You call it corruption, we call it family values

The story may be apocryphal but, si non e vero, e ben trovato. A World Bank official addresses the head of state of some emerging market country on the finer points of the World Bank’s new drive for improved governance at all levels of government and on the harm done by corruption. The Emerging grandee listens for a while and then reflects: “you call it corruption, we call it family values”. Has the UK become an emerging market or developing country as regards its tolerance for corrupt behaviour by public officials?

I am reminded of this story by the revelation in the Daily Telegraph of the shameless and unethical lodging of dodgy expenses claims by many MPs; of multiple switches by MPs of second-home designations to take maximal advantage of the second homes allowance; even of multiple conflicting designations of an MP’s home as either a first or second home, depending on whether the transaction involved Parliamentary expenses claims or the Inland Revenue and capital gains – something that could well be illegal as well as illegitimate and immoral.

Even Gordon Brown forgot the maxim that that, like Caesar’s wife, the prime minister must be above suspicion – pure and seen to be pure. The Daily Telegraph reported that the prime minister paid his brother, Andrew, £6,577 over 26 months from parliamentary allowances to defray Gordon Brown’s share of the cost of a joint contract for employing a cleaner who worked at properties owned (severally) by them in London.

In the most recent update of the contract, drawn up in November 2004, the cleaner was paid £357 a month and was to spend seven hours a week at Gordon Brown’s flat and three hours at his brother’s.  Until the autumn of 2006, Gordon Brown declared his Fife constituency home to be his primary residence. This allowed him to register the London flat as his secondary residence and to claim public money for its upkeep.

In early 2006, Gordon Brown was claiming £241.30 each month for the cleaning of his flat, and paid the money to his brother.  All this is consistent with the statement from No 10, that “There was a division of days and hours – the cleaner working for some time at each man’s flat. ….  The system of payment is clear: Mr Andrew Brown paid the cleaner; Mr Gordon Brown paid him his proper share, which then went directly to the cleaner. There is nothing unusual or wrong about this relationship.” Indeed, if these figures are correct, Gordon Brown’s brother got the rough end of the stick, as 70% of £357 is £249.90, so the PM stiffed his brother for £8.60 each month…

Clearly, even though the payment by Gordon Brown of the cleaner via his brother was not improper, it was stupid to use a family member in a transaction chain involving public money.  I doubt whether the same arrangement would have been adopted if it had been known that this information would end up in the public domain.  The attitude of ‘why bother to do the right thing, when no-one will find out if I do the wrong thing’ betrays an arrogance and a lack of judgement that are deeply unappealing.

By any reasonable metric, corruption is rampant in the House of Commons – on all sides of the House.  Just to be clear about what I mean by corruption, I will use Wikipedia’s definition of political corruption, as “the dysfunction of a political system or institution in which government officials, political officials or employees seek illegitimate personal gain through actions such as bribery, extortion, cronyism, nepotism, patronage, graft, and embezzlement.” The House of Commons Members Estimate Committee was a toothless guardian of parliamentary financial morals.

If any of this behaviour was ‘within the rules’ of the House of Commons, this simply means that the rules of the House of Commons permit – indeed encourage – graft and corruption.  These rules should be changed forthwith, with discretion by individual MPs reduced to the absolute minimum.

Any MP guilty of breaking the spirit of the rules, as determined by a jury of 12 UK citizens selected from the Clapham Omnibus should resign.  The Daily Telegraph was clearly justified in seeking, soliciting and even paying for information on how so many MPs have abused their Parliamentary expenses claims.  It is true that the whole expenses claims data shebang was scheduled to be released by Parliament in two months’ time.  My mistrust of the honesty and integrity of Parliament has, however, become so strong, that I much favour an unexpurgated bird in the hand (and two months earlier) to a possibly doctored, censored and bowdlerised version from official sources.

It is pathetic that Malcolm Jack, the Clerk of the Commons, has contacted Scotland Yard saying he believed there were “reasonable grounds to believe a criminal offence may have been committed” in connection with the leaking of the documents.  Even from a technical legal perspective this would seem to be nonsense.  The in-house mole who duplicated the invoices and other material is no doubt guilty of breach of contract, but not of a criminal offense.  The businessman who hawked the information around Fleet Street is also unlikely to have breached data protection legislation, because Section 55 of the Data Protection Act permits the sale of personal information (which is normally unlawful) when there is a public interest defence.  The Daily Telegraph can hardly be charged with aiding and abetting misconduct in public office, when a public interest defense is so straightforward.

When a surprising number among our elected representatives have their snouts in the trough in a way that is clearly unethical and illegitimate and, in some cases, outright criminal, the act of exposing this betrayal of the public trust deserves a public commendation, not the threat of legal action.

Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

Willem Buiter's website