MPs under attack again – for claiming mileage for doing their jobs

Having Nigel Farage on Question Time again was more than enough to make my blood boil last night. Sadly, even my Facebook timeline had little to soothe. I saw an 18 month old story being recycled again to give MPs another kicking.

In May last year the Telegraph had a go at some MPs who claimed mileage to attend Remembrance Day services, including a couple of Liberal Democrats. Why on earth should that particular engagement be any different than any other that they attend in the course of their official duties? How many people would meet work expenses out of their own pockets? Not a lot, I would venture.

If it’s somehow wrong to claim for getting to a Remembrance Day service, then why should they claim for mileage to go to a coffee morning for a children’s charity, or a charity duck race for the local hospice, or to a community council meeting, or to a surgery? If we start picking and choosing what journeys they can claim for, then we end up making all sorts of weird value judgements and that’s simply not fair. We also need to factor in that some constituencies are vast. From north west Sutherland to Easter Ross is about half a day’s drive.  If MPs had to fund every journey themselves, Parliament would be the preserve of those who could afford to be there and we don’t want that, do we?

When I see first hand how incredibly hard MPs from all parties work, this sort of bashing strikes me as incredibly unfair. I had a bit of a moan on Facebook last night, and the vast majority of people who commented agreed with me. Here’s a selection:

Cllr Louise Bloom:

I have worked for local charities for 20 years claiming both salary and expenses. That money could have gone on the clients. Stone me ? !

Simon Hutton:

Every year the party leaders attend the cenotaph in London to lay wreaths. Are we suggesting that Alex Salmond etc and the rests should pay for their own flights to attend this event?

Angharad Bethan Jones:

 I take part in my small way as my Grandfather fought in the 2nd World War I have no objection to Nick Harvey’s claim for expenses for him to do so as part of his job. What I have objected to in the past is the way there was political point scoring over party logos on poppy wreaths.

Geoff Payne:

 I think there clearly was an expenses scandal prior to the last general election, and there may be some still taking place today. Even at the height of the expenses scandal it was difficult to get a sense of proportion of all the different examples, and with media spin this confusion looks like happening again. A sceptical electorate is likely to believe the worst regardless, which makes this a difficult issue.

Jackie Pearcey:

 There does appear to be an atmosphere brewing that MPs are begrudged everything that they claim for – even if it’s something that people in any other line of work would expect as a matter of course to be paid to do. Some MPs have been criticised for claiming for overnight B&B when doing a tour of the islands within their area in order to conduct surgeries, others have been criticised for buying tea and coffee for their staff. Whilst the excessive claims are quite rightly being weeded out, we don’t want to end up sanctimoniously expecting MPs to put up with conditions that we would refuse to accept ourselves in work.

Greg Judge had a potential solution to scepticism about MPs:

It seems to me that the reasons boil down to a breakdown of trust and a proper awareness of what MPs do, the financial costs and the enormous level of necessary expenses. I think both MPs and Ministers should work with TV companies to select average demographic candidates of the public to shadow them and make a TV show, now that would be worthwhile reality TV!

People who have a good constituency MP who is embedded in the community, who knows everything that’s going on and does their best to help everyone who brings them a problem, will understand the value of that sort of representation. We know that to be particularly true of Liberal Democrat MPs, as Joe Otten told us last week.

It’s time to stop the MP bashing and time to start promoting what they do.

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

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41 Comments

  • Martin Caffrey 8th Nov '13 - 5:06pm

    Hmmm…..Remembrance Day is once a year. I don’t think my moral compass would allow me to put a claim in for that type of expense.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 8th Nov '13 - 5:14pm

    Martin, I’m not sure I see why that is different from anything else. If you took to it’s logical conclusion, they’d never claim anything and that would be wrong.

  • The reason it’s different is that expenses are supposed to compensate you for outgoings that would would not incur if it wasn’t part of your job.

    By claiming mileage for attending a Remembrance service, the MP is effectively saying, ‘I only went to this service because I am an MP; if I hadn’t been elected, I wouldn’t have bothered.’

    This understandably rubs people who think that Remembrance services (unlike coffee mornings, duck races, and surgeries) are things you go to not because you are an MP, but because you wish to pay your respects to the dead, up the wrong way.

