Mugging the public

Harry’s Place 

Almost everybody hates paying taxes. I certainly do. But as hard as it might be to part with a wadge of one’s hard-earned cash, one still grudgingly admits that it is necessary to maintain the smooth running of our society, to provide public works and goods, to fund our common health service, and to provide for those unable to provide for themselves, the hallmark of our civilisation.

It is infuriating when those entrusted with the management and distribution of public money – through negligence, incompetence, or plain bad luck – don’t manage to get value for that money or achieve what we, as a society, expected. It is irksome when that money is spent on things we might not personally approve of, but most understand that it is ‘swings and roundabouts’ anyway.

However, the one category which is unforgivable, is when those in receipt of public money take the piss with the public purse.

If, as the tabloid press are alleging, House of Commons speaker Michael Martin, has been dipping into the public purse for bogus housing claims, taxi rides for his wife, and free flights for his family, then this is a very serious breach of trust.

As The Guardian (a ‘berliner’ not a tabloid… yet) says”

“Dozens of MPs have been accused of expenses irregularities over the years. But Martin is in a different position. As Speaker, he is the public face of the House of Commons and one of his roles is to defend its reputation. As a result, some MPs believe that it is important for him to set an example.”

Though, Michael Martin has always been hostile to watchdogs and scrutineers. The more cynical might, in light of recent events, say “duh!”. In 2001, according to the BBC, Parliament’s standards watchdog, Elizabeth Filkin, accused Martin of undermining her role (which was checking complaints about the financial declarations and interests of MPs) and threatening the independence of her office. Last year he was accused of trying to block the Freedom of Information Act being used to publish details of MP’s travel expenses. More recently, The Guardian reported that Martin, “resisted greater independent scrutiny of MPs’ expenses”, was to chair an in-house inquiry following the Derek Conway scandal last month.

And now even his PR Agent has resigned, angry at not being told the truth and consequently inadvertently telling porkies to the press.

Last year, the BBC reported that Martin spent more than £20,000 of taxpayers’ money on laywer’s fees to challenge negative press stories about him.

Tax evasion is a serious crime. If you evade your duty as a tax-payer to contribute your fair share to the public fund, you can go to jail. Is it not far worse when those entrusted with this money dip into it for private and selfish ends?

If not paying in is such a serious crime, then what is dishonestly spending what others have contributed?

If the allegations are true, Michael Martin should go to prison, and so should all the other sleazy MPs and officials from Westminster, to City Hall, to the local council, who treat yours and my money – entrusted to them – as a personal slush fund.

Indeed, as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown asks in today’s Independent, is corruption “now endemic in our political culture”?