Four years on, the Expenses Scandal is far from over

Backbencher January 15, 2014 4
Four years on, the Expenses Scandal is far from over

Lizzie Roberts examines the latest in MP’s dodgy expenses claims.

The expenses scandal of 2009 may have been pushed to the back of MP’s minds, along with memories of Sir Peter Viggers’ £1,645 duck-island and Michael Gove’s £134 elephant lamps. However, for the UK taxpayer I am sure the wounds are still raw. And, unsurprisingly, the public would be right to still have concerns over where their taxes are being spent. For example, despite the former PM Gordon Brown still being an elected official for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, back in October he referred to himself as an “ex-politician” yet still claims £1,012.75 for the rent of his constituency office. Despite the crackdown by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) to place stricter controls on MPs expenses, it appears to have had little effect.

IPSA recently published the expenses claims of some MPs made between August and September 2013, which totalled a staggering £4.58m. The new figures revealed some interesting “privileges” claimed by members of parliament. For example, first-class rail tickets seem to be top of the list: some all the way to St Austell, amounting to £258.57 demanded by Tories David Jones, Anne McIntosh, Paul Maynard and Sheryl Murray. It wasn’t just the Conservative MPs claiming extortionate rail fares, with Labour representatives such as Ed Balls, Shaun Woodward and Louise Ellman all claiming first-class fares. Though travelling by first-class is apparently not breaking IPSA rules, it does make you wonder why they can’t travel in the cattle cages like the rest of the common folk for a third of the price. For example, MP Alan Campbell claimed £313 for a first class journey from Newcastle to Kings Cross; a standard fare costs practically a third of that at £121.

Apparently, expense receipts are not required for items worth less than £25 for English MPs. It is therefore curious to wonder why Labour MP Austin Mitchell claimed 2p for a pencil sharpener, or why Bracknell MP Phillip Lee claimed for the cost of a bus fare. These are dwarfed by Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi’s claim of £5,822 for a 12 month energy bill to heat his £1m constituency home: four times the amount for an average household! The Daily Mirror revealed back in November 2013 an astounding 341 MPs have claimed for energy expenses on their second homes –  totalling £200,000 a year. You may remember Universities Minister David Willetts, who back in 2009 claimed £115 (plus VAT) for workmen to change 25 light bulbs at his £1.3million West London property. Mr Willetts has now claimed £2,596 to power and heat the same millionaire mansion.

Labour MP Austin Mitchell claimed 2p for a pencil sharpener.

MPs are still claiming for second homes, extortionate travel and 2p sharpeners but now the tax payer is also paying to heat said second homes. Do MPs really need the swanky London pad for a couple of weekly meetings? Granted, politicians cannot be expected to commute from the far corners of the country and therefore those who do not represent inner London constituencies are entitled to claim up to about £24,000 a year towards to cost of a second home or rented property. However, the majority of jobs today in most sectors require travel and board away from home, but not everyone is granted the luxury to buy a second home, instead the average employee stays in hotels or company apartments. Could this be a solution to the MPs elusive Westminster homes, to provide some form of hostel or studio apartments where MPs could stay during parliamentary sessions?

Limiting the amount MPs could claim – or what they could claim for – may reduce the number of people who wish to apply for the role. By removing the incentive of being allowed to claim up to £185,421 a year for “expenses,” the rate of pay may not be great enough for some. However, this may have a positive effect on Westminster by opening up more opportunities for working and middle class candidates to run for office, making MPs more representative of the public rather than the usual Oxbridge and Eton alumni. Take for example Ian Duncan Smith, MP for Chingford and Woodford Green, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the man in charge of restructuring the benefit system. Smith’s main home is in rural Buckinghamshire in a small picturesque village where he lives rent free in a £2m mansion. Is he really representative of the voters of multi-ethnic Chingford facing the problems of urban city living?

If you would like to see what your MP has been spending your taxes on, visit http://www.parliamentary-standards.org.uk and see how much they have been splashing out on stationary, how often they travel first class or whether they have been spending your money to light up and heat their multiple homes.

Lizzie is a second year History and Politics student at Lancaster University, with a strong passion for American politics, equality and good old British sarcasm.