  • I do not see how a “duck race” for charity is part of official duties.

    Part of the problem is that there is this wrong idea of what an MP should be. An MP is not a social worker and is not a celebrity. They are there to represent the people in parliament.

  • Stuart Mitchell 8th Nov '13 - 6:50pm

    Agree with Jim on this one. I have no idea whether my local councillors and MP will be attending Remembrance Day ceremonies, and I’m sure most voters don’t either. It’s not an obligation for them, but if they do go, I’d only want them to go because they actually want to, not because it’s “part of the job”. Claiming a few quid petrol money for it seems a bit tacky.

  • Little Jackie Paper 8th Nov '13 - 6:52pm

    Ms Lindsay – We need to abolish expenses – simple as that. It may well be the case that MPs work hard and it may well be the case they are good eggs. But it is dangerous to start comparing this with work expenses. To take your example a Remembrance Day ceremony might be something an MP attends as an MP, an individual, a representative of the party or in some other capacity. Indeed, as one of the quotes in the article says, when party political logos are used, it is not totally clear whether it is an MP role or a party political role. My work expenses are about me in my work role, no subjective grey area. It is explicit on the job description.

    MPs seemed to think that the changes made were some sort of overreaction – quite the opposite is true. They were a massive under reaction. The only way to have no complaints about expenses is to have no expenses. Reduce the number of MPs to 200 and quadruple the pay of those that remain. Then if the MP wishes to attend a charity or media event, that is not an, ‘expense,’ it is their pay. If they want to employ their family then fine, it’s their pay. Build into the pay some sort of component for travel based on constituency location and hold a stock of London houses that can be allocated to MPs. Then if MPs want a private second home, it’s their pay.

    As someone else has said, there seems to be this idea that MPs are some sort of glorified case-worker or CAB office. They are not. MPs should represent the interests of people in Parliament, not be a first port of call for any minor issue or grievance. Massively reducing their number would open up opportunity for more things to be done at local levels of government and have smaller, more focussed central government. Possibly even with central departments having a properly functioning interface with regions.

    And while we are at it, reduce the number of ministers too.

  • Eddie Sammon 8th Nov '13 - 9:51pm

    I think the Telegraph are scraping the barrel for a story here.

    I agree we should defend MPs more, but I don’t think we should sound like anger over expenses is smoke without fire.

    I think we have to understand that livelihoods are at stake all across society, including for politicians, so this clash of interests can sometimes produce anger and nasty results. Continuous improvement needs to be the emphasis!

  • “If it’s somehow wrong to claim for getting to a Remembrance Day service, then why should they claim for mileage to go to a coffee morning for a children’s charity, or a charity duck race for the local hospice, or to a community council meeting, or to a surgery?”

    Well, why should MPs claim expenses when travelling to support charitable events? If they do that, they might as well reclaim charitable donations as well.

  • A Social Liberal 8th Nov '13 - 11:37pm

    If an MP goes to his constituencies Remembrance Day service as part of his duties then I will not gainsay his claiming expenses.

    I just wish Julian Smith would tip up at our parade every now and again.

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Nov '13 - 2:06am

    A good way to kill this frustration over expenses would be to make all work expenses tax deductible. I was shocked to find out a few years ago that I couldn’t even claim all my travel to work as a legitimate business expense, so sympathy for energy bills and remembrance days is going to be hard to come by.

    It would be expensive, but it feels right.

  • Jim – there will be many remembrance services within each MP’s constituency. As private individuals they would go to their local one. As an MP they might attend several, across a large area.

  • I believe that this is a symptom of the meanness of spirit which now exists in our society probably originated by Thatcher and sustained by the right wing press. MPs are easy targets particularly because of the 24-hour news scrutiny to which their predecessors were never subjected.
    Must say I enjoyed the hammering of Farage on Question Time. Boston should have been a happy hunting ground for him (high EU immigrant population) but it clearly wasn’t. Vicky Pryce was the star.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 9th Nov '13 - 10:39am

    Chris,

    MPs do not go to these events as private citizens. If they did, that’s another story. They are going in their public capacity as MP, therefore they have every right to claim whatever costs they have had to lay out to carry out that duty.

    Their private charitable donations out of their own income are, of course nothing to do with their public duties so your point is irrelevant.

