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Can Bronwyn Bishop learn anything from the UK expenses scandal?

Expenses scandals like Bronwyn Bishop’s can have a devastating effect on parliament and on trust in the political system. AAP/Lukas Coch

The recent revelations about Speaker Bronwyn Bishop’s expenses claims have caused something of a furore in Australian politics. Financial scandals are somewhat par for the course in parliamentary politics. They can have a devastating effect on parliament and on trust in the political system, as the UK’s parliamentary expenses scandal of 2009 showed.

So what can Australia learn from the UK’s experience?

What was the UK’s expenses scandal?

The UK scandal began when a Telegraph journalist submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act to view all MPs’ expenses claims and receipts. MPs were highly resistant to the publication of these documents. After a battle that went all the way to the High Court and a decision by parliament to try to specifically protect MPs from the Freedom of Information Act, the details of four years’ worth of expenses claims were leaked to The Telegraph.

The newspaper published the most juicy details in small bursts over the next few weeks, attracting more than half-a-million new readers in the process.

More and more revelations appeared – even then-prime minister Gordon Brown wasn’t immune. In particular, it came to light that several MPs were “flipping” their second homes, claiming for mortgages on homes that didn’t exist, or paying rent to wives, sisters and other family members.

Other expenses were much more minor and often bordered on the bizarre. Stalwart Tory MP Sir Peter Viggers famously tried to claim for a floating duck house in his pond.

The revelations continued for more than a year and weren’t contained within parliament. Following the general election in May 2010, David Laws, the newly appointed chief secretary to the Treasury, resigned after reports that he had been claiming expenses for renting a room in a house owned by his partner.

Was the Speaker implicated?

There are some interesting parallels not only between the two political systems, but also between the two Speakers. At the time of the UK expenses scandal, the House of Commons Speaker was former Labour MP Michael Martin.

Like Bishop, Martin was a controversial figure, accused of being too partisan. And, just like his Australian counterpart, he found himself in hot water over his travel expenses when it was revealed that he had spent £1400 on chauffeur-driven cars.

Martin was already seen to be a particularly lavish Speaker. It was reported the previous year that £1.7 million of taxpayers’ money had been spent refurbishing his official parliamentary residence.

What made things even worse was that Martin had so vigorously tried to block members’ expenses claims being published in the first place. Support for him in the House of Commons soon began to wear thin, with party leaders calling for his resignation. He was openly challenged by MPs in the chamber, who called for a vote of no confidence in his tenure as Speaker.

Was simply paying back the money acceptable?

Bishop has repaid the money for the helicopter travel, though many question whether this is enough.

The UK’s experience was very similar. MPs were quick to offer to repay the money. Then-opposition leader David Cameron publicly announced that all Conservative MPs found to have made false or inappropriate claims would pay back the money.

The claims of all MPs were later audited by an independent panel led by Sir Thomas Legg, which found that more than half of all MPs had made either dishonest or simply incorrect claims. It ordered them to pay back a whopping £1.3 million. This included Brown, who was instructed to repay £12,000.

Many questioned the system as, just like Bishop now, they felt that they had acted within the rules that existed at the time. Paying back retrospectively seemed unfair.

What happened in the end?

Martin was one of the earliest casualties. Only a couple of weeks after the first expenses bombshells had hit the papers, he announced he would resign from his position the following month. He later stood down as MP too.

But, in the long term, Martin was one of the more fortunate ones. Many more MPs resigned from their frontbench roles and retired at the 2010 election. Those found to have made fraudulent claims, such as Denis MacShane, were not only made to pay back the money, but were handed prison sentences too.

The expenses scandal led to the creation of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), which took over the regulation and policing of MPs’ expenses as well as their pay.

MPs themselves became much more transparent about what they were spending and why. IPSA publishes their claims online every couple of months, and parliament also publishes the Speaker’s travel and expenses claims. MPs are much more careful and some – like Conservative Philip Hollobone – revel in being among the most thrifty MPs.

These are all welcome moves in the right direction, but there is little evidence that they have made a difference to the widespread public anger about MPs’ pay and expenses. Trust in our representatives remains very low. This, rather than whether Bishop has genuinely apologised, is what Australian politicians should be worried about right now.

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