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Expenses Scandal Puts Britain's Parliament To The Test

Members of all parties made dubious claims, including Prime Minister Gordon Brown's claim of 6,000 pounds
Schadenfreude is the German word for it; the British call it gloating. It means "taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others," and it's not a very nice emotion.

But it's a universal emotion and sometimes it's understandable -- namely, when the misfortunes of others are more or less deserved. Well, they are probably feeling Schadenfreude in Uzbekistan and gloating in Belarus over the latest news from the "Mother of Parliaments" in Britain.

Countries across Eurasia have had to take a good deal of lecturing from Western governments about the need to root out corruption from their countries in recent years. And now, it seems, the members of parliament (MPs) in Britain have been spending taxpayer money -- sometimes a lot of it -- for their own comforts: sometimes big comforts like houses; sometimes small ones like, well, lavatory seats.

It's the biggest political scandal for decades and it began when "The Daily Telegraph" newspaper, a respectable conservative nontabloid, acquired a disk detailing the expense-allowance claims of almost every -- and here I use the formal parliamentary term -- almost every "Honorable Member."

This was an official document. It contained facts, not allegations. The details of what MPs had spent and claimed back from the taxpayer were entirely accurate. The "Telegraph" released them gradually every day over a week. And they were dynamite.

Dubious, Even Fraudulent

Some claims were outrageous because they were so high. One government minister -- probably the richest man in the House of Commons, incidentally -- claimed over the years about 100,000 pounds ($152,000) to pay the mortgage on his second home. He owns, according to the "Telegraph," at least seven homes.

Other claims were outrageous because they were so trivial. What were MPs thinking when they claimed for tampons, lavatory seats, baby's nappies, prams, the repair of leaking pipes, and even the upkeep of a moat around a castle? These are the everyday expenditures the rest of us are expected to meet from our private incomes – well, maybe not the moat.

The worst claims bordered on the fraudulent -- and even stepped over that border. Take the practice called "flipping." MPs are allowed to claim expenses incurred on a second home if their primary residence is far away and they need a second home to perform their parliamentary duties. That's not unreasonable.

But flipping is the practice of claiming for the cost of several homes by changing the designation of each one from primary to secondary in succession. Many MPs "flipped" in this way. One MP flipped four times -- and received almost 80,000 pounds in second-home expenses. He then made a profit of 325,000 pounds by selling one of the homes he'd bought with the help of taxpayers.

A second feature of the scandal was how high and wide it went. Dubious or dodgy claims were made by MPs in the cabinet, on the backbenches, in the major parties, and indeed in all parties large and small.

The prime minister, Gordon Brown, claimed 6,000 pounds to pay for his brother to clean his London apartment. The home secretary claimed money to pay for two pornographic movies her husband watched on television. And Sinn Fein MPs from Northern Ireland claimed 500,000 pounds in expense to attend a Parliament that they refuse to attend on principle.

Reform Under Fire

How did this happen? How did a scandal of this size creep up on the politicians unawares? How did they fool themselves that such behavior would ever be accepted?

Well, there is an explanation. MPs decide their own wages by parliamentary vote. That's open and aboveboard. But they know that the voters think they should be paid modestly. So they decided to vote themselves only modest salaries (compared to the expenses they have to meet) and to reward themselves with large parliamentary expense allowances.

These allowances were not open and aboveboard. At first the claims were probably modest. Over time, though, they took more and more with less and less legitimate justification. And over time their claims ballooned into the scandal -- until the "Telegraph" began to publish the all-too-raw results.

Public anger in Britain now is deep and bitter. It reflects the common opinion, now seemingly justified, that "they're just in it for themselves." It's very likely that in next month's European and local elections the voters will either abstain or vote in larger-than-usual numbers for third, fourth, and fifth parties (some of them very unpleasant parties) rather than casting their usual ballot for Labour, Conservative, or Liberal.

Meanwhile, the House of Commons -- famous throughout the world for its vigorous debates and democratic traditions -- has to pass an important democratic test of its own. It must now reform itself, abandon the corrupt practices into which it has blundered, and establish new and transparent rules for paying itself and meeting its legitimate expenses.

This should have been done years ago -- and it will now be much harder. The British people will be less willing than ever to see MPs get larger salaries to meet the needs of parliamentary life. Reforms will have to be carried out all the same. MPs will have to get less -- and even to pay back some of what they have already received. There is no alternative. The world is watching -- and gloating.

John O'Sullivan is executive editor at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL