MPs’ expenses: a bit of a rant, then a question

MPs’ expenses – where to begin? I haven’t waded through the Telegraph’s coverage over the past few days: glanced at parts, picked up many of the references via blogs, but couldn’t bring myself to read it all.

Why not? Simple: I don’t trust the Telegraph to report the story with any degree of objectivity. All credit to the newspaper for obtaining the story: it was clearly a canny commercial investment (whether or not they paid £150,000 for the leaked document) and in the public interest, too – though as all these expenses were going to be released this summer in any case let’s not imagine the Telegraph was actually motivated by anything more than bottom-line sales.

With exclusivity in place, the paper has forced the news agenda, focusing first on Labour, then on the Tories, and doubtless we can look forward to some Lib Dem revelations in the coming days.

Trouble is, with exclusivity in place, we must take the Telegraph’s word for it, trusting in the paper to have interpreted the evidence correctly, to have got to the bottom of each miscreant’s individual circumstances, so that we can be confident we are judging our MPs fairly and objectively. Hmmm, do you reckon that’s happened? Me neither.

But before I get accused of soft-heartedly letting MPs (and perhaps even members of the House of Lords) off-the-hook, let me say this: it’s clear enough, even from the scraps of evidence that have passed my eyes, that the whole thing stinks. The Telegraph’s revelations are genuinely shocking, and those MPs who’ve taken advantage of the expenses system to gain personal profit deserve all that’s coming to them.

My only experience as an elected representative is as a councillor. I served for eight years, 2000-08, during which time I drew my councillor’s allowance (£4.7k per annum by the time I retired), with some additional top-up during the four years I had additional responsibilities (the most I earned was £8.3k in 2006-07). In addition, I claimed some limited tax relief – a few hundred pounds, all approved by the Inland Revenue – for the use of my home as my councillor’s ‘office’.

I could have claimed expenses for travelling to meetings, but never did so. I reckoned my allowance should cover incidental costs like that. At the risk of sounding insufferably pious, I was proud to have been elected to represent my residents: to have started totting up the cost of attending this or that meeting would have felt cheap in every sense.

And to take my piety down a notch, I also bore in mind what such claims would look like if the local paper decided to take a look. And I knew that however much I could have justified such expenses, if I had to justify them then it was already too late: my residents would have already decided I was just another politician ‘on the make’.

Besides, like most people, I am used to having to account pretty rigorously for my work expenses. I detail the dates of meetings, who I was meeting and why, and produce receipts to back up my travel, accommodation and subsistence costs. It’s a bit of a pain, but I’ve never resented doing it. After all, it’s not my money I’m spending.

And that’s the bit which seems to have got lost in the minds of far too many MPs: it wasn’t their own money they were spending. This was taxpayers’ money. Public money. However our public representatives dressed it up for their own peace of mind – “I could be earning more in the private sector”, “I put in far more hours than might reasonably be expected”, “This job already takes its toll on me, there have to be some perks” – they were taking advantage of a system over which they had control for personal gain. In any other walk of life – certainly in any PLC – one of two things would have happened: (i) they would have been told their expenses were out of order, and the claims would have been rejected, and (ii) if they persisted they could have expected disciplinary action.

To say sorry now is too late. There are no excuses. MPs have known for years that their expenses were – rightly – a matter of public interest, but all attempts at reform have been brushed aside. At the same time, and in the full knowledge that it was possible such information might one day come to light, many of them – too many of them – continued to game the system (all within their own self-enforced rules, of course).

The worst of it is that many of those MPs will, even now, be exhorting their members and activists to go out and campaign for their parties on 4th June. Pity the fool who has to be on the other end of a harangue about how politicians are “only in it for themselves”. For years I’ve been able to sweep such lazy accusation aside. But what do I say now? I’m not sure that “My guess is you can be pretty confident at least two-thirds of MPs are honest the vast majority of the time” is going to quite cut the mustard.

And what of the Lib Dems? As yet, the Telegraph has included us out of its coverage. We’ll see what’s to come, but I’d be amazed if we escape entirely. (I hope our transgressions will be proportionately fewer and of a lesser degree. We’ll see). Which begs the question, what should Nick Clegg say and do in response? As Messrs Brown and Cameron have both done on behalf of their parties, he will of course have to apologise. But what to do about those who are ‘named and shamed’?

Natural justice demands that they be allowed to contest the allegations that might be ranged against them. All will doubtless have acted ‘within the rules’. But what should Nick do about those who have broken the spirit of the rules, whose grasping claims will bring their names, and that of the party’s and Parliament’s, into disrepute?

There are two options, it seems to me. He can take the hard line, and withdraw the whip from any MP found to have personally profited from their expenses claims. This latter approach would be difficult: not only would it destabilise the parliamentary party, but it would also be very hard on the local parties concerned, gifting their Labour and Tory opponents a potentially decisive advantage. And though it might help put the other parties on the back foot, it’s hard to imagine that such a move would actually do anything meaningful to restore public confidence in our MPs.

On balance, therefore, I think Nick is constrained to saying he’s committed to reform of MPs’ expenses, but those individual MPs who operated within its rules – no matter how inadequate those rules are – should not be punished. Frankly, though, such a light touch is more than any of those proven to have pocketed public cash deserve. What a bloody mess.

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33 Comments

  • Lib Dems should take the lead on this issue, and publish all their expenses asap, by the end of this week at least, then people can check for themselves if the Telegraph is right. And anybody who has stepped significantly beyond the spirit of the rules should be told to repay or lose the whip. This will pay dividends at the next election, when this issue will become a real issue for local races. Clegg allying himself with the other party leaders and talking vaguely of reform is not a good idea – he’s going to get tarred with the ‘they’re all at it’ brush.

  • I am in complete agreement with everything you say Stephen, but I think we need to go much further as a party. The expenses row is trivial in comparison to the corrosive buying of influence through employment of MPs as directors, ‘advisers’ and ‘consultants’, and direct donation. Exactly the same rules should apply to MPs as apply to councillors and the existence of a pecuniary interest in any matter the subject of legislation or regulation should debar an MP from speaking, voting or lobbying on that matter.

    We need to make this party policy as soon as possible. It really is time to notice the elephant in the room.

  • It’s really quite clear – any of our Parliamentarians who have gone past the spirit of the law in the court of public opinion (ie dodgy second homes, `flipping`, private security) will not be able to look into the eyes of their electorate anyway come the next election.

    Their own parties should meet to force them to step down at the next GE and have a quick reselection. There is no two ways about this.

    As I’ve said about other Labour MPs if they are MPs now there’ll be no shortage of candidates lining up. If they are in marginal seats we can kiss goodbye to a win there and might as well put in a fresh face that’s up for the challenge.

    The MPs in question should be either challenged for bringing the Party into disrepute or given that amnesty on the proviso that they stand down and have a reselection.

  • Any serious allegations for our frontbench team should result in their removal from the frontbench. This would clearly show us as taking a lead on this issue.

    It would also make clear that our decision-making leadership, and any future lib dem ministers, would have to stand up to the highest scruitiny and will be ready to do so from now.

    More fundamentally, it would also be right and what I would expect from the party. If we are to stand for clean and transparent government, then those we expect to lead it should as well.

  • David Allen 11th May '09 - 5:21pm

    ” (If) any of our Parliamentarians have gone past the spirit of the law …. Their own parties should meet to force them to step down at the next GE and have a quick reselection.”

    For the truly serious offenders, that might seem to make good sense, but there is one flaw. It won’t actually restore much credibility to a party who decide to take this line. It will only be seen as a cynical manoevre, whereby a potential loser like Moran gets replaced at the next GE by a squeaky-clean unknown who can hang on to the seat.

    So, if it turns out that we do have one or more really genuinely serious offenders (and I’m not talking about Kitkats and bath plugs), why don’t we try to go one step further? Withdraw the whip, deselect, and demand an immediate resignation, prompting a byelection, at which we stand a new candidate. Take the risk that we might thereby lose a seat “unnecessarily”, but crucially, take the lead in cleaning up the mess.

  • Martin Land 11th May '09 - 7:27pm

    Nick should take the lead on this. We have tremendous moral standing in this country, thanks to our stand on issues like Iraq, ID cards and the Gurkhas. Vince too has added to that.

    Nick should withdraw the whip from any serious offenders, deselection should be immediate and if they have any remaining self respect they should resign.

  • paul barker 11th May '09 - 7:31pm

    If we want the public to beleive we are different then we hve to act differently. As a start then yes, Clegg should withdraw the whip from any of our MPs who have claimed more than ordinary voters would see as reasonable. The party can demand byelections but we cant make them happen.
    After todays disgraceful scenes in the commons our front bench should call for the resignation of the speaker, he sums up everything thats wrong. From now on our MPs should stop playing by the rules, this Parliament is rotten to the core & Liberal Democrats should be out to break it.

  • Stuart Littlewood 11th May '09 - 8:14pm

    Kelly and his Standards Committee (what a joke) need a rocket up their backsides. These sleek-coated public servants are too casual by far and hopelessly out of touch with the public mood. They should be made to work all weekend and produce their recommendation by the end of next week, not dither around till autumn. Who do they think they are? I hope Nick delivers a well aimed kick where they feel it.

  • I think we should ask Martin Bell to look at all our MPs’ and peers’ claims. If he thinks any are outside the spirit of the rules then they should be asked to pay the money back, with interest. If they don’t then yes, withdraw the whip and deselect them. I don’t spend my time and effort to help people get their noses in the trough. Period.

  • ‘But what should Nick do about those who have broken the spirit of the rules, whose grasping claims will bring their names, and that of the party’s and Parliament’s, into disrepute?’

    Good point Stephen,should Lord Rennard have the whip removed?

  • I must say there’s some wonderful stuff in the Telegraph’s latest batch of MPs’ expenses.

    Douglas Hogg … submitted a claim form including more than £2,000 for the moat around his country estate to be cleared.

    Sir Michael Spicer … successfully claimed for the costs of hanging a chandelier in his main manor house. [Qu: How many manor houses does he have?]

    David Davis, … spent more than £10,000 of taxpayers’ money on home renovations and furnishings, including a new £5,700 portico at his home in Yorkshire.

    David Heathcoat-Amory claimed for more than £380 of horse manure for his garden.

    I know the English aristocracy has miraculous powers of survival, but I think this time they may have taken things a bit too far.

  • What should happen is that the Prime Minister calls an election now so that these MPs can face their electorates over this. These allegations are serious, Nick Clegg should order all our MPs to resign a la David Davis and force by-elections to take the lead on this issue.

    Cameron should follow but he probably won’t. Gordon Brown should call an election – if he does we win because we forced it, if he doesn’t we win because we have taken the high road and faced the electorate over an issue that has fundementally damaged our democracy – do we really think the Government and Parliament can continue to function properly for another year with these issues hanging over it? Our law makers have lost there credibility in a way we have never seen before.

    Change is the order of the day.

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th May '09 - 12:01am

    The amounts in themselves are small compared to the whole government bill, and expenses claims in the private sector can be much worse. It would only be fair if the expenses claims of journalists for the newspapers reporting this were also made public, wouldn’t it?

    However, yes, it stinks, and it makes it much harder to defend conventional party politics here than it was even recently. It seems to me the real issue is that there isn’t much of a job description for MPs. Therefore we rely on MPs to use their own judgment and sense of honour to do a decent job. If they have no sense of honour when it comes to making expenses claims at public cost, it’s difficult to suppose they have a sense of honour elsewhere where it’s needed. It’s most certainly not enough to say “it was done according to the law”, a lot of behaviour which is thoroughly dishonorable and stinks isn’t actually illegal.

    The system seems silly, surely it would be much more efficient just to pay some flat rate support dependent on distance of constituency from London, and let the MPs decide how to use it. All the paperwork over these silly little things is surely unnecessary bureaucracy, though I guess the bath plugs and tampons and kitkats really come down to a till receipt being submitted rather than someone actually writing that on an expenses form. But large claims for luxury housing are surely wrong, and shifting around supposed first and second homes in order to make untaxed capital gains is worse.

  • a plague on all their houses,manors, moats etc

  • Mark Littlewood 12th May '09 - 1:03am

    Stephen’s article is far too moderate.

    What is happening here is the almost complete destruction of any public faith in Westminster politics. We are not a million miles away from piano wire and lamposts.

    There is absolutely no way that “sorry” and “swift reform” is an acceptable option.

    Fortunately, so far, no LibDem MP has been in the firing line. But I think we can expect whatever they have to be in Wednesday’s Telegraph.

