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Worried about the MP’s expenses row? That’s bad enough says Barbara Panvel – but nowhere as near as bad as the corruption of the democratic system by big business interests.

“British politics has been tarnished. It is not necessarily the scale of the money involved, but rather the tawdry ingenuity shown by ministers and MPs in exploiting the system, while staying (mostly) just within the rules.”

The public has far more cause to be concerned about the damaging and expensive consequences of undue influence exercised, as politicians, special advisors and former civil servants are lobbied by large companies and their agents who want contracts for nuclear power stations, incinerators, GM crops and computer software for the defence, health and social services.

Senior civil servants at the new government department set up to oversee nuclear energy were expensively wined and dined 30 times in five months by pro-nuclear companies. More long-lasting inducements are consultancy appointments and directorships.

News of maintaining swimming pools, buying chandeliers, and claiming for bath plugs on expenses is claiming the headlines - but decisions made for commercial advantage rather than public need lead to far more expensive and damaging malpractice; utilities, transport, IT, health and postal systems are run for profit rather than service and our limited form of democracy is rendered even more impotent. A few examples follow:

  • Malpractice: a public servant, who had worked at First Group before moving to Transport Scotland as finance director, resigned after an auditor's report showed he had attended meetings at which the extension of a £2.5 billion franchise deal with First Group was discussed and later agreed. He told MSPs he had increased his shareholding in FirstGroup while working for Transport Scotland.

  • Social and economic costs: despite problems with its Child Support and Inland Revenue IT systems, EDS was later awarded another contract for an MoD payroll system which malfunctioned and shortchanged thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen underpaid; some struggled to pay their living costs, and even defaulted on mortgage payments. Even after this debacle EDS continues to win contracts. In September 2008 Adam Ingram, armed forces minister between 2001 and 2007, became a £55,000-a-year adviser to EDS. An EDS-led consortium was awarded a £4 billion MoD contract when Ingram was in government. Last month the consortium won another £191m contract to handle top-secret government data; EDS refused to discuss whether Ingram had helped to win the bid.

  • Environmental damage: in the West Midlands government has approved the sale of public parkland by councils for corporate gain, the building of a huge new PFI incinerator on the green belt in Coventry, and still permits dangerous agro-chemicals to be sprayed near housing without warning.

  • Subversion of democracy: our government, democratic in name alone, permitted the crime of the century to go ahead, falsely assuring MPs and the public that there was good cause to embark on the deadly invasion of Iraq.

In April the Government was due to respond to the Public Administration Select Committee’s recommendations for a register of lobbying activity and a strengthening of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, with clarified rules strictly applied to prevent former Ministers and officials from lobbying for an extended period after leaving office.

Is this a good week for burying bad news?

Have repeated leaks about expenses, though humiliating, helped Government by overshadowing its response to far more serious charges?



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