  • Martin Caffrey 9th Nov '13 - 11:11am

    @BrianD

    Isn’t, or shouldn’t Mrs/Miss/Ms Pryce still on tag?

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 9th Nov '13 - 12:01pm

    Helen, there is no question of MPs not being able to go if they can’t claim expenses. That is a totally wrong interpretation of my article. Nobody has ever done that.

    My point was that they shouldn’t be criticised if they claim expenses for any part of their official duties and Remembrance Day services are no different in that regard from anything else. Would you expect to travel to an event for work and not claim the money back from your employer?

  • @Eddie
    “A good way to kill this frustration over expenses would be to make all work expenses tax deductible.”

    They already are! the question is who pays. In industry it is typically the employer who reimburses the employee and then deducts the expenses to reduce it’s corporate tax bill.

    No the real problem is that many who just do a typical 9~5 job at the same place of work with little variation, just don’t do anything that may be expensed. Hence have little understanding of what is involved in consulting style jobs, where the job tends to come before the family.

  • Stuart Mitchell 9th Nov '13 - 12:50pm

    “My point was that they shouldn’t be criticised if they claim expenses for any part of their official duties and Remembrance Day services are no different in that regard from anything else.”

    Depends whether you think there’s anything unique and special about Remembrance Day. I think the public are perfectly entitled to have a negative opinion about a politician who regards attendance at a Remembrance ceremony as merely a “duty” for which they should have their expenses reimbursed. I’d have more respect for a politician who simply stayed at home.

  • Chris Greaves 9th Nov '13 - 4:38pm

    A number of posts here seem to be missing the point. There are innumerable Remembrance Day services up and down the country. I would routinely expect to attend my local service. If I were an MP, I would still expect to attend my local service, and of course wouldn’t claim expenses, and frankly, wouldn’t even think to claim expenses. However, if somebody in the party “suggested” that as an MP I should be seen at The Cenotaph, for example, then yes, I would absolutely claim expenses. It is nothing to do with moral compass – it is solely to do with doing ones job in having to be at one particular service rather than your local event. It is important to commemorate, but where you do it as an individual is up to you. If you are told to commemorate at a particular location because of your job, that becomes a claimable job expense.

  • “If you are told to commemorate at a particular location because of your job, that becomes a claimable job expense.”

    No one has the authority to tell an MP “to commemorate at a particular location”.

    If the party suggests it for party reasons, then it would seem reasonable for the party rather than the taxpayer to cover the expenses, wouldn’t it?

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Nov '13 - 5:08pm

    Roland, I know they are already deductible, but the rules seem a bit tight. I don’t see why I’m not allowed to claim the tax back on a train ticket to work. Not even a penny of it, my trip to work isn’t on a 100% social.

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Nov '13 - 5:23pm

    Boris Johnson has been shouting about this. I don’t know about the feasibility, but I think it would be a good idea.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/road-and-rail-transport/10359487/Give-commuters-a-tax-break-Boris-Johnson-says.html

    I’ll send it up to the Manifesto Group! As a bonus I think it would reduce “expenses envy”.

  • Martin Caffrey 9th Nov '13 - 8:11pm

    The Prime Minister, The Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the the Opposition, as well as the leaders of all the other parties, should be at the Cenotaph. All other MP’s should attend in their own constituencies.

  • MPs do not go to these events as private citizens. If they did, that’s another story. They are going in their public capacity as MP, therefore they have every right to claim whatever costs they have had to lay out to carry out that duty

    No.

    They have the right to claim whatever costs they have had to lay out to carry out that duty in addition to the costs they would have incurred as a private citizen.

    That is what ‘expenses’ means: it means the costs incurred solely because of one’s job or duty.

    This is why MPs are entitled to the cost of a second home: because if they were not MPs, then they would only have to pay for one home. The second home that those whose constituencies are too far for easy travel form London must maintain is therefore a valid expense, that they would not have incurred if not an MP.

    Likewise, they are entitled to the cost of travel to surgeries in far-flung parts of their constituencies: again, they would not have had to make those journeys if they were working in some other field, so they are entitled be reimbursed for the mileage.

    And if they do have to attend a Remembrance service far away from their home — for example, they have to take an aeroplane to the cenotaph because they are leader of one of the devolved assemblies — then again, they are entitled to claim the cost of that.

