Our expenses must be published

Clegg’s response to the expenses scandal

Let’s start by giving praise where it is due – Nick Clegg may not have done the truly brave thing and published everyone’s expenses before the Telegraph could, but he did haveone real, concrete response ready for the expenses scandal and it was this: Liberal Democrat MPs will pass all gains from their second homes back to the taxpayer on sale. Talking of concrete, I was impressed by the “ton of bricks” imagery, which clearly went down well with the Metro.

Also set in stone is his exhortation to Cameron and Brown that all three undertake now to accept uncritically whatever recommendations the Kelly committee eventually comes up with. I think he is on less certain ground here, both politically and in terms of the rights and wrongs of the situation. On the one hand, Norman Baker was obviously right to assert on Newsnight on Tuesday that MPs had forgone the moral right to have any say over their own expense system.

On the other hand, while the Kelly committee is independent and expert, it is, I think, asking a bit much of any committee to suddenly take on board responsibility for the moral direction of a nation. The committee members, while I am sure they are all above reproach, were themselves appointed by MPs after all – they cannot and would not claim to be any sort of tribunal of the people. And this has come to be about something far bigger than expenses, as everyone bar apparently Lembit Opik and a substantial chunk of the Labour party now understands (don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the Conservative back benches are any better, but they’ve just had the bollocking of their lives).

However even leaving aside the rights and wrongs of the Kelly committee question, I don’t think this is a political move that is going to resonate with people. It’s a little too obscure. It was partly, I imagine, framed with Theresa May’s performance on the same Newsnight edition in mind, when she refused to commit to a pre-acceptance of the committee’s recommendations. But she’ll have been re-educated by now. There’s no point trying to match the footwork of Team Cameron on this sort of thing – they’re still, in spite of some recent coups from the yellow corner, quicker than Team Clegg, and Cameron has more arbitrary power to make snap decisions than Clegg does.

Publishing our expenses online – immediately

And this is really the nub of it. While I was waiting to go on the News Channel last night, I was forced to endure two doses of Cameron one after the other. The second was crap. Him braying populist waffle at a (BBC-filmed!) town hall meeting – rest assured, Clegg is much better than him at that sort of thing. But the first was a repeat of his commitment to make all Conservative MPs start publishing current expenses online immediately. How transparent this process will be remains to be seen, and should be scrutinised – will be scrutinised, if the ConservativeHome grassroots remain in the commendably leonine mood they’ve been in all week, and aren’t suddenly reinfected by their natural affliction of cap-doffing to ancient hierarchies.

Put simply, when someone gets something right, and the issue is this important, we can’t not take them up on their suggestion because they’re in another party. Cameron has so far been resistant to Clegg’s own perfectly workable suggestions about rental costs and the taxpayer’s stake in second homes, and he needs to answer to that. But he’s got the other half of the solution – they’re both refusing to take the other half’s proffer. This is not good enough from either of them. We’re only talking about commitments on behalf of their own parties here – nothing they decide to do now need affect their acceptance of the Kelly recommendations when they do emerge.

Clegg needs to make a similar, unilateral commitment to publication of all Lib Dem MPs’ expenses from this moment onward, and preferably from previous years too, as soon as possible.

How to get there

The groundwork has already been laid for a grassroots nudge – the item has been put on the FE agenda for Monday. I personally think this is letting the moment slip somewhat, but I accept that that’s the nature of a truly democratic internal process (chiz).

I urge all members who have contact details for them to get in touch with Federal Exec people, listed onΒ  the party website here and emphasise to them the nature of the public mood, and the urgent need for as much transparency as is within the party’s power to give. Send ’em a link to last night’s Pitchfork Question Time programme if they’re in any doubt.

If you aren’t in touch with any of the Federal Exec, please send them a message via the comments, and we’ll make sure the comment thread is submitted as evidence of grassroots views to the meeting.

Full and immediate publication of expenses would be good for us, it would be bad for the government we’re about to overtake in the polls, and it’s even – who’d a thunk? – the right thing to do.

Appendix

Some of our MPs, including the leader, have been publishing their expenses for some time, and some have taken commendable decisions to start doing so in the past few days. The roll of honour follows.

Nick Clegg

Jo Swinson

Tom Brake

Ed Davey

David Howarth

Norman Baker

Danny Alexander

Andrew Stunnell

Chris Huhne

Vince Cable

Lorely Burt

(I’m pretty sure there are more – can anyone help?)