    What we must absoultely NOT do is follow Stephen’s advice as outlined here:

    “There are two options, it seems to me. He can take the hard line, and withdraw the whip from any MP found to have personally profited from their expenses claims. This latter approach would be difficult: not only would it destabilise the parliamentary party, but it would also be very hard on the local parties concerned, gifting their Labour and Tory opponents a potentially decisive advantage. And though it might help put the other parties on the back foot, it’s hard to imagine that such a move would actually do anything meaningful to restore public confidence in our MPs.”

    His article must have been subbed – because it’s not clear what the “former” approach would be. He only mentions the “latter” approach.

    In the present climate “not destablising the parliamentary party” and being “very hard on local parties” is absolutely no barrier to taking the most severe disciplinary action.

    Stepehen’s conclusion:

    “On balance, therefore, I think Nick is constrained to saying he’s committed to reform of MPs’ expenses, but those individual MPs who operated within its rules – no matter how inadequate those rules are – should not be punished.”

    …is disastrous. Not just for our party but for any serious hope that the British public might yet support a sensible, but radical, political force.

    We surely ask more of our MPs and peers than to abide by the letter of the law. Being able to claim you are not – technically – a criminal or a fraudster is not sufficient moral grounds to serve as a LibDem MP or peer.

    If there are any LibDem claims to apologise for, they should be paid back to the fees office.

    And those who made such claims should not serve on the LD frontbench.

    That is the absolute minimum that a liberal and democratic party should do. But I trust, hope and believe Nick will actually go considerably further than this.

  • Well said Mark. I have written to Nick directly about this, and urge others to do the same. Stephen’s advice is not on: we need to do better, and we can. We need an independent figure to decide how much (if any) our MPs should pay back, and then they should do so, with interest. If they don’t have the cash, it can always be a charge on their house.

    No doubt some (those standing down?) will refuse, but so be it: throw them out the party for bringing us into disrepute.

  • Mark Littlewood 12th May '09 - 1:39am

    Tim,

    Juts read your original post more carefully. On my first – cursory – glance, I’d assumed you wanted Martin Bell involved at state/Parliamentary level (rather light-heartedly, I’ve suggested this should be left to Guido Fawkes and the TPA).

    But on a second read-through, I think you’re right that the party should “out-source” any decision-making that is required.

  • We need to ensure our standards are higher on this. And that includes “milard” if culpable.

  • The trouble is that if MPs are disciplined for things that are within the rules, and everyone knew what the rules were, and that they were being abused …

  • Paying back won’t end the issue – we need to be looking at paying back and deselection. If the MPs refuse to pay back the expenses, then withdraw the whip.

    Clearly what’s emerging is that there’s a desire within political activists – not just the electorate – for a clean-out of the troublemakers. Nick should really be following David Cameron’s lead (not something I usually advise) who, according to Nick Robinson on “Today” this morning, is meeting with party officials and also lawyers with a view to disciplining / removing some MPs by the end of the day.

    If I was in a local party with an MP who has dodgy claims (and I’m confident I’m not) the I would be seeking an EGM and proposing reopening selection again – we can do this, I’m sure, so maybe activists need to take things into their own hands.

  • Stephen is right to draw attention to the plight of councillors who receive pitiful remuneration but will still be tarnished by this whole business.

    Like Stephen,when I was a councillor I received a basic annual allowance of about 4K . The maximum I received was 12K as Deputy Leader and I treated that as my full-time salary with no other source of income (living in inner London).

    The ‘food allowance’ was an iffy sandwich I paid for myself from the petrol station next door to the Town Hall.

    I also remember wearing too much eyeliner to council meetings – but at least I paid for it myself. Please somebody tell me it isn’t true that a Lib Dem MP claimed for eyeliner on her expenses…. or was it HIS expenses?

  • I keep repeating this; hope somebody’s reading it :

    Party sets up a Review Panel:

    minor errors – warning re future conduct

    significant inappropriate claims – repayment +10% to charity

    major scams e.g. flipping – ‘bye ‘bye

  • Andrew Duffield 12th May '09 - 6:55pm

    I trust Nick will now trump Dave with the necessary and moral pledge that 100% of any capital gains on our MPs’ taxpayer-funded second homes will be repaid to HMRC. Nothing less will do.

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