    However, if they are claiming for the cost to attend their local Remembrance service — and claims of sixteen miles seem to fall into that category — then that is effectively saying that, if they had been a private citizen, they would not have bothered to go to the service.

    And it is right and proper for voters to take that into account when judging whether they wish such a person to represent them in Parliament.

  • Martin Caffrey 9th Nov '13 - 10:49pm

    Oh, and can we discuss Marine A?

  • Richard Shaw 10th Nov '13 - 10:18am

    @ Jim, et al.

    “And it is right and proper for voters to take that into account when judging whether they wish such a person to represent them in Parliament.”

    It is more right and proper for voters and commenters to take a break from their moral outrage and attend remembrance services themselves before passing such judgement.

  • @Eddie
    Re: Reducing expense envy

    Actually you raise an interesting point about having normal home-to-work expenses tax deductable. One of the things we have all discussed at length is the difference in income between someone on benefits and someone in work (and paying taxes), but we overlook the small problem of the costs of work, so whilst someone may be psychologically better off in work than on benefits, unless work pays sufficiently more to cover the increased expenses they will financially be worse off.

    The only catch I can see with the proposal is that government tax revenues would visibly go down, many will point to home-to-office expenses and call them lost revenue, in response others will demand means testing, because ‘the rich’ can afford to pay etc. etc.

  • Eddie Sammon 10th Nov '13 - 11:09am

    Thanks Roland. Just submitted the idea to the Manifesto Group, let’s hope they start working on at least a variation of it! Make the cost of work, all costs, tax deductible because it is the “profit” from work that should be taxed, not just the income.

    I don’t believe that the envy over expenses is something to do with a lack of understanding at the work that MP’s do and can be solved with a TV programme or a propaganda arms race – I think it is because we have to pay for many of our own expenses, as well as MP’s, so it doesn’t feel entirely fair.

  • Martin Caffrey 10th Nov '13 - 11:35am

    This Remembrance year I will be remembering Mr Zahawi’s electricity expenses for heating his horse-riding stables!

  • Eddie
    re: Envy over expenses

    Agree, devotees to the religion of the mediocrity won’t be so easily turned by such overt approaches, but engaging self-interest could assist.

  • Make the cost of work, all costs, tax deductible

    That doesn’t seem fair.

    I live close to where I work and cycle there. So my travelling-to-work costs are zero.

    I know people who live in much bigger houses than mine, because they live in villages farther out from the city where property prices are lower.

    Why should they be able to claim their commuting costs — which are not necessary for their work (they used to live a few streets from me), but a result of a lifestyle choice they have made to live in a bigger house in a village — as expenses, when I can’t claim any such expenses?

    That doesn’t seem fair, and I thought the Lib Dems were the party of fairness.

  • Richard Dean 11th Nov '13 - 6:52am

    @Bob
    You too have made a lifestyle choice. You chose to live in an expensive area. One of its advantages is that travel times are less, and travel is possible by bike. The travel expenses that you cannot claim are part of the price that you paid for your lifestyle choice.

    Travel to work is different to other types of travel, it happens at different times, is more regular, and is necessary solely for the purpose of the work. The last of these characteristics suggests that it is indeed a work-related expense.

    However, asking the employer to pay it may be likely to distort people’s employment prospects geographically, and so in a socially unacceptable way. The idea of making it tax-deductible seems a sensible compromise.

  • David Evans 11th Nov '13 - 9:18am

    Of course one big down side to making travel to work tax deductable is that it will subsidise people who travel long distances to work, encouraging more peole to do it, at great cost in terms of extra fuel consumed and other environmental considerations. Hardly one of the greenest policies we could adopt.

