New Zealand and Sweden shared top spot, followed by Singapore, Finland and Switzerland, with Afghanistan, Haiti, Iraq, Burma and Somalia in the bottom five of 180 nations. The higher the corruption perception score, the lower the perceived degree of corruption within a country.

In global terms it seems Britain compares relatively well but there are obvious grounds for improvement, even more so now that the world media have feasted on the slow seeping of allegations about the conduct of not so ‘honourable’ Members from all parties.

Britain’s ‘wretched and woeful record’ in prosecuting business executives

Remarkably, since Britain signed an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development global anti-corruption treaty in 1997, we have prosecuted only one person for bribing an official from another government. The Department of Business defended the government’s record in February this year, explaining that twenty bribery cases were currently being investigated following the only solitary successful prosecution in September 2008.

Is it therefore surprising that a government so reluctant to prosecute corruption turns a blind eye to failures of its own, even though, as MPs painfully keep repeating, they were only following guidelines; guidelines of course they themselves set. The herd instinct can have dangerous repercussions where integrity and honesty are questioned.

Is the anger about gardening expenses mountains over molehills?

National media have been rightly appalled at the scale of the exposed expense racket. Whether it be to claim for second homes close to their first home, in one case a mere 100 yards from the second property, or to conveniently change the status of homes to suit their financial best interests, or make claims for repairs and maintenance on properties owned outright by a third party, MPs have badly exceeded the spirit of the guidelines. They have endorsed Gibbons but taken no notice of Eden’s warning.

But I was more concerned about claims for more everyday items, those items which you and I can only purchase with our own salaries.

These items include:

  • Five pence for a carrier bag from a supermarket
  • Christmas tree decorations
  • Light bulbs
  • Bin liners
  • Lavatory seats
  • Tampons
  • Chandeliers
  • Remembrance Day wreaths
  • Lawnmowers and lawnmower repairs
  • Moat maintenance
  • Swimming pool cleaning
  • Dog food
  • Dog enclosure
  • Chauffeurs
  • An ironing board
  • Slotted spoons
  • Comics
  • Nappies
  • The removal of moles from a lawn
  • Pipe repairs under a tennis court
  • Sky sport subscriptions
  • A pram
  • Hanging baskets
  • An IKEA bathrobe
  • Mock Tudor beams
  • Food when the Commons is no longer sitting
  • Council tax discounts
  • Coat hangers
  • Sachets of mulled wine
  • A mousetrap
  • A lemon
  • A wooden spoon
  • A plug

Not to mention the John Lewis shopping list of Plasma television sets, furniture and fittings. Seriously, I ask you, since when is having a clean moat vital in order to be an effective Member of Parliament? And consider the other side of privilege - pensioners struggling on benefits or injured UK soldiers in hospital having to pay to watch television.

According to the Independent, Labour MPs have just been sent an email from the parliamentary Labour party informing them that media reports suggesting that ‘MPS are generally claiming excessively’ are not true. Some experts tell us the expense rip off is because we now have a ‘professional’ politician at Westminster. But I think this insults the integrity of many professionals working in Britain.

What seems clear is that the rising scandal over expenses damages the integrity of our political system. As Transparency International warned us last year we had already begun to slip down the corruption credibility league. I can imagine we may sink without trace once this lot is sorted out. If I were you check the Transparency International website next February and see where Britain has come in 2009. Out of the top thirty is my bet. For a Government obsessed with league tables this CPI league table is one the Government will want to hide from view.

By then of course we might have an ‘independent’ panel assessing all MP claims or a different system to fund second homes but something in what Ghandi told us persuades me that the next generation of MPs may find a way round even the most zealous of watchdogs. Give them a moral compass and they still would want to claim for it.

It gives me no pleasure at all to reflect that while many of these MPs may indeed lose their seats in the General Election of 2010 because of excessive expense claims a few will get to keep those lavatory seats we have paid for.




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