What’s the damage so far?

“Not in the same league,” said Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight last night, of Liberal Democrat expense claims, as compared to those of the other two parties.

Well, ok, as Norman Baker pointed out on the programme, no moats, no swimming pools, no house flipping and no Margaret Moranesque holiday homes. Yet. But there are still some pretty rotten apples. And it’s worse for the Lib Dems, precisely because we have campaigned on this issue for so long. So, who are the Lib Dem piggy-wiggies?

Well, firstly, the Telegraph has released details concerning twelve of them, so we can probably assume the other fifty-one are squeakier than squeak, which is something. Of the twelve, we’ve had full details now of eight. I’ve given them piggie ratings of up to five, where 0 is did nothing wrong that I can detect and 5 is flipped a property or paid for dredging a moat. See if you agree.

Ming Campbell

HOW much on cushions, Ming? Well, this is what happens if you do something like hire a luxury designer to do up your London flat. The rules expressly forbid any provision of luxury items. Ming pushed his £10,000 refurb through on the basis that he had been frugal with his allowance in previous years. It’s not the biggest claim we’ve seen, and he does have the mitigating factor of renting rather than paying a mortgage, but it’s clearly against the spirit of the rules to acquire luxury items on the taxpayer’s tab. Ming would be a 3/5, but for the fact that he was leader when he made the claims – and we are entitled to expect a higher standard of leaders. Sorry Sir Ming, 4/5 for you.

Julia Goldsworthy

I’m truly puzzled about this one. On the one hand, Heals furniture sounds pretty close to luxury to me. On the other, the Telegraph’s main complaint about her is that “she spent thousands of pounds [on furniture] just days before the deadline for using the second homes allowance”. This is, presumably, an insinuation that this was a cynical act to maximise her expenses claims. Now, if the adjacent facts were, for example, that she had plenty of space left in that year’s allowance but knew she was going to max out the following year’s allowance on something big, then it would be significant. But otherwise, I’m afraid there’s no evidence it’s anything other than, well, a purchase. The day on which is happened is irrelevant. She still gets a 1 because she went to Heals. 1/5

Nick Clegg

Claimed right up to the limit in 2005/06 including phone bills which he has now agreed to partially repay to the tune of £83 – which implies the calls were private. Pretty small stuff compared to most and would be a knuckle-rapping 1/5, but as in Ming Campbell’s case we ought to hold the leader to a higher standard. 2/5

(Note: I’m  unimpressed with the Telegraph’s reportage here – “a shopping spree at IKEA”? Sorry, but IKEA is exactly where I want to see MPs have their second home shopping sprees, and a pox of BILLY bookcases on any idiot who claims there’s anything wrong with this. I also note their iconography of the leaders’ meeting has changed – now he “stormed out” of it.

I’m perfectly happy to hold Nick to a higher standard than others, but his expenses have been published voluntarily for a year now – this is not the stuff of shock horror revelation. There are literally dozens of Tory and Labour MPs who maxed out their allowances without it meriting an entire article unto itself, and the article doesn’t even mention the fact that 2005/06 was the year Clegg actually became an MP and had to set himself up with two properties).

Andrew George

Andrew was claiming for furnishings before he even bought his £300k London flat – and carried on claiming for them as he moved in, so that the Fees Office had to remind him that he was only entitled to claim living costs  for himself. No wonder he needed two beds, because his daughter uses it as “a bolt-hole”.

There’s a long wrangle played out in the Telegraph about the merits and demerits of this situation. He says she doesn’t stay there more often than him. The neighbours say she stays there often. How are you meant to quantify those two statements? Then there’s the matter of her name being on the insurance documents – because I wasn’t allowed to insure a second home with the Post Office, says Andrew.

But I don’t really think, true or not, any of that matters. This is the nub of it, for me, this phrase Andrew uses – “It suits her, and it suits me.” All very fine and large, no doubt, but I don’t want to pay for something that suits her. This, in essence, was exactly what was wrong with Margaret Moran’s argument that her £22,000 claims for her Southampton property were valid because she was “entitled to a family life”. Yes you are, and you pay for it or rearrange your affairs accordingly.

