In defence of Chris Grayling

No, not his views on policing. His expenses. Obviously, I’m far from Grayling’s biggest fan, but it’s the tabloids’ insistent foaming that gives one pause for thought. “If you thought Jacqui Smith was bad,” they have screamed for the last few mornings, “Look at THIS! With EXTRA ADDED OUTRAGE!” The latest “expose” from the Mirror is hopefully titled:

Fury as three more MPs rake in cash for second homes – Exclusive

The “exclusive” element appears to be the work experience kid looking up the addresses of various Tory and Labour MPs and measuring their distance from Westminster on Google Maps, then pinging off a couple of emails to the Land Registry. All the President’s Men this is not.

I think we can all agree that (a) the MPs’ expenses system laughs in the face of common decency and needs an urgent overhaul, (b) in particular, no system should enable individuals to make vast capital gains on the sales of second homes at taxpayers’ expense and (c) it really is this bad and certain MPs really are venal lying liars and this probably includes Jacqui Smith.

But there is a real risk that all the tabloid froth will obscure these central issues. Grayling is a good example. I have the misfortune to live in his constituency – misfortune because on the one hand it’s a safe Tory seat, and on the other, it means that when I am putting bread on the table, I tend to be commuting into London to do it. This is what the Sunday Mirror had to say about Grayling’s arrangements:

Top Tory Chris Grayling has claimed £104,183 of taxpayers’ money over six years for a London flat – even though he has a family home just 17 miles away from Westminster.

Now, don’t get me wrong – only a system monstrously out of touch with reality, never mind public opinion, could allow people to mop up this sort of cash in the name of expenses. And the real reason Grayling’s been caught on the hop is that he also owns two other properties in London itself – a fact which appears to evade the investigative nous of the Sunday Mirror. But neither of those points seem to be the main thrust of the Mirror’s objection. It’s the location of his constituency.

“Only” 17 miles, eh? Ever tried negotiating it on the train? Oh, but of course not. You all live in Islington, don’t you.

One of my favourite pet facts to come out of the Policy Exchange report Cities Unlimited was that commuting times in London’s hinterland are the same as they were in 1945, and slightly slower than they were in 1971 (p 33). High-speed rail links may be slowly infiltrating the rest of the UK, but spare a thought for the poor beknighted Home Counties stockbroker on his crumbling branchline.

The train from London to Ashtead, where Grayling lives, takes between 38 and 50 minutes, depending on which line you get on, and the trains run every twenty minutes from Waterloo or half-hour from Victoria. Comparable commutes might include Milton Keynes (as little as a 30 minute journey every 20 minutes from Euston for Labour’s Phyllis Starkey) and Cambridge (as little as a 46 minute journey every half an hour from King’s Cross for our own David Howarth). Milton Keynes and Cambridge are respectively 55 and 63 miles from Westminster and so far as I know, no-one is suggesting that Phyllis and David commute in every day.

So where’s the cut-off point? What is it we think MPs need a second home for? Is it so that they can stay in the House for late debates? Get in early in the morning and give their work the concentration it deserves without having to fret too much about rush hours and delayed trains? Because on those counts, Grayling is as much in need of a second home as Starkey or Howarth – however much we think that is. There shouldn’t be a moral difference between living in Cambridge and living in commuter-belt Surrey.

Of course, Grayling has more transport options open to him than the other two, should the main route fail. According to TfL he could be whisked to Westminster in, oh, a mere 2 hours and 30 mins by two buses and two tube journeys. Should these alternatives be factored in? What about weather conditions? Trains from Cambridge can be snowed to a halt, but then so can trains from Dorking and Guildford, leaving the whole of the Epsom line high and dry.

I’m moaning now. My point is not that commuting from the ‘burbs is still unnecessarily bloody, though it is – in fact perhaps Grayling could do penance by making his taxpayer-funded London flat available on an ad hoc basis to his constituents, hem hem. It’s that trying to pin MPs down on the basis of the crow-flying distance from Big Ben to their constituency is even more divorced from daily reality than the current system. Do we want our MPs to be oblivious to our daily commuting misery? Do we want to force them into cars and taxis? Of course not. So maybe, on the basis of the train times, Howarth and Starkey should be commuting daily as well – and all such restrictions should be subject to change depending on how the rail network deteriorates improves.

