Lib Dem MPs’ expenses – in the cool light of day

As I surveyed the first wave of coverage of the Telegraph’s focus on Lib Dem MPs’ expenses last night, my initial reaction was captured by the headline: “it could’ve been worse (and might still be)”. That’s still my feeling.

So far as I can work out, ten eleven Lib Dem MPs have been identified by the Telegraph as having expenses claims to answer. Yesterday evening, there was talk of a dozen, so either the figure was exaggerated and we’ve seen all there is to see, or else they’re holding back a couple of the worst for a follow-up tomorrow. Alix has already gone through the list, grading the degree of questionability in each case (qualified here in the case of Andrew George).

From what I can make out, the abuses fall into three principal categories:

  • (1) wrong claims for relatively small amounts of money which will now be repaid to the taxpayer (eg, Chris Huhne’s £119 trouser-press, Nick Clegg’s personal, international calls); and
  • (2) ‘grey area’ claims for larger sums which are partially/wholly defensible, depending on how charitable you’re feeling (eg, Ming Campbell’s £10k studio flat refurbishment – given Ming rents his flat, therefore there is little personal gain, I’m inclined to view this pretty leniently. Though there are, I see, active LDV discussions on the reasonable price to pay for a cushion – perhaps I’m inexcusably bourgeois, but I don’t find £176 for five cushions a scandalous sum).
  • And the third category:

  • (3) when the Telegraph is quite simply wrong and unfair. For me, Andrew George’s claims for his flat in London where his daughter sometimes lives fall into this category – and Alix has already printed in full Andrew’s explanation, which seems convincing to me. As for the newspaper’s laughably poor attempt to smear Alan Reid, both Andrew Reeves over at his own blog and Alix at LDV have already shown this up for the desperate story it is.
  • Lib Dem HQ is mounting a staunch defence of many of those MPs named – the party’s policy and communications director, Chris Fox, emailed me this morning to detail the rebuttal from some of those named, and this is reprinted below. He also wanted to remind us of what Nick Clegg has said on the issue of MPs’ second homes:

    MPs must no longer be able to make capital gains funded by the taxpayer. Any gain in the value of an MP’s second home funded by the tax payer must go back to the taxpayers, not to the MP. From now on we should replace the second home allowance with a simple payment to cover actual expenditure on rent or mortgage interest and basic bills only. No claims should be permitted for furniture, redecoration, carpets, moats, swimming pools or anything else. These changes together would put a stop MPs from speculating on the property market using taxpayers’ money and making huge profits.”

    Here is what five of the eleven MPs named are saying in response to the Telegraph allegations:

    Nick Clegg:
    Claiming for phone calls abroad was a mistake and the money is being repaid. Nick’s constituency home had no work done since the mid-1970s. When Nick bought it 20 years later it wasn’t up to basic standards and needed renovating and redecorating. He first published those claims last year. Nick has already pledged publicly that he will hand back the value of the prioperty in full when he sells it so all invesment will be more than fully repaid to raxpayers.

    Andrew George:
    As a Cornish MP he needs accommodation in London. His daughter is a student in London and sometimes visits and stays with him. It is not her main base in London.His furnishings were placed in storage prior to completion of contracts. When the purchase collapsed, his furnishings remained in storage. They are now all in the flat he finally acquired.

    Julia Goldsworthy:
    She moved flat because her existing property was shared with her sister and her sister was getting married. The costs for which she sought reimbursement for were explicitly related to that move. The property was unfurnished and so purchased furnishings to ensure it could be purchased close to the completion date. She did not claim the full costs of all items and there were other items for which no claim at all was submitted.

    Alan Reid:
    There is a fundamental lack of understanding of the geography of his constituency on the part of the Telegraph and the Department for Resources. On occasion it is impractical for him to travel home at night, even within his constituency, due to a lack of ferries and seasonal weather can make even road access impossible in parts. The Fees Office (as was) often rejected claims which he subsequently successfully challenged after explaining the unique nature of his constituency.

    Steve Webb:
    Steve has already said publicly on his blog that when he ceases to be an MP and sells the flat that he will pay that £30,000 (and any other net capital gain) to the taxpayer. He will not take a penny in profit – indeed, the taxpayer will make a substantial net gain that dwarfs the cost of moving.

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    • Nick Clegg is proposing that MPs pay for furnishings, carpets and curtains for their second homes (as well as their main homes) out of their own pockets. Dont think I could afford to be a Lib Dem MP.

    • Yes, I am fortunate that if i got elected i would only have to move up the road and could still commute daily by train between Westminster and the constituency. Others are not so lucky, or indeed rich.

    • Mark Littlewood 13th May '09 - 1:23pm

      Overall, the charges against the MPs are pretty minimal.

      I’m still trying to work out what Andrew George has supposedly done wrong.

      Just to clarify on Nick’s proposals, I understand that rent and travel would still be claimable for out-of-London MPs.

      He just wants to make sure that MPs cant build a property portfolio from which they benefit.

    • Painfully Liberal 13th May '09 - 1:32pm

      Working from the rebuttals etc. on this site I count 11: Nick Clegg, Ming Campbell, Julia Goldsworthy, Andrew George, Lembit Opik, Vince Cable, Chris Huhne, Norman Baker, Nick Harvey, Alan Reid And Steve Webb.

      Not sure what the Steve Webb accusations were, maybe he just issued a rebuttal anyway to be on the safe side.

    • Painfully Liberal 13th May '09 - 2:40pm

      You’re silly.

    • Mark Williams 13th May '09 - 3:32pm

      A problem with the idea of renting is that MPs with more assured seats can afford to take out long term leases whereas MPs in marginals would be ill advised to take out more than 5 year leases which would be expensive.

      I have no problem with MP’s profiting from second homes funded by the tax payer provided they pay tax on the gain.

      To give an extreme example, if a millionaire MP from way out of town puts up £1.5 million of his/her own money and borrows £0.5 million at 6% to buy a £2 million apartment in Mayfair, I don’t mind if the tax payer pays £22k of their £30k annual interest bill. They are getting exactly the same financial support as the MP from the adjoining constituency who is paying just under £2k per month rent and claiming it all back under the ACA.

    • Lembit Opik was terrible today on 5live – his 1/5 has gone up in my mind to 5.5. He just doesn’t get it.

    • “Lembit Opik was terrible today on 5live – his 1/5 has gone up in my mind to 5.5. He just doesn’t get it.”

      I can’t say anything about Lembit, but it’s remarkable to me how many MPs – and how many of their apologists – just don’t get it.

      It was depressing to hear Stuart Bell blithely recommending as a solution the automatic incorporation of a reduced version of the allowances as part of the salary – and presenting that as a saving to the taxpayer!

      I think if the response to this is any increase whatsoever in MPs’ salaries in real terms, there is going to be enormous disaffection from all the mainstream parties. There’s no way the Lib Dems should go along with anything like that.

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