Of course it would be silly, if you had a family member living in London, to forbid them ever stepping on to your second property. But too many things about this stink in my opinion, from the negotiated two lots of furnishings to the timing of purchase (a few months before Andrew’s daughter started studying in London). Not a happy taxpayer over here. 4/5

IMPORTANT UPDATE: The Telegraph somehow forgot to mention that Andrew pays the mortgage interest on a third of his flat himself. Downgraded to 1/5.

Lembit Opik

Let’s face it, we all knew there was going to be a Lembit. And this is hard to beat for sheer effrontery – £40 claimed to pay a fine for a court non-appearance on the charge of not paying his council tax. Small sum, but really, since this is an experience plenty of ordinary people struggle through without getting a handout, not a good look. Also tried to claim for a posh TV and garden decking. 2/5

Vince Cable

Doesn’t claim the ACA he is entitled to, and it took him some time to realise he was entitled to a London weighting allowance (£2,818 in 2007/08) instead. So in 2007/08 he asked for backdated payments to cover the full period of his entitlement. I’m struggling to see anything wrong with this – he doesn’t claim the £24,000-odd he could, and a London weighting, unlike many other features  of the expenses system, is something anyone with a London salary in a national company will be familiar with. The Telegraph has the grace to point out in its second paragraph that he commutes in to work every day like everybody else.

I suppose, since it’s our Vince, we ought to hold him to high standards and since he didn’t actually voluntarily donate the money to the taxpayer, let’s give him half/5.

Chris Huhne

The trouser press alluded to earlier was his, and he has apparently agreed to pay back the money. Also claimed for “fluffy feather dusters” and upkeep to a pergola. Sorry, but I don’t find feather dusters offensive – you need dusters. Pergolas and garden swing seats, not so. Comparatively small ticket items, but there are several of them and a principle at stake. 2/5.

(Note: Again, I’m deeply unimpressed by the Telegraph’s “hob-nobs” headline. Chris says various tea, coffee and biscuity items were purchased for his staff, and I see no reason not to believe him, especially since the Telegraph itself admits that other items were crossed off these same receipts. What exactly is wrong with claim for tea and biscuits for your staff office?)

Norman Baker

Asked whether he could claim for a bike to get from his flat to Westminster – not allowed because transport costs are not permissible.

On his other query, in the same letter, I think it’s worth quoting chapter and verse:

The second is for a computer and printer, with broadband access at my flat. I stress that the purpose of obtaining that is not in any way connected with work.

I have no wish to carry on working when I get to my flat! Rather, I wish to have one to listen to and download music and games, to be able to email my family and friends, and similar domestic purposes.

Not allowed because it would be a personal item. So let me get this straight. Norm has asked questions of the Fees Office, provided full and frank information, and got the answers the taxpayer would like. Sorry, Telegraph, Norm comes out of this with a rosy 0/5.

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20 Comments

  • Andy George needs a second home in London for parlimentary business. I don’t see why his daughter shouldn’t stay there. Aren’t we getting a bit carried away here. Any similarity with Morans case is false as she does not need a flat in Southampton.

  • What’s the Mortimer view on Rennard on this sleaze scale?

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th May '09 - 9:23am

    If Ming is the worst we have, we’ve got off pretty lightly. My wife and I were in the fortunate position of having time and money to be able to completely refurbish the house we’re living in, and I know from that how quickly costs mount. We were doing reasonably high quality, but not absolute luxury, and from this while I’d say £10,000 is highish, it’s not completely OTT.

    My wife likes pretty cushions, so I know that even somewhere like BHS might charge up to £25 for really nice ones. Try Googling for more examples – somewhere mid-market like Laura Ashley has nice cushions coming in at £30-£40.

    If you haven’t got time to source them yourself, and you hand the job over to the sort of designer who’s used to doing work for the sort of person who lives in Dolphin Square, you’re going to get prices in the range Ming has claimed for. If it was done while he was busy being leader, I suspect he hardly thought about it – got the people in to do it, probably from one of these magazines they put out in places like that, and signed the chit at the end.

  • Alix Mortimer 13th May '09 - 9:28am

    @Neil, provisionally 5/5. But I want to see more details first – I’m assuming he’s one of those we’ve yet to hear about.

  • “@Neil, provisionally 5/5. But I want to see more details first – I’m assuming he’s [Rennard’s] one of those we’ve yet to hear about.”

    The Telegraph information is only about MPs, isn’t it? So Rennard won’t be included, in which case we’ve heard all we’re going to hear for the moment.

