Danny Alexander under attack in local paper over children’s travel

A few weeks ago, I wrote that the Telegraph’s attempts to make another expenses scandal out of MPs claiming for travel for their children between London and their constituency as they are allowed to do under the rules. For me, I am happy to pay as a taxpayer to pay this price to ensure that Parliament has parents of young children within it.

While there were some clearly egregious examples of abuse of the expenses system which shocked us all in 2009, I have always said that politicians, in the main, whatever party they are from, are decent people who want to do a good job. That has been my experience over 30 years as an activist. The hours an average MP works would make most of our eyes water.

I am more than happy for some of my taxes to go towards ensuring that we have a diverse range of people in Parliament. If we didn’t give these pretty modest allowances, then you might well find that parents with particularly very young children would just not bother standing unless they were rich enough to be able to afford a nanny 24/7. I don’t think it’s healthy for a legislature to be lacking in parents with children of all ages. We need their experience in there.

I think that less than a grand each on travel and a fairly modest rental allowance, over two years, is actually a price worth paying on this one.

People will, of course, draw comparisons with The Thing We Are Not Supposed to Call the Bedroom Tax, but that’s an argument against that, not an argument to do away with this. The other argument is that you wouldn’t get anything like this in the private sector. Actually, you might, and you might also earn bonuses which would cover these costs. Some public sector jobs which require work away from home also have allowances for dependents.

Danny Alexander’s local paper, the Inverness Courier, has published an article critical of the amount he claims for his children to travel between London and his Inverness, Badenoch and Strathspey constituency. A few quick points:

The Highlands are a Very Long Way from London

By train, it’s an overnighter, or an almost 8 hour journey in the day, or a 90 minute  flight. It’s 500 miles away. Travel is going to cost a fair bit to cover that sort of distance.

Danny has a large area to cover

It’s not like he has an inner city constituency where he can travel from one end to the other in half an hour. His is by no means the largest rural constituency, but it takes some doing to represent it properly and he’s going to have to be around quite a lot to cover all the ground. It’s entirely reasonable that his employers should foot the bill for a limited number of journeys for his dependents to join him. Otherwise he’d never see them, which wouldn’t be good for them or him.

It also wouldn’t be good for us, because if we make it difficult for MPs to spend time with their children when they are required to work over two locations, we’ll end up with a Parliament full of rich people who don’t have caring responsibilities. That would be a very bad thing.

In response to the criticism, Danny said:

All MPs have an obligation to make sure that public funds are used efficiently and effectively..

That is why I am always looking for the most cost-effective way of ensuring I am able to do the best job possible for my constituents. “Travel to and from London and within the Highlands is vital to doing my job well and Ipsa allows limited travel for family members too.

All information on parliamentary expenses are available to the public, and it is right that all decisions are taken by a wholly independent body so that people can have full confidence that the system is not open to abuse.

Danny has also made it clear that he will not take the pay rise mooted by IPSA.

On the issue of his children’s travel, I say leave him and other MPs, who use this allowance legitimately, alone.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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21 Comments

  • Tony Dawson 21st Jul '13 - 7:36pm

    This argument has no merits whatsoever.

    But the fault is in Parliament/IPSA for allowing the dependants’ travel in the first place.

    An MP’s salary is big enough to cover a few odd rail journeys for his kids. A minister’s even more so. The nalogy with the ‘bedroom tax is a very fair one. Single fathers with regular child parenting responsibilities (rather greater than Danny Alexander’s) get zilch to provide their extra room to allow them to stay with them. MPs on the other hand, who voted for the single father to be stuffed (actually it the children who lose out )…….

  • I remember during the expenses scandal you could tell they were running out of steam when they ran a story of “Charles Kennedy spends a lot on travel” given he is also so far north it was clear they were scraping the barrel for stories at that point.

  • There is a deeper underlying question. How much of the rise in expenses claims by MPs are due to the general rise in living costs. I ask, because nearly everyone but a small but connected minority is feeling the pinch. The problem is the perception that elected representatives are not feeling the need to make the same cutbacks as the general public, but that they are shielded from doing so by virtue of subsidies funded by the general public. In pointing this, I am merely showing why political capital is being made.

    You should be mindful that an MP is unlikely to be doing all of traipsing around a constituency. The expenses that are being claimed may fund higher running costs of constituency offices or recruiting competent caseworkers. There is an intrinsic duty upon an MP to demonstrate the money spent upon expenses is being spent appropriately. Constituents need that confidence in their incumbent and so scrutiny is inevitable.

    It is my view that the argument made for MPs expenses is being increasingly ‘unmade’. Where you hope common sense prevails and there is an acceptance that some accomodation needs to be made for Parliament to be inclusive is replaced by a sneering cynicism. It doesn’t really help that remuneration of some MP’s is topped-up by second jobs, controversy on how offices are funded and IPSA’s recommendation of a rise in salaries. I think there needs to be a cross-party effort to restore confidence here in time for the next Government.

    I don’t think its neccessary for MPs to all draw the same salary if they don’t need it. What I see as inevitable or the ideal ‘terminator’ approach (see Chris Lucas’s contribution) to avert low confidence and low turn-out is a freeze on current remuneration and a repackaged remuneration with a broader salary cap on MPs made up of expenses, salary, pension benefits and second job earnings and investments. The measure Parliament may draw up can then be put to the public vote during the next election as an additional question. If there is a mandate, the next government can then introduce a Bill to give the new package a statutory footing.