Alternatively, we could take Google Maps away from the work experience kid and pack the whole panoply of our elected representation into some cheap-as-chips serviced block of ex-LA flats in Pimlico and tell them to leave their key in the lock on their way out of office. Fair and transparent. Taxpayers’ property. No individual capital gains. More homely and permanent than a hotel. Adaptable for disabilities. Twenty minutes’ stroll from the Houses of Parliament.

I dread to think about the communal summer BBQs, mind. And to be fair, the security would be a nightmare – make things much easier for this fellow.

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  • It’s all very simple. Any MP who needs overnight hotel accommodation in London should have it all paid for as a legitimate expense. No second homes should be allowed.

  • So the whole defence of Labour cheats is that a Tory legally obtains some expenses.

    Oh! Well that totally excuses any cheating Labour MP, then, eh?!

  • I understood Grayling had claimed an average of £17,000 a year for this flat.

    Late sittings of the House of Commons are very rare these days. For example, the House sat after 11pm only 5 times in 2004-5. The cost of hotel accommodation on these very unusual occasions would be a tiny fraction of what he has claimed.

  • Why not just make the house work on more normal working hours so that the commute is as managable as it is for all the rest of the people living in the ‘suburbs’ and working in London?

  • David – Hotels would actually not be a very good solution as, unless they were arranged on a 7 day a week occupancy there is little capacity for things like being able to leave clothes, files, equipment and the other personal paraphenalia that people would have

  • Grayling’s Ashtead home is only 44 minutes away on the train. And if he needs a “late night crash pad”, then a taxi or car journey would only take about 40mins – both claimable on expenses.

  • Alix Mortimer 24th Feb '09 - 3:42pm

    I think Hywel has a good point re: files, convenience etc. It is a hassle living out of a suitcase. For e.g. Jo Swinson and Danny Alexander, it would be a bit of a drifter’s life. They’d have to have a *lot* of clothes, papers & paraphernalia down here when the House was in session.

    But then, that’s what businesses expect private sector employees to do, which is why I’m sympathetic to David Allen’s suggestion. Normally, if you live hundreds of miles from where you work you are either (a) expected to relocate or (b) expected to live in hotels half your life, and these are claimable. I worked briefly for a guy who lived in Glasgow and worked half the week in London and the other half in Washingston (DC, not Lincs). Mind you, he had crazy amounts of energy.

    But then typically, those sorts of jobs pay a lot more than £60k. So it was a more legitimate expectation that you should run two homes yourself – which leads me to agreeing with Chris P’s point.

    The trouble is, there are going to be exceptions in whatever you do if it’s going to be at all fair. I guess you could withhold the second home allowance from everyone within a 45 minute train ride from a mainline London station, and let them have occasional hotel expenses instead?

  • It remains the case:
    – that the MPs’ expenses system is a disgrace, and seen to be a disgrace;
    – that there are Honourable Members who do not exploit this disgraceful system;
    – Grayling, Smith et al. have a case to answer for exploiting the system; and should answer it at the polls if not before;
    – that the tabloids have an unbleivable and incrdibly exasperating capacity for getting hold of the wrong end of the stick, even when they get the right stick.

    That said, Alix is unfair to the work experience kid. He or she would have looked up TfL first. The guy who would have looked up Google Earth (not Maps, he is lazy enough to hope to see something embarassing on the photos) is a professional hack who always takes taxis on expenses.

  • Alix Mortimer 24th Feb '09 - 3:57pm

    Heh. Sound point.

  • Belinda Brooks-Gordon 25th Feb '09 - 12:56pm

    Not only does David Howarth commute but he frequently holds informal surgeries on the train as many constituents ask for advice or information on the journey. As one of David’s constituents I have seen this many times. There is also no such thing as a fast train late at night to Cambridge. Would that there were.

  • Amazing this, with the closure of a number of prisons and a reduction in staff it is deemed acceptable to have to travel 90 minutes each way to a place of work, perhaps if they didn’t stop doing commons business for the summer break they would have more time to discuss legislation!

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