  • Painfully Liberal 13th May '09 - 9:39am

    I must say I have my reservations about your scale. If five is property flipping and moat dredging is a five, do Ming and Andrew George really class as a four?

    In both cases I’d say their claims were questionable (actually possibly a word one step up from questionable that I can’t think of right now). Justifications can be offered and you either buy them or you don’t or something in between. flipping and moatery by contrast are surely unambiguously wrong.

    Not to say that they were blameless by and stretch, but unless your scale is logarithmic or something, I don’t think it fair to suggest that Ming and Andrew were one notch below the worst excesses.

  • “I must admit to some confusion over Ming Campbell’s claim for renovation. Surely if he’s renting it is the landlord who should pay for renovation?”

    It is a long term lease until 2034 so these are normally “self-repair” leases – so the tenant is responsible to ensuring ongoing maintenance and handing over the property in a decent state as he or she took it over originally.

    Alix, I think you are being ludicrously over-condemnatory of Andrew George. He only claimed 70% of the cost – was entitled therefore to have some family use of the flat, and he has made clear that he will hand any profit on the flat back to the taxpayer – INCLUDING all the furnishings and fittings! It’s not even on the Moran scale (by the way she’s paying it back). He needed it for his job as you will find out when you move to Exeter (if you haven’t already) and appreciate the distances involved in plugging back and forwards to the West Country and London!

    Having done the Cornwall to London run many times I think it is extremely strange to have heavy furnishings delivered to Cornwall for use later in London but that is the only dodgy thing I can find about his arrangements.

    As for the comment from the other person saying he should “pay it back”. He is being reimbursed for a flat he needs for his job. He will give any profit on the property back to the taxpayer anyway – he has said that – and he has said he will return all the fixtures and fittings to the taxpayer as well (10 year old cushions anyone?). What more do you want from him? Blood?

  • That worked well.

  • Alix Mortimer 13th May '09 - 9:47am

    @Anon1, ah maybe. In that case, to be honest, I’m a bit cagey about it. It’s not that I’m defending anything he’s done – if the facts are as they appear, he’s a full-on 5/5, and certainly his limp responses so far don’t give one much confidence. But I was waiting for some national other than NotW to pick this up – and they haven’t yet. There’s got to be some reason for that.

  • I think they were really scraping the barrel, were the Torygraph. Reminded me in one sense of the earth shattering revelation printed on the front page of the Guardian before the 1997 election – “MP is a dentist!”.

    As for Andrew George – I can see where he is coming from – I occasionally crashed when at Uni with relatives – if he needs a second home and his daughter stays there on occasions (nice to know the Torygraph using the old unattributed quote process) then fine – I am more angry with entire claiming cushions and the furnishings…..

    However what is done is done. More of the whole mess will be revealed in July and we can expect squeals then.

    yeghes da.

  • [Norman Baker] submitted the request for a computer “to make a point in a bloody-minded sort of way”

    I can’t imagine him doing that 🙂

  • Frankly, looking at these I think the Telegraph have been scrabbling around for Lib Dem expenses and the only one close to being problematic is Ming’s. Their claims about Alan Reid – which is on their internet site but may not be in the English editions – show a simple lack of understanding of the geography of his constituency. Have they ever tried to travel from Gigha to Dunoon, for example? Do they realise that the road journey from Campbeltown to Cardross is in excess of three hours?

    I have no problems with criticism where it’s fair – and Ming would sadly appear to land in that category – but this isn’t.

  • I think Ming will need to pay back the cost of the soft furnishing (much as Cameron has done with his Wisteria).

    If he does that (and Andrew George signs a contract with a Housing Association to take over the flat on his retirement) then there shouldn’t be too much fall out.

    I imagine Alan Reid will benefit from the allegations.

  • My gut feeling this morning is that there is enough there for us to stop getting any direct polling advantage from this. Luckily, ours has come at the end after the shock value has naturally decreased over time.

    We probably wont suffer as much as the other parties but neither will we get credited for being somehow better on the issue either…

  • Pete Roberts 14th May '09 - 12:42pm

    The civil service H+S requirements on driving I work to are 8 hours max in a day or 6 hours max with a business meeting.
    On that basis an overnight stop is mandated for many rural Scottish MPs if they are on constituency business at the far end of their patch

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