Monday, 11 May 2009

A little bit more about expenses

Just a few little factoids I picked up today in conversation with MPs about, what else, expenses. One MP told how when it came to setting up a second home in London she called the Fees Office to ask what they considered to be a reasonable amount to spend on a TV. They wouldn't tell her. All they would say was that it was whatever you would normally spend on such an item. So, she said, if I spend about £300-400 which is what my TV at my family home cost, would that be OK? After some consultation they came back: yes. OK then, she said, how about if at my family home I had a £3000 plasma TV? Would it be OK to claim £3000 in London? After some consultation, another yes. So - if you've already got one big TV you're allowed another one, but if you've only got a small one, you're not. Which means you end up with the scenario where one MP is claiming for a chandelier while most of us are shopping in Ikea. (Haven't read tomorrow's stories about the Tory grandees yet, but I hope you will excuse me for quite looking forward to it. Actually have just found it on the Telegraph website. £14,000 for a housekeeper? How on earth was that ever allowed through? And clearing the moat around his manor house? And work to his stables and for his piano to be tuned? That's the aptly named Douglas Hogg.)

Another MP told me this tale. Apparently you're not allowed to claim for items for children under the second home allowance. So although he quite understandably wanted his family to be able to spend time in both places with him, he couldn't claim for a child's bed. However.... he was told it would be perfectly in order for him to buy another double bed, on the grounds that he could in theory choose to sleep in either one. So - a little bed not allowed, a big one is fine. Mad, isn't it?

29 comments:

Remember Remember said...

The use of the term "honourable" before "member" must be abandoned in the H.o.P. At best, it is misuse of the english language.
One other thing: do you believe you should be allowed to keep all the things and the 2nd home after you stop being an MP, or should the proceeds of all sales be returned to the koffers?

thebristolblogger said...

Absolutely mad yes. You can't even organise yourselves a simple and honest expenses system.

How can you possibly run the country and make coherent laws?

Dick the Prick said...

You do know who Doogie Hogg's dad was dontcha?

Kerry said...

In my defence, BB, these rules were made long before I became an MP, and have been tightened up considerably over the past year or two - but the problem seems to be as much in the interpretation as the rules themselves. We're not allowed to claim for anything 'luxurious or excessive'... well in the humble world in which I inhabit a moat might just be considered a tad excessive. For Lord Hailsham's progeny, perhaps not.

As for your point, RR... it's a valid one. I would point out that if members are buying property with their second homes allowance they are ONLY allowed to claim INTEREST, not the capital repayments - and at the moment on, say a £200k mortgage, the latter is almost double the former - so they are making a contribution which, it could be argued, entitles them to retain some of the benefit. As for furnishings... I guess at present we get to keep them and you're right, that raises questions. Perhaps we should get Paul Smith's Furniture Reuse Network involved?!

I know that if we buy additional items for the office, such as computers or printers or desks out of our office costs allowance we - the individual MP - have to pay tax on that because we're deemed to have acquired an asset, which we could sell on, but I think the second homes allowance is exempt from that. Which you could argue is completely the wrong way round.

babakathy said...

In South Africa (which OK has had its share of scandals) parliament is in a different city (Cape Town) from government (Johannesburg) and they constructed parliamentary housing. MPs who want housing stay there, those who don't like it find housing on their own.

Hughes Views said...

It does seem odd that you can't have an annual allowance rather than a dreadfully loosely defined expenses system. Many companies used to operate such a system for people working away from their home base before the taxmen started sniffing around for disguised benefits in kind.

But I suppose the Great British Press would then dig up one MP who slept in a cardboard box or on his friend’s mantelpiece but still took the full allowance.

It would be another thing to distinguish you from the rest of us because those representing London constituencies would get less than those from further away - a sort of negative London Allowance.

What I'd like to know is what percentage of MPs have been making outrageous claims and how this compares, say, with the percentage of the general population fiddling its taxes or benefits claims.

Perhaps this sort of information will come out when the screaming headlines have died down (but probably too late to save the reputation of the Commons).

babakathy said...

What I'd like to know is what percentage of MPs have been making outrageous claims...We've heard of less than a hundred, I think, but little about those who have not (ab)used the system so much except Hillary Benn and Ed Miliband. Judging by TheyWorkForYou there is quite a range.

But the discretionary approach does seem weird: from what Kerry says above a new MP who was previously earning close to the median wage (£26,000/a) would not get approval for a huge plasma TV for their flat, but should an uncle die and leave them a house in the country and private income then their new income and class would justify the expensive TV. Bizarre. Back to front at least.