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  • Thomas

    Almost all of the money listed as “MPs expenses” is spent on the following:

    - Renting a constituency office / and utility bills of that office etc
    - Stationary / equipping the office with phones / PC’s etc
    - Staff
    - Travel to and from the constituency
    - A hotel for the 3-4 nights whilst in Parliament, 2nd homes aren’t the norm
    In effect, the majority is spent on the business costs of running the office of an MP. I accept that some abuse exists, and that should be routed out and put to a stop, with stringent punishment for those who do, but of the 650 (minus Sinn Fein) they are a small, if loud minority.
    If you remove the ability to claim back the expenses of running an MPs office, you exclude those without independent wealth from our Parliament, and that would be a tremendous step backwards for this country.

  • CommonsStaffer

    Dear Lizzie, the politics student with a lot to learn about politics,

    I have no doubt that you have done your research into the 2008 expenses scandal and in the process have found that some of the claims made were, quite frankly, inexcusable. They were. When the full extent was releaved there were peole who had a lot of explaining to do. Many resigned. My guess is you’d barely done your GCSEs when it was all going on, and I would imagine that viewing it from an ‘historical’ perspective makes it quite fascinating reading. As someone who was there at the time, it was all quite interesting then, too (although not quite as black and white as your short piece would suggest).
    There was a lot in your article that I could comment on, but I’ll limit myself to what I see as the major issues / falacies that need addressing.

    First: “Do MPs really need the swanky London pad for a couple of weekly meetings?” Seriously – what is it you think we do here? Have you ever seen an Order Paper? Or an MP’s inbox or mailbag? A committee inquiry perhaps or even just talked to someone who works in an MP’s office? If you haven’t and you’re serious about commentating on British politics then I suggest you seek out someone who can tell you what actually happens from Monday -Thursday (and often Fridays) in Parliament.
    Second: If you did find that person, I’m pretty sure they would tell you that being an MP isn’t like many other jobs. Often that’s a good thing – it allows people with an intellectual curiosity and desire to make the world a better place work in an environment with other like-minded individuals and really feel like they’re making a difference. Maybe they have one specific cause they’re interested in – but often they have several and there are few other jobs that allow someone the chance to campaign about both premature infant mortality and increasing the UK’s manufacturing base in the same day. So yes, it can be very rewarding (and I don’t mean financially). But it’s also very difficult being separated from family for half the week (and that doesn’t take into account the late nights – being home for dinner is almost impossible). They are rarely thanked when they get something right and always berated when they don’t – usually in a social media setting, often abusive, misogynstic and vicious. Violent threats are becoming increasinly common.
    And unlike many other jobs, paying for the rent of the office and the people who work for you is considered an ‘expense’. Seriously! Amazing, isn’t it? The people who answer the phones, speak to constituents, open the post, take much of the abuse and provide all the support services that are needed when you have an electorate of 75,000 plus are actually bundled into the same category as that duck house you mentioned. And the roof over their heads so that they can answer the phone and host advice surgeries? An expense too, and part of the figure you quote.
    Finally, a couple of minor points: the people of Chingford? They chose Mr Duncan-Smith democratically and will have the chance to do so again, or not, in May 2015, so let’s assume that they know better than we do about who they want to represent them
    And on train fares – a boring admin point, but IPSA won’t allow a claim for a first class ticket that costs more than a standard class booked in advance. But that probably wouldn’t have shown up in your research as it doesn’t make for a very good article.
    Best wishes,
    A Commons Staffer
    p.s. There’s no excuse for Gordon Brown. But then no system’s perfect.

  • AnotherCommonsStaffer

    Lizzie, have you ever worked for an MP or spent any time in the Commons? I think you would change your mind.

    You are right to point out that some expense claims are indefensible. The tale of the duck house always stands out.

    But expenses pay for the running costs of an office, and staff. We get paid to assist the MP – to make sure that constituents issues are heard by him or her and we’re the ones who would be for the chop if expenses were slimmed down.

    There is often a reason that MPs travel first class – it’s sometimes the only option left in a hurry. Working for an MP, you see how regularly the diary can completely change and sometimes there simply aren’t any standard class fares. A simple receipt can’t tell that story.

    MPs work hard and so do we. This week I have been in the office before 7am every day and I expect to finish sometime after 7 or 8. And that’s not rare. The MP I work for does more than that.

  • Gregor Murray

    “Apparently, expense receipts are not required for items worth less than £25 for English MPs.”

    Apparently, expense receipts are different for MPs representing Scottish, Northern Irish or Welsh constituencies?

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