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Whatelygate: Trust Between Politicians and the Public

Teddy Beeston

Whatelygate: Trust Between Politicians and the Public

Helen Whately, MP for Faversham and Mid Kent, Minister of State for Social Care, has become a new staple of the political scene with the COVID-19 pandemic. In her short period of public infamy, she has become known for being gaffe-prone and controversial: her most recent blunder is that in response to concerns from a student nurse about financial support she stated that student nurses are “… not deemed to be providing a service”. This comes in direct contradiction of the fact that over 10000 student nurses and midwives signed up for paid placements to help tackle the coronavirus.

The online response was rightfully loud and in contempt of such a comment. There are numerous tweets which I saw on the matter. However, the one which most stood out to me was one by @BenJolly9, which mentioned that Whately claimed £174,772.22 in expenses. At the time of writing it has 19.7k likes. 

£174,772.22 is an eye-wateringly large amount, especially in comparison to the £5000 student nurse grant backdating Whately opposed, but the “amount” is what I feel is a core issue relating to public trust in our politicians.

While public trust in politicians has never been high, reaching a mighty zenith of 23% trust to tell the truth in 1999, the most recent figure of 14% for 2019 is only a percentage higher than its minimum in 2009. And what would be the cause of that low? The Parliamentary expenses scandal, a controversy so hot it led to the resignation of the incumbent Speaker of the House, Michael Martin. Ever since MPs’ expenses and department expenditures deemed superfluous have been intermittently plastered upon the front pages of newspapers and tabloids. Eric Pickles, former Conservative MP for Brentwood and Ongar, was accused of spending an extra £10000 on biscuits in a single year through his department budget. 16 MPs were exposed as recently as April 2019 for taking advantage of the expenses system.

Increasing public trust in politicians is a complex job that requires multistep solutions. Labour, in its aim to rebuild public trust in the party, should also work to build public trust in politicians.

One way to complete such an aim is to restructure the way that expenses are claimed and published. In their current form, expenses include all of the running costs of a constituency surgery such as the staff required to keep it functioning, rent, council tax and amenities, among other things. This greatly bloats MPs expenses and the lack of public knowledge as to why the claims are so high makes it appear as though it is through personal greed and lack of self-restraint. Most of the discourse around expenses use the six-figure numbers to smack down MPs. By relabelling those expenses under a collective, common budget, with a guarantee that MPs can request staff and office space as their constituency requires and that they will not be forced to fight for the money among themselves, the amount visibly claimed for personal expenses will be reduced down to tens of thousands of pounds. Such a massive reduction will help the image of our elected representatives.

To further reduce the amount required for claims, Labour could look at finding solutions to accusations of excess to claiming expenses on second homes and accommodation through two different solutions. The first would be to enter into deals with hotels and hostels around Westminster to provide an adequate number of rooms for MPs at an agreed price: this would secure several jobs in the service industry for hotel staff. The second would be to construct or buy a set of accommodation to house all of the MPs in Westminster, akin to a boarding house, with a set room and office for each MP. This solution would also produce jobs in the construction of such a facility and with service staff for the maintenance of the building.

Whately’s comment and the exposure of her expense claims demonstrated the quick and ferocious nature by which MPs are beaten down for the necessary actions they take. This is not meant as an exoneration of Whately: her retort to the concerned student nurse was dismissive, unappreciative in a way we do not expect of our elected representatives and immensely ignorant of the contribution so many student nurses have made. But our democracy is made no healthier by critiquing our MPs for things that ensure their constituencies function, regardless of whether it is an accusation made against a Labour MP or a Conservative MP.

As Labour and Starmer rebuild the Labour image and work to connect with former Labour areas, lost in 2019 or years before, and as trust is put at the front of Starmer’s desires, a national message of increasing trust between politicians and the public may prove beneficial for the Labour party and British democracy.

Photo credit: Alan Smith, Kent Online.