  • daft ha'p'orth 11th Nov '13 - 9:50am

    @Bob
    After a decade working in a certain area in which the south west has been strong since the 1980s, I find that govt funding changes meant that funding and therefore jobs have moved to a) central London and b) central Edinburgh. So my workplace closed down and I got a new job. There are limited jobs available right now. The south west is looking pretty bleak. I think the nearest healthy-looking place was Cardiff. London is looking very healthy, though, which leads us to the following:

    Right now most of my ex-colleagues are now commuting or are working mostly from home and almost all of their jobs are based in London or in rarer cases Edinburgh or multiple workplaces. They’re not doing this because they ache to spend five hours a day on trains but because they’re good professionals and have no intention of joining the ranks of the long-term unemployed. Their families are in the south west, their partners’ jobs are in the south west, their kids’ schools are in the south west and their homes are in the south west. Also, most of them are on short-term contracts in their new roles and nobody has any expectation that this new state of affairs is likely to be very durable. It is so clearly ridiculous for anybody to insist that roles which could be located anywhere must be sited in incredibly expensive office space within spitting distance of Parliament that many of us doubt this state of affairs will long outlast the current government.

    So: do you think such commuters have made a lifestyle choice and should jolly well move to be within cycling distance of Westminster or the Royal Mile? Being one of those affected, nothing about that attitude seems fair to me.

  • @Bob re: unfair
    >I live close to where I work and cycle there. So my travelling-to-work costs are zero.

    Err no, If you were engaged temporarily at your current place of work, HMRC would allow you an expense of 20p a mile. Whilst cycling is cheap and an environmentally friendly form of transport, there are costs involved hence why HMRC give the allowance.

    Remember all that is happening is that expenses are deducted from gross pay before tax is deducted, hence the employee (or their employer) has to earn the monies needed to fully cover the expense, they just don’t have then pay tax on top of the expense.

    Obviously, (going back on topic) Parliament doesn’t really have an identifiable P&L, just funding. Hence MP’s expenses do seem to just come out of the general tax pot. This is why it is important that IPSA is seen to do its job in a balanced and fair way, This at times will result in some odd/questionable expenses being approved, because IPSA has seen the supplementary information provided to support the claim.

  • Eddie Sammon 11th Nov '13 - 8:59pm

    Bob, thanks for registering your dislike! Regarding fairness I would say that time is basically money and if you choose to spend time rather than money getting to work then your income is likely to be lower so you will get your tax deduction, but if you spend money rather than time then presently you do not get your deduction.

    Roland also makes a good point that HMRC do consider cycling costs, but I am unsure of the specifics of this or whether it also needs reform.

    David Evans, I would say that environmental concerns do not take away from the logic of the idea and although personally I am not really a fan of making the poor pay for environmental policies that they don’t want or can’t afford, I think some moderate adjustments could be made to quell any fears.

  • A constituency can include more than 10 war memorials. If you drive round all ten on a Sunday, which you would never do as a private citizen, then you are working (for free) on a Sunday and should be able to claim the petrol.

  • Chris Holman 12th Nov '13 - 4:41pm

    I think there is a very simple way of consigning all the arguments & bad feeling about MP’s expenses to history by adopting principles widely recognised in the Construction Industry.
    Most of my career was spent as a Professional Engineer constructing & commissioning electric generation plant in major Power Stations.
    This meant that I, in common with a large proportion of our workforce, was working away from my home base and I received a weekly “Site Allowance” to recognise that I needed accommodation locally while still paying for a home for my family elsewhere.
    This was a fixed amount and tax free as it was recognised as ‘expenses’. The only criteria for entitlement was how far away from you home you were working. If forget what the distance was but it was considered to be a reasonable distance to commute daily.
    The level of the Allowance was agreed between the Employers and the Inland Revenue. There were no restrictions of how the Allowance was spent and no receipts had to be produced.
    In addition I we were reimbursed actual travel cost for a trip home once a month and the travel & accommodation costs for any journeys on Company Business, against receipts.
    There were clear instructions about what was & was not permissible as expenses.
    I am sure it is not beyond the wit of man to come up with similar system for MP’s and it would result in significant reduction in the Admin costs.
    For MP’s, perhaps entitlement to the Allowance should be based on the distance between their Constituency & Westminster.

  • I am very sorry, but if you regard attending a local Remembrance Day service as “a duty” and need to make expense claims them I would rather you didn’t attend. please do not compare this to the Cenotaph service by asking if Alex Salmon should pay his own flight – this is a national service and protocol dictated attendance. it’s about time MP’s expenses were subject to the very same HMRC rules as everyone else…. it will be interesting to note how many old and vulnerable people die this winter due to fuel poverty and we can see gow much you claim on heating your homes and calculate how much a life is worth to you all.

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