    The status quo is simply untenable and I think Carol’s column can’t close down criticism in this area- its going to come back. I think we’re heading for a new social compact to be made in this area and I believe the appropriate response now is to show leadership and be determined to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

    With regards

  • I forgot to add one more point, what we are talking about is executive compensation and what is appropriate. In my view, Mercer or a similar consultancy should be tasked to come up with an appropriate benchmark, not IPSA.

  • It is sad to read the complaints about what other people are getting. It is a developing habit in an increasingly mean spirited nation. I thought that Lib Dems were better than that but alas…….
    He is entitled to claim the allowance for goodness sake so lay off!!!!

  • I think there is an element of “he who lives by the sword” about this.

    This government has imposed an arbitrary total benefit cap for which there is no rational argument unless the formula by which benefits are worked out is inappropriate.

    So you can put forward all the rational arguments you like in favour of Danny Alexander claiming £8,500 for his children’s travel, but my reaction is that it’s as much as I spend in a year.

  • David Wilkinson 22nd Jul '13 - 9:07am

    Yes, its unfair that MP’s dont see their children, however it is their decision to be an MP and MP’s are well paid, much more than most people in the country.
    Given the public reaction to the allowances scandal and some MPs still think they did nothing wrong “we just folllowed the rules” does not wash with the public.
    Danny has been quiet happy to introduce the bedroom tax, the changes to council tax benefits, both of which have seen massive rises in arrears and court cases.
    Many parents have been badly effected by these and many other benefits changes to the working poor.
    If you were working away would your company pay for this kind of travel arrangements, no.
    When MP’s cannot see why the public is still angry about these issues, then it shows they are out of touch.

  • I’m afraid Danny seems to be taking quite a pasting in the comments section of the Inverness Courier. Whatever the rights and wrongs for ordinary MPs, a minister gets a good bit more than they do and I am worried it will come back to haunt him in 2015.

  • Jackie Porter 22nd Jul '13 - 10:55am

    Not sure I agree with the principle of paying for your children to travel round with you.
    Many partners work away from home for long periods of time- my husband was in France, builders, the army wives etc, Whilst he was away every week for about three years , my children went once and I went for one weekend (all paid for by us, not the company.)
    How many of the ‘commercial and other workers’ can claim expenses to take the children too?
    If we are all in this together, then surely, MP’s have to live their lives like everyone else does?

  • Peter:
    This has nothing to do with Tory press. It’s the fact that the political class think that in the days of austerity for everyone else, that taxpayers money spent on ‘them’, is money, well spent. The astonishing thing I find, is that the palpable anger from the public is unable to penetrate their thick skulls.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 22nd Jul '13 - 11:39am

    @petertyzack I wouldn’t call the Inverness Courier the Tory press, but I take your point.

    David Evans The comments section of any newspaper is an unpleasant place to be. I am sure that Danny will deal very well with this on the ground. He spends a lot of time talking to his constituents.

    For me, the principle is about the make-up of the Parliament. If you make it really difficult for parents to have a family life, you will not get them trying to be MPs. They’ll go and do something else. I don’t want to see a Parliament full of people who don’t have caring responsibilities or who can afford to buy them in. I’m happy, therefore, to pay a limited amount of travel costs to make it easier for these families to spend more time together.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 22nd Jul '13 - 11:43am

    I disagree with Danny probably more often than I disagree with any other Liberal Democrat minister, particularly on welfare issues. People have made some very valid points about the Bedroom Tax and how it affects fathers who don’t live permanently with their children. I agree with those points.

    It’s a different issue, though. For me, this is about diversity and I’m quite happy to pay the extra for Danny and other MPs to get to have more time with their children. I’d also be happy to ensure that housing need is based on how many children you may have staying with you regularly.

  • “For me, the principle is about the make-up of the Parliament. If you make it really difficult for parents to have a family life, you will not get them trying to be MPs.”

    Oh, please. How difficult can it be for people to have a family life on £135,000 a year – or even on £66,000?

    The people who are finding family life difficult are those struggling to make ends meet at the bottom of the pile, about whom this government shows precious little concern.

  • “The comments section of any newspaper is an unpleasant place to be”
    Perhaps, but it is a better litmus test of what the public think, than these LDV sanitized threads for the very sensitive LD folks who don’t want reality to impinge on their blinkered world.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 22nd Jul '13 - 1:43pm

    John, you can hardly say LDV forbids disagreement with Lib Dem policy, otherwise you would never get to post anything. What we don’t allow people is be gratuitously insulting to others, to be off topic or to not be who they say they are.

    The comments threads in newspapers are often dominated by political activisits with an axe to grind, not ordinary people.

  • “John, you can hardly say LDV forbids disagreement with Lib Dem policy, otherwise you would never get to post anything. What we don’t allow people is be gratuitously insulting to others, to be off topic or to not be who they say they are.”

    Comments have certainly been deleted which clearly fall into none of those categories. I’ve raised a number of examples, with you and others.

  • Richard Marbrow 22nd Jul '13 - 2:27pm

    The problem that you raise about Parliament becoming something full of ‘rich people with no caring responsibilities’ isn’t something that might happen, it is something that is happening – and all three major parties are likely to make it worse at the next election.

  • Tony Greaves 19th Feb '15 - 3:30pm

    Spouses/partners and children of peers who live outside London are entitled to six visits a year. Only arrogant and extreme Metropolitan types could object to that.

    Tony

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