Voices: MPs spending public money on Christmas parties? Fair enough

At any given time there are 650 members of parliament, which means there are somewhere in the region of at least 630 that nobody normal has ever heard of. The aggressive and ongoing traducing of their reputation is a surprisingly niche pursuit in which most of them hardly engage at all.

Statistically speaking, barely more than a couple of them are jailed each year. The number who have engaged in various acts of sexual assault tends to hover around the single and double figure margin. The ones who absolutely cannot prevent themselves from accepting daily invitations to go on the news channels and make complete cretins of themselves is probably two dozen at most.

That they are, by and large, vilified is an unfortunate – though unsurprising – outcome for which the great majority of them are not to blame. But it is not even all the wronguns’ fault either. There appear to be great complex systems working against them.

Quite a few years ago, it having been deemed ridiculous that they should vote on their own salaries, they set up an independent pay review body. And ever since they did that, the independent pay review body keeps on recommending them for massive pay rises; far above the going rate for public sector workers and far beyond anything they would ever have dared vote for themselves.

After the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009, there were reforms again. The system that had allowed (indeed, recommended) MPs spend huge sums on home improvements that were a clear moral outrage, was done away with. There is yet more independent oversight. And now, said independent overseers have concluded that MPs may spend public money on Christmas parties for their staff.

Is it possible to think this is fair enough? Teachers, hospital workers, civil servants and goodness knows who else all have access to small pots of public funds through which to have a quiet drink and nibble at Christmas time. It hardly seems an outrage that the really quite poorly paid people who work for MPs, which is very much an act of public service, might also be permitted to; not least as the guidance clearly states that it does not include alcohol.

But more to the point, it is possible to feel sorry for the huge numbers of MPs who simply do not want this scandal thrust upon them. Labour’s Chris Bryant and Jess Philips are just two of the great number who took about 30 seconds to make clear that they will never be claiming public money for an office Christmas do, and nor do they know anyone who will or who wants to.

Christmases tend to roll into one in Westminster. It is almost exactly a year since the footage first appeared, of Allegra Stratton cracking up laughing while trying to come up with a way to defend a clearly illegal Christmas party in Downing Street that had happened a full year before that.

This Christmas, there will now certainly be MPs who don’t bother having a Christmas get together with staff at all, for fear that someone may wrongly imagine them to be claiming said do on the taxpayer, even if they weren’t.

MPs can be strange fellows. Life under the constant attention of political journalists can send them slightly mad. Twelve years ago, it emerged that William Hague had been sharing a bedroom with one of his special advisers while on work trips away.

The following week was the Labour Party conference. Several senior Labour MPs had already booked apartments in Brighton for them and their staff. Said apartments had many rooms, but only one door. I happen to know that more than one of them banned staff from leaving or arriving at the apartment within an hour of their doing so, for fear of what the media might make of it. That is frankly no way to live. And now they will be terrified of Christmas too.

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The constant – though entirely justified – scrutiny of MPs’ expenses has had strange consequences. MPs, former MPs and even the journalists who covered the 2009 scandal are not altogether certain all of its outcomes have been beneficial.

Before then, it was kind of understood that while MPs might earn less than they might do in other walks of life, the expenses – and particularly the home flipping – made it possible to almost double one’s salary in de facto terms. That attracts people to politics who might otherwise not get involved. There are other factors involved, but you would be hard pushed to claim that, in the last 13 years, the calibre of politician has risen.

That’s a rather different proposition. But rather more simply, would it really be so terrible if a few mince pies and a few sausage rolls were somehow placed on Mr and Mrs Taxpayer? It might not be altogether too terrible if MPs (and especially their staff) were treated a bit more like human beings – if only at Christmas.