Emma said...

The 2nd housing allowance should be scrapped, and as previous others have said we should build a block of flats or whatever in London, with basic furnishings, and upon stopping being an MP, you move out, they don’t need to be like university halls, just like your average standard council flats. While this may displease some MPs then they should look at why they came into Politics, because last time I checked, the motivation to go into politics should be to give your expertise to make the country we live in a better place, not to give yourself a flash new house, because it is unacceptable for an MP to have a house that is basically furnished and paid for by the taxpayer and then sell it for a profit, and those who have a there main house in London should not be given a flat.

As for there main home nothing should be paid for by the tax payer for the upkeep of this or anything to do with it, even if god forbid a light bulb needs changing in it, it should come out of MPs own salary, its what the people they are representing do, and its what they should be doing.

As for all this nonsense about housekeepers and gardeners this should be scrapped, I find it IMPOSSIBLE to believe that MPs don't have 5 minutes free to whip a Hoover around a house, if they want to have cleaners etc it should come out of MPs own wages, which are GOOD wages, and I’m frankly bemused that there are talks of pushing it up to £100,000. While I agree some MPs probably do deserve this, as a whole I don’t think they do. They are not our best and brightest, they aren’t chosen from the top of there field or profession. While MPs work shouldn’t be belittled, I feel if anyone should be getting a wage rise, it should be the case workers, who work tirelessly behind the scenes sorting out a big bulk of constituency problems while the MPs are away


On the food allowance front, to be frank its crazy, there can be no justification for having that amount on expenses, I question why a food allowance at all is needed, and if it is needed why does it have to be so much, have MPs really not grasped that people live on far less wages yet still manage to feed themselves. I’m a student so obviously it’s slightly different yet I manage to maintain to feed myself for at most £30 a week and no it’s not on takeaways and junk I cook from scratch.

Also the travel expenses I feel should stay in place as obviously MPs do need to travel to and from there constituency, however within travel chauffeur driven cars should not be included because they are not needed for an MP to perform there duty, also MPs staff should continue to have some travel expenses paid for constituency to parliament. However I feel family travel expenditure should be cut, many families are separated because of work, however you’d be pushed to find companies that spend as much on family travel as the House of Commons do, it should come out of there own wages, MPs know when they run for parliament the constraints of the job that it is going to require large amounts of time away from home, if they are uncomfortable being away from home for so long, they should choose another career, as there are many others that would happily and just as good do the job.

On the note of Barbara Follet spending that amount of money on security is insane, like actually insane, she should be took in for testing to make sure that she is still living in the same world as the rest of us. For a start how does that look to tourists, that our own tourist minister is apparently to scared to live in London without wasting tax payers money on security. On a second note, she has a husband who is a millionaire! Why on earth are we paying for something which to be honest I doubt was even needed, who has a husband who is loaded, if this isn’t a prime example outright insanity and MPs not living on the same planet as us I don't know what is


This whole Telegraph thing shows why we need a completely transparent government, in a way we can hold them to account, as if we did our expenses the way some MPs have done there’s, we would have been sacked on the spot. Yet we cannot even sack them until they decide they want to call an election, and if they had been transparent for the start we wouldn’t be having this leak now, but I have to say I think it is good that it has happened as its causing some action to take place. Another thing I have picked up on from all parties but Labour especially is that they journalists are undermining the democratic process, for a start if MPs had been holding themselves to account we would not have to have journalists do this for us, I have to say that overall I think the Telegraph leaks are a good thing, as in the June or July release I forget which, MPs second home addresses where to be blanked out in which case, we would never of found out about this “flipping” business in terms of the second home.
Another note on the leak matter is that Labour must remember that Gordon Brown made his name in the opposition releasing Tory leaks to undermine the government and in his exact words he had a civil servant mole who was “very concerned about the public interest” leaking the information to him, and surely it could be argued that the person that leaked this was doing the exact same thing, you can’t sit in opposition leaking information and then complain the minute it’s done to you.

