August 22, 2017

Refusing their Claims

Refusing their Claims

This was written for Dagen October 2009

We have become used to news of the global financial crisis, but now in the UK we find we have a local crisis also.  It is one not of scarcity but over-abundance, and affects our politicians. The country has been shocked to discover the very large sums of money claimed as expenses by Members of Parliament. The claims have arisen because of the need of MPs for two homes – one in London where parliament meets, and the other in the constituency they represent. Costs of upkeep of these homes are shared by the Exchequer. However, a few of the claims have assumed enormous proportions, and the details are bizarre. Taxpayers have been footing the bill for swimming pool filters, the cleaning of a moat around a country house, servants to look after empty properties, and payments on non-existent mortgages. Names of politicians from all political parties have hit the headlines this week. It is also sobering that the issues have been made public, not by any official report into parliamentary expenses, but through the investigations of one of our national newspapers.

As fresh revelations emerge every day, they are accompanied by calls for the offending politicians to return the money.  And the calls have been heeded. By the middle of last week twenty MPs had agreed to pay back £100,000 claimed inappropriately. As the Parties reflect on all this, there has been a renewed call for a similar exposure to be made of practices in the European Parliament.  Here, however, the note is rather more sinister with little willingness for the figures to be made known. Auditors’ reports seem to have been kept secret, yet we read allegations of some £100 million claimed on top of MEP salaries.

All this has raised two key issues. The first is the relationship between legality and morality. In the UK, none of our politicians has been charged with unlawful activity. There is no suggestion that they were engaged in corruption or fraud. It is simply that there are loopholes in the system which enabled it to be exploited to the financial advantage of those involved. But the electorate is not at all reassured by this explanation.  Just because something is lawful does not mean that it is moral. The point is a contemporary echo of Christ’s argument in the Gospels. He pointed out that  the legality of the ‘Corban’ practices did not make them right. To claim privileges for oneself by depriving the elderly was, however lawful, a denial of true morality. And, two millennia later, we still are conscious of the yawning gap between what the law might allow and what the conscience should forbid.

The second issue is about the nature of public office. It is fascinating that many of those exposed this week as self-interested and complacent are the same people who went into politics to make the country a better place. As we recall their early, passionate speeches we wonder what happened to bring about such a change. How does high motivation with regard to political office turn into compromised practice with regard to the public purse?

The answer may be something to do with a loss of humility. The Christian faith, which has bequeathed much to the politics of Europe, ought to remind us that leadership is fundamentally about service and neighbour love. Politicians are elected to be servants of the people and their calling is to seek the common good. Certainly we need good laws to define a just society and protect the vulnerable. But we also need a humble view of public office which discards privilege and affirms the vocation to serve others. Only when these come together can we safeguard morality and discourage those who exploit the system to serve themselves.

Dagen October 2009

 

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