This summer the weather may not have been roasting, but I’m sure quite a few MPs must have been sweating like mad, wondering exactly what sort of punishment they would receive in light of the expenses scandal. This week they found out. Never one to miss an easy target, when the scandal first broke I joined every political commentator and amateur blogger in the country in condemning the MPs actions as morally decedent and calling for major parliamentary reforms. It may seem odd then that I actually intend to defend the MPs this week. While it sounds like I’m contradicting myself I assure you that I hope that is not the case.
The reason I am defending the MPs is that I think the punishment imposed is completely unjust and unreasonable. If you don’t know, Sir Thomas Legg, the man charged with deciding the punishment, has decided that the best way of doing this is retrospectively imposing arbitrary limits on what an MP is allowed to claim per week on certain things, like gardening for example. He’s wrong. Admittedly the problem was that the rules in place were so vague and malleable that is was quite easy for an MP to get away with claiming for something that was not so much an expense as a luxury, like a moat. This is a mistake that has been made and we cannot go back and try to correct that mistake, what we can do however is change the rules to make them less open to exploitation. I’m sure such a rule change is on its way and I welcome it, but to charge MPs for breaking rules that did not exist when they broke them is completely absurd.
It probably won’t support my argument to liken this to the Nuremburg trials, but that’s what I’m going to do. At the Nuremburg trial after the Second World War, lacking any actual international law under which to charge the Nazi War Criminals the United Nations created a set of human rights laws and charged the Nazis for breaking them. The problem of course being that the Nazis had broken the laws before they had even been created. As such they were not actually criminals until the laws were created, which was after the ‘crimes’ had taken place. In any normal circumstance the idea that you can be charged for breaking a law that did not exist when you committed the act would be absurd, I do not see how a special case makes it any less so.
This of course is not to say that I think the MPs were in the right when they abused the system, they should still be punished for what amounts to stealing from the taxpayer. This punishment however should not simply take the form of arbitrary limits imposed retrospectively on certain ‘expenses’. Many of the MPs who have been forced to pay back money were not actually corrupt in the same way that some others were; they were simply claiming what they saw they were entitled to. They may be been wrong in that gardening is not so much an expense as a luxury, but it was allowed under the old system and I doubt many MPs really had the time to go through their claims and decide what counted as an expense and what didn’t, that was the job of the parliamentary body charged with regulating the expenses. The real criminals here are the MPs who were actively exploiting the system for their own gain, having one partner claim one house as a second home and the other partner claim the other house as a second home for example. These are the corrupt ones who ought to be punished, not under arbitrary and false limits, but with the full weight of the law. What they have done amounts to theft and they should not just be forced simply to pay back the money but actually punished so as to make an example of them. They should be stripped of their parliamentary seat at the very least.
I suspect that the absurdity of Sir Legg’s punishment will pass by largely unnoticed, mainly because public opinion is so against the MPs on this issue that only a fool would dare to try to defend them. However I think what Sir Legg’s punishment represents is a worrying tendency to simply accept the punishments imposed on wrong doers without wondering whether the punishment itself is appropriate. We must not allow our righteous indignation at the conduct of some MPs to cloud our judgment; it is clear to me that the punishment is unjust and we cannot allow ourselves to accept unjust punishments even when the crime is so appalling. The laws and ruling made by those charged with administering them must be seen to be just or the very integrity of the system is flawed. Tempting thought it is to take our anger out on these MPs, we must ensure that we meet out punishment in such a way as to be fair and reasonable. We cannot allow ourselves to sink to the level of the criminal when we attempt to punish the criminal, or the punishment becomes a petty game of points scoring, rather that the administering of justice.
So this is not a volte-face, I still believe that the MPs are in the wrong and believe that they should be punished. However I think that the punishments imposed are wrong simply because they work on the laughable principle that rules can be backdated to punish people for crimes that were not crimes when they were committed. It is a cliché to say that two wrongs do not make a right and yet in this case the cliché rings very true. If we try to punish a criminal without retaining our own reference point of justice, we become little more than criminals ourselves.