Harry Cohen (right), with Andy Burnham (left), Labour MP for Leigh.
Spending more time with the family is, as we all know, the reason often given by MPs when they decide to leave Parliament for all sorts of things that they'd prefer not to list - quite a few of those who have recently announced their resignations as a result of the expenses scandal have used the excuse, and it's rapidly becoming a virtual admission of guilt for any unspecified wrong-doing. So, what's Mr. Cohen been up to just lately?
Leyton and Wanstead is in North London, around 40 minutes on the tube from Westminster (much quicker by bicycle, I've found) which is by anyone other than an MP's standards really quite a reasonable commute. It's far enough to make Mr. Cohen eligible for the second home allowance, however, because he also has a main home in Colchester; so naturally he made the most of that one. And when we say he made the most of it, we mean he really made the most of it - he's claimed £104,701 in the last six years.
What's more, he's been an MP since 1983, so the total claimed is quite possibly astronomical - what he claimed between 2002-7 alone is the highest of any MP representing an Outer London constituency. The back-bencher, who claimed in the past that he was "the most professional MP Leyton and Wanstead has ever had, and that includes Winston Churchill," maintains that he will be cleared of any wrong-doing by the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, a statement that will probably prove to be true since he has claimed only what he is permitted by current Commons rules - he has not "flipped" homes to avoid paying maintenance or Capital Gains Tax, nor has he "forgotten" when a mortgage was paid off and continued claiming for it.
That Mr. Cohen has played by the rules is not in any doubt, but once again it has been demonstrated that those rules desperately need to be changed. Only those MPs who live a significant distance from the Commons should be allowed to claim for a second home at the tax-payers' expense, and when one considers the very good salaries they receive they should not be permitted to claim such large amounts. They are the servants of the people, and while we should expect to pay them an adequate amount to carry out their job effectively, at the moment it's more as though we are serfs paying duty to the mighty barons so that they can continue to live in their castles.
Mr. Cohen says that John Moore, the ex-Conservative minister, once told MPs to "Go out boys and spend it" after he had announced a huge increase in their allowances in an effort to prevent a Parliamentary revolt over pay. "That makes it part of my salary. It really is part of my salary in all but name. That is what it exists for," he says. We cannot fault him for his greed - he is, after all, merely human; and so many of us are greedy that it's a rare person who can truly claim that were they part of a system such as that enjoyed by MPs they too would not have done the same. But that doesn't make it right - all decent people would feel shame once their greed was exposed.
This rather suggests two things. One is that Mr. Cohen, who says "I am doing nothing wrong whatsoever. I am using it for parliamentary purposes. It is a legitimate and proper use of it," does not feel shame and as such is evidently not a very decent man. For that reason, the people of Wanstead and Leyton should feel glad to be getting rid of him, no matter if he appeared to serve them well enough that they continued to vote for him for 26 years. Secondly, the rules must be changed to prevent those MPs who, through no fault of their own, cannot resist the temptation to grab whatever they can - it's not their fault, it's just how we are as a species. But we tax-payers work hard for our money and most of us enjoy far smaller salaries than Mr. Cohen and his colleagues, so why are we expected to foot the bill for their lavish and luxurious lifestyles?
Some may argue that Mr. Cohen's case also reopens the debate on whether or not MPs should be expected to live in their constituencies. Referring to his claims, he says that they are "the legitimate costs of having a constituency home to do my job. We don't have a system where people are required to live in their constituency." If we did, his main home would have been in Leyton and Wanstead, putting him in a position to better understand his constituent's concerns. This would not, however, have prevented him from claiming for a second home as he would still have been entitled to claim expenses on another property altogether, much as George Osborne designated his Cheshire residence as his second home when he wished to avoid paying mortgage interest on his London property. Though the second homes allowance is intended to cover the costs of the home supposedly closer to Parliament so that the MP will not be required to travel large distances, there is no part of that rule specifying that the property needs to be anywhere near Westminster, nor even in London. Another rule that needs to be changed to prevent abuse and greed!