The claim

”0.13% – percentage of general population now in prison. 0.61% – percentage of members of the last House of Commons now in prison.”
Private Eye No 1289

The background

The satirists at Private Eye came up with a unique slant on the MPs’ expenses scandal last week when they compared the percentage of the general population in prison with the percentage of corrupt MPs from the last House of Commons to be jailed for cheating the public purse.

Do the figures add up? And how does the jailing of Conservative peer Lord Taylor of Warwick on Tuesday affect the Westminster crime rate?

The analysis

Lord Taylor is the fifth Parliamentarian to hear the clang of the prison gate after making false claims for living expenses at the taxpayer’s expense.

The first black Conservative peer made £11,277 worth of claims for travel and overnight subsistence, purporting to live in Oxford when he was really living in London.

Four former Labour MPs – David Chaytor, Eric Illsley, Jim Devine and Elliot Morley – have already received jail terms for fiddling their expenses.

There are 85,361 people in prison, according to Prison Service figures from last month.

The latest figures – from 2009 – put the UK population at 61,792,000. It’s almost certain that has now risen, but we don’t know how much by, so it seems reasonable to round it up to 62 million.

That gives us a percentage of 0.138 per cent of the general population behind bars.

And four MPs imprisoned, out of the 650 who sit in the Commons, does indeed equate to 0.61 per cent.

If we were being pedantic, we’d point out that two of the four disgraced MPs – have now been released. Indeed, only three were actually in prison at the same time, since Ilsley was released before Morley was offered his first spoonful of porridge.

If we take Lord Taylor into account, we get five politicians jailed out of 1,479 members of the Commons and the Lords combined. That works out as 0.3 per cent of all members of the last Parliament who ended up behind bars.

The verdict

Let’s put it like this: an MP elected to the last Parliament was four times more likely to be jailed than the average Briton.

And if we take the House of Lords into account, it seems that a politician from either House was more than twice as likely to go to jail than the man or woman in the street.

We’ve only quibbled very slightly with the wording of this claim. We’re not going to argue with the sentiment, so it’s hats off to Private Eye for pointing out one of the biggest ironies of the expenses saga.

Another Tory peer, Lord Hanningfield, is due to be sentenced at Chelmsford Crown Court next month after being convicted of fraudulently claiming nearly £14,000 of Lords expenses.

If the judge sends him to prison too, we’ll have to revisit the statistics to throw the jailbird proclivities of Britain’s rulers into even sharper focus.

By Patrick Worrall