MPs claim more taxpayers' money for their second home allowance than necessary because they see the upper limit of £23,000 as a "target to aim for", a former minister has admitted.
Labour's Chris Mullin, a highly respected member of Parliament's standards watchdog, said it was "human nature" that MPs would claim as much as they could get away with.
He is the first MP to reveal the Additional Cost Allowance, which helps MPs to run a second home close to Parliament, is seen as an automatic entitlement and not a way to reimburse legitimate expense.
Mr Mullin, a senior backbencher who was a Foreign Office minister in Tony Blair's government, made his outburst during a Commons debate.
Calling for the allowance to be frozen until it is worth the same in real terms as in 2001 - about £14,000 a year - he said: "Spending the entire allowance has become a target to be aimed for, rather than recompense for expenses legitimately incurred.
"Human nature being what it is people tend to spend up to the limit of what they are allowed to spend."
About three-quarters of MPs claimed within a few hundred pounds of the maximum in 2006-07. Mr Mullin was among the lowest-claiming, receiving £13,591.
Personally, I'd be quite happy to abolish the second home allowance (and plenty of their other perks) altogether, and let them fund their own lifestyles, out of their own, far from inconsiderable, salaries. But, failing this, Chris Mullin's proposal to reduce the amount they can claim seems like a good idea.
I'd also suggest that, even if we don't end the payment of all second home allowances, we at least end the payment of such allowances to MPs who live within easy commuting distance (by which I mean, fifty miles or so) of Westminster, thereby ending the ridiculous and offensive spectacle of MPs with constituencies in Greater London claiming hefty allowances for the maintenance of Central London second homes. Of course, this is not going to happen, because while I say that "we" should reduce/abolish their allowances, it is in fact the MPs themselves who set the payment level. And I rather doubt that they will vote to scale down the gravy train.
Ultimately, what Chris Mullin's revelations demonstrate, once again, is that the vast majority of MPs simply see their position, not as an opportunity to serve their country and constituents, but as a chance to "get rich quick", preferably without the public, who pay for it all, ever realising. They don't even see anything wrong in claiming money for expenses they haven't incurred; rather, they regard it as an "entitlement" - as one of the perks of the job. Personally, I regard it as embezzlement, morally, if not legally.
It may be a cliche, but comparing avaricious MPs to gluttonous pigs really is an apt analogy, except that at least when pigs get their snouts in the trough they don't try to suppress this fact with taxpayer-funded legal challenges, and they don't maintain a hypocritical pretence that by feeding at the trough they are performing some necessary public service. And the pigs would probably make a better job of running the country, as well...