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16 Comments

  • paul barker 15th May '09 - 3:07pm

    can i give my total support for the idea of publishing all claims online, this is a unique oppurtunity to clean up, & open up our democracy, lets get on with it, paul.

  • Alix, these ideas do need thinking through.

    (1) Are you saying that where the Crown assists in the purchase of real property for the use of an MP, said property should be held on resulting trust based on the proportion of the purchase price that the Crown has paid (including mortgage contributions)? If so, will a restriction against the title be sufficient, or should the Crown be registered as joint proprietor? If so, the standard words “conveyed to X and Y as beneficial joint tenants” would be inappropriate. Also, you have to ensure that the Crown would get priority over other secured creditors (plus the Revenue), and MPs properties would have to be exempted from Crown immunity from planning control.

    (2) While it is wholly wrong (and the root of the problem) that MPs should decide their own salaries and expenses rules, Parliament (being sovereign) has to retain plenary jurisdiction over the appointement of commissioners, quangos, whatever.

    Sorry to be so boring – I’m just hinting at a myriad of problems lurking in the detail here. We want a system that works, not a dog’s breakfast.

    Full marks to Mr Clegg thus far, BTW.

  • Andrew Stunell has published his on his website for well over a year now.

    http://andrewstunell.org.uk/pages/Allowances.html

  • Alix, what are you (and Cameron) actually calling for?

    It is thoroughly laudable that MPs have published breakdowns of their expenses online, and I would encourage more to do it. But the publication of receipts and correspondence with the Fees Office is what has led to most of the Telegraph stories. Douglas Hogg would probably have just classified his moat cleaning under some general ‘property upkeep’ heading, for example.

    I don’t think MPs are in a position to publish receipts right this moment, even if they want to. Firstly they don’t have scanned receipts – Fees Office do, with MPs currently checking them (primarily for redactions) via a passworded website. I don’t know if the Fees Office are in a position to fast track an individual MP’s receipts being published, even if the MP asks them (I suspect they are not). Remember, there are typically about 1,000 pages of scanned documents per MP.

    I understand that the timetable for publishing receipts is being speeded up and MPs now have to have done all their checking by next Thursday. But I’m guessing there will be tens of thousands of amendments (many of which will be clearly necessary like removing credit card numbers) to put in which will take maybe 2-3 weeks to get done.

    So when you (and Cameron) say expenses must be published straightaway I presume you are talking about this sort of thing – http://tinyurl.com/pdklp8 – rather than every receipt.

  • Alix Mortimer 15th May '09 - 3:52pm

    Pas du tout, Sesenco – I’m not disputing the pettifogging nature of the actual process, just suggesting that we need the declaration bit as soon as possible. Clegg accepts publicly that there are technical wrinkles to be straightened out on the second homes capital gain issue, by the way, not least on negative equity, but that doesn’t stop him making the declaration – rightly in my view.

    (And, for the avoidance of doubt, I wasn’t suggesting the Kelly committee or any other c’ee shouldn’t be appointed by MPs. I was trying to emphasise that this is just a regular committee like any other and it’s a bit much to expect it to solve the much wider cultural problem the expenses scandal is starting to throw up. We’re a little at risk of depositing all our hopes and dreams for democracy in it at the moment).

    George C – It isn’t difficult for MPs to start publishing their current receipts asap, and for the leader to announce even sooner that they are going to do so. As you say yourself, many already do it.

    The process of publising the backlog may well take longer – that’s fine, as long as the *decision* is taken now. There is absolutely zero point, both morally and politically, in working out a detailed publishing process first and then, when all that is in place, making an announcement.

  • Alix – I’ve now looked at what the Tories are doing. Interesting. halfway between what I had thought of as the two options. It’s a decent idea and worth looking at. I had thought you were talking about the five years of receipts that the Fees Office are going to publish.

  • Totally agree Alix about publishing online. Hopefully there will be more additions to the list soon πŸ™‚

  • Alexandra Taylor 31st May '09 - 9:02pm

    I’ve just seen a link asking DANNY ALEXANDER to justify his horrendous travel costs which asked who travelled on these journeys. Where are his answers? He has also, with his usual self praise, taken some credit for ‘publishing’ his 08/09 claims. What does he have to hide in the other claims from his first entry into parliament, the London flat refurbisments etc etc? Come on Mr Alexander, cough up!

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