And on a final point, I would like to say that all of this tossing the blame on "the system", “the rules” and the fees office, shows that some MPs shouldn’t even be in charge of running a bath.
Blaming “the” system is like shooting someone and blaming the gun, they chose to exploit the system, just because the system is exploitable doesn’t mean it should be.
Blaming “The Rules” is pretty much the same thing, MPs make the rules, which makes this whole thing more crazy but again just because rules are there doesn’t mean they should be exploited, just because things are within the rules doesn’t make them right, nor is it any kind of defence.
And the fee’s office (as it has already been said by the Telegraph and many others no doubt) should not have to tell MPs what is right and wrong, the MPs should have a moral compass that tells them what is right and what is wrong, if they are incapable of seeing that for example claiming for tacky Artex (Kitty Ussher) or swimming pool maintenance (Michael Ancram among other Conservative MPs) is wrong, then what qualifies them to make moral decisions on a day to day basis in there role as an MP, maybe its from following the whip for too long that has numbed the moral compass of our MPs


Ok I know I said that was my last point, but this one will be my final one promise! But the thing that really angers me is the fact that this is being turned into a party issue “oh look at them tory MPs spending money on moats and swimming pools” this is not a party issue, its not a competition who can bash the other for spending the publics money on rubbish, because all parties have spent tax payers money on insane things such as a £14,000 wet room, I didn’t even know what a wet room was until this whole sorry affair kicked off and I think we’ve all established now as a nation that this issue has hit all parties, and it would be good if MPs can grasp that, we, the public are not wanting some kind of mud slinging match about who’s spent the most and which party has come across as ridiculous because the answer is ALL have and we want the parties to work together to sort out this mess of expenses, now is not the time to be turning this into a party issue.


Rant over! Also oh my, how much did I write!

Kerry said...

I think at lot of what you say makes a lot of sense Emma, although the difficulty with the 'hostel' idea is that some MPs want their families to be with them in London and in their constituencies, maybe not all the time but at least some of the time and so that wouldn't be suitable unless you had family units too, and then still not great for kids. Also, there's a privacy issue and a security issue, which I've blogged about before.

As for the 'class war on Tory toffs' thing - it's a sideshow, admittedly, but a rather entertaining one.

Bevanite said...

surely the prospect of bunking in between Nadine Dorries and Boy George Osborne would put any decent being off politics, for life.

Emma said...

Should of clarified on my flat point, I'm not expecting MPs to live in university or hostel style accomadation just an average council style block of flats 2/3 bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, so would be able to have there family up.
yeh it's probably not the standard some MPs are used to, but having grown up in a council tower block in Newcastle for many years, I'm sure they can cope.

Catosays said...

Kerry,
Any ideas on who the female Labour MP in Bristol was who bought a chest of drawers from IKEA in Bristol or a sofa from John Lewis?

She had them both delivered to her home in Bristol but claimed them on her second home in London.

Wasn't you, was it?

Kerry said...

Catosays - no, it wasn't. And before you jump to conclusions that doesn't mean it was Dawn either - she has told me that it wasn't.

If the Telegraph is going to publish such things why doesn't it also publish the names of the MPs involved? It must have that information.

Kerry said...

Actually I've now just got round to finding the Telegraph piece - wish I'd looked at it first. It says the drawers were bought at Ikea in Bristol and the sofa at John Lewis in Bristol. In the case of the sofa it mentions 'delivered to her home in the South West'. So it doesn't mean it's a Bristol MP, just someone who is within shopping distance. I can categorically state that it is not me. I have bought a few 'soft furnishing' items in Bristol (because that's where/ when you get time to shop) and taken then down to the London flat, which is obviously perfectly legit. Seeing as since I've been an MP I've only ever owned two-seater convertibles, I'd be in great difficulty taking anything bigger!

The Bristol Blogger said...

"obviously perfectly legit"?

Well, I suppose it is, if you think it's "perfectly legit" to charge your furnishing bills to the taxpayer.

This is what all the anger's about. You lot are in the top 10% of earners in the country and you're swanning around Waitrose and John Lewis charging your personal grocery and shopping bills to us.

It's an absolute joke. And all this "it's within the rules" and "perfectly legit" nonsense just rubs salt into the wound.

Kerry said...

I was saying legit in the sense that there is no deception involved, I entirely accept that the public does not endorse the notion that MPs should be able to furnish their second homes at taxpayers expense and it looks as if going forward that isn't going to be allowed. It is however an expensive business for a new MP - you've probably spent several thousand pounds on the selection itself, especially if you've had to relocate to do so, then you may well have given up work to fight the election campaign or gone onto reduced hours, run up a significant overdraft (by which I mean in the £10,000-£20,000 bracket - and that's no exaggeration for those in marginal seats) and then you have to set up a second home with all the costs involved. Not all of us have the financial means to do so. And before you say - 'well you knew what you were letting yourself in for' - yes, but do we want to get to the situation where only wealthy people can afford to become MPs?

Emma said...

As a student that is going to be in owing £29404 to the student loans company when I leave university, which I will have to start repaying in part the minute I start earning over £15,000. It’s hard to express sympathy for MPs who runs up an overdraft of £20,000 who then goes into a job around £60,000, and upon becoming MP can claim for everything (I’d say but the kitchen sink, but I’m pretty sure someone will have), as well as opening up many other job opportunities, for during and after they leave office.

Kerry said...

I'm not saying MPs deserve sympathy, but I think it's important people understand the underlying facts. One of which is - this is about a second home, not the main home. MPs still have to pay all the costs associated with their main home too. Yes, you could feasibly pay for two modest homes, one in London and one in the constituency, on an income of £60,000, whilst paying off debts accrued during the selection and election campaign, and living with the possibility that you might well lose your seat at the next election, but would that make it more likely that politics becomes a rich man's game as it used to be? Yes it does. As for the job opportunities, I don't believe MPs should have second jobs, and if you look at what happened to the Tory MPs who lost their seats in the 1997 landslide many of them struggled to find work afterwards.

This is probably the wrong time to try to defend the entitlement of MPs to anything, but I think MPs are entitled to a decent income and to a family life, and the system has to make that possible for people from all backgrounds, not just those with millions in the bank or a very rich partner.

Emma said...

Didn’t mean to imply that MPs shouldn't be entitled to earn a decent income! Was just putting over the point of that is hard for the British public to relate, I'm a Labour Party member and
Politics student and I find it impossible right now to relate to MPs.

"and the system has to make that possible for people from all backgrounds, not just those with millions in the bank or a very rich partner."

Maybe a complete new selection process is needed then, not just so that its not just millionaires but also that its not just middle class professionals, which the majority of the house seems to be In order to have a wider range of people from different backgrounds like you said to become MPS.

On the costs of running a campaign I thought the party covered the costs? If that is not the case, I believe it should be rather then parliament and I’ve already ranted on previously about 2nd home and main homes!

Also on a side note this is brilliant revision for my politics exam, ha ha ;)

Kerry said...

The party pays for things like election leaflets, although usually the candidate would pay a contribution as most CLPs are strapped for cash. It's the other costs that mount up though - e.g. supporting yourself if you give up work, accommodation if you weren't already living in the constituency, possibly maintaining another home too... For example, if you were someone involved in national politics, perhaps working at Number 10, you'd have to give up your job when you were selected. If you had a home in London you wouldn't want to give it up because you'd need it again as soon as the election took place, which could be at any time. But you'd also need a constituency base, which would either mean hotels or renting a home. Plus there's travel - if you're London based but get selected for somewhere up North, those costs soon mount up. A selection process can last for anything up to a year, unofficially, and during that time there are all the visits to the constituency, mailing out to all members, staying in hotels, etc. It's become the norm for candidates to send out glossy leaflets to members, and to be honest, if you don't do it, you're not see as being in the race. That could be £1000+ before you even talk about postage.

I was lucky, I was selected in a truncated process, 10 weeks before polling day, and also my employer was pretty lenient about me coming into work. But it still cost me about £5000 over those few months. The Party has tried various ways to make the process fairer on those who don't have the funds, and those who have family responsibilities, (Emily's List provides some funding for women seeking selection) but no-one has found a solution to it yet. Still, cheaper than running for president!

babakathy said...

Kathy I think that the principal that MPs should not be out-of-pocket by spending time in both their constituencies and Westminster is sound. The abuses are fairly well-documented by now and seem obvious, so I will not dwell on them if we all accept they are abuses. What bothers me is the scale and scope of the Additional Costs Allowance when compared to what government offers ordinary citizens. I live in Watford and my local MP (not that I have anything against her and none of her claims have been denounced as dubious) has consistently claimed the maximum ACA or close to it, although Westminister is just over an hour away by public transport. The Local Housing Allowance for Watford town hall area is just over £10,000 per year (£190.38 per week). And then remember that the Housing Benefit received is means tested and lower than the LHA whereas the ACA is the actual claim.

The Social Fund appears to offer very little for furniture for the recently-homed ex-homeless and bases assessment on the cheap end of the Argos catalogue, with a maximum of udner £1,000 once -off (per Toynbee's research).

I am not saying MPs should apply for Housing Benefit and Social Fund furniture for the additional house/flat but it should at least be in proportion to that. If it has to be arranged as an allowance, it should be mean-tested and area-specific. If furniture has to be included (but why not go for furnished flats?) then it should be a once-off payment for basic furnishings only. These suggestions reflect how government rules apply to the rest of us...

And it should go without saying that one home should be declared in the constituency and one in London and ACA on one of these only.

Personally though, I agree with Emma that some form of government-supplied accommodation would be better - and clearly less open to abuse.

thebristolblogger said...

"the system has to make that possible for people from all backgrounds, not just those with millions in the bank or a very rich partner"

Doesn't the Labour Party's own candidate selection system stand in the way of people from all backgrounds anyway?

On my income I couldn't get a £20,000 overdraft or any other form of unsecured loan. I therefore couldn't become a Labour MP.

What's the point is devising some system for the very poorest in the commons if the party system requires you are wealthy - or at least have access to very good lines of credit that come from high salaries?

Do you think bus drivers and road sweepers can get £20,000 overdrafts?

Kerry said...

We've tried. But basically there's no way round the fact that to get selected somewhere you have to tout yourself around party members, and that means basing yourself in the constituency or travelling back and forth a lot (unless of course you're local in which case you have a massive advantage). And apart from knocking on members' doors and introducing yourself to them - and no-one stands a chance of getting selected unless they do that - you also have to circulate CVs, etc. Permitting candidates to circulate a leaflet promoting themselves to the members was probably a step backwards as those candidates who cam afford to produce glossy, professional versions are at a massive advantage. The official selection process, by the way, lasts for about 12 weeks, but candidates who are seriously 'nursing' a seat will get in their months before. Of course, if you have family connections then you might get a free place to kip for the night, but otherwise it means hotels, or even renting or buying a house.

The alternative to this would be to remove the choice of candidate from the local party and have it done by an interview panel. But then we'd get accused of Stalinism!

babakathy said...

Means-testing is one option to minimise abuse. That is the principal on most Benefits. Means-testing is relevant to Additional Costs Allowance and to selection and campaigining.

What about limits to how much an individual can spend of their own/family funds on selection/campaigning?

Of course, if I cannot convice anyone to donate any funds at all to my campaign I might not be the best candidate...

beness said...

The security argument is a non starter. You have 600+ MP's sitting in Westminster every Wednesday for PMQ's. If security can be provided for that, then the same security can be provided for a development that houses the self same MPs .

As for all the coming and going to constituencies to get yourself a seat. The party would be better getting someone who does actually live there to represent them. They may even have little things to offer, like knowing the place they live in.

Kerry said...

If parties only selected local candidates then just to take the current Cabinet as an example - there'd be no Alan Johnson, no Hilary Benn, no Ed Milband, no David Miliband, no Ed Balls, no Yvette Cooper, and those are just the first names that spring to mind. And there'd have been no Tony Blair or Tony Benn either.

thebristolblogger said...

Ooh hang on. Let's have a look at that list of yours (with the honorable exception of Alan Johnson):

Hilary Benn, University of Sussex, 4th generation MP, father a Viscount

Ed Milband, Oxford

David Miliband, Oxford

Ed Balls, Nottingham High and Oxford

Yvette Cooper, Oxford

Tony Blair, Fettes and Oxford

Tony Benn, 2nd Viscount Stansgate, Westminster and Oxford

So if candidates were local and had to work their ticket through years of party and public service to become an MP, it would make life harder for a privileged elite who get everything on a plate?

How absolutely terrible.

Do you not think you might actually get better, more in touch politicians through the local, hard work route?

beness said...

Great examples why local candidates would be a better option.

No Tony Blair eh.... If only!!

depth of field said...

Kerry,

Firstly having thought about this for a few weeks I am of the firm conclusion that the job of an MP is posibly one of the most important jobs in the UK. I actually believe that an MP's salary should be substantially increased to reflect the skill sets required to do this job. Most people with the skills and ability to do the job and make decisions that effect the country on a daily basis would choose to work in other occupations with potentially much higher salaries. As the saying goes if you want monkees pay peanuts. When I see many of the MP's being interviewd they clearly do not have sufficient expertise or experience to represent the country and carry out the duties involved. Without suitable compensation the job of MP will rarely attract the calibre of candidate necessary to do the job.

I also strongly believe that the suggestion MP's should have access to good quality government owned accomodation whilst working away from their constituencies is a valid and fair point. This accomodation could quite easily be arranged through the purchase of reasonable property in London that would provide for the MP and their family by the taxpayer with any increase in values belonging to the taxpayer and not personal gain to the MP.