Spