Monday, 12 October 2009

Even MPs deserve natural justice

People have rightly been angered over the behaviour of many MPs with regard to their expenses. It has been a tale of greed and, in some cases, of downright corruption.

But that doesn't mean that MPs have forfeited any right to natural justice. MPs have the same right as anyone else to know the nature of any charges against them and to know that they will be subject to a fair process in dealing with these.

It's not a principle that MPs have always applied when dealing with other people, particularly in some of the assaults on civil liberties which the Labour government has introduced, such as control orders.

But MPs have discovered today why such principles are important. Sir Thomas Legg's introduction of new standards relating to expenses claimed for cleaning and gardening means that MPs are being made subject to rules that are being applied retrospectively, which is an abominable principle. As a result, Gordon Brown is having to repay more than £12,000 and Nick Clegg over £900.

Legg's introduction of a £3,000 limit on cleaning and gardening seems to me to be a wholly arbitrary decision. He could have decided that having MPs claiming for cleaning and gardening was not 'wholly, exclusively and necessarily' related to their parliamentary duties and thus should be paid back in full. That would be a tough call for many MPs, but he would at least be applying the rule which applied at the time. Or he could have decided that gardening and cleaning were entirely legitimate expenses for MPs and that nobody should therefore pay back any of these costs.

But he's done neither - he decided to introduce a wholly arbitrary limit under which cleaning and gardening expenses are 'deemed' reasonable if they are under £3,000. Why £3k and not £2k or £5k? There doesn't seem any particular reason to have chosen that figure.

As it is, Legg's introduction of such a limit would seem to breach Article 11 (2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed." Those rights apply even to people we might not approve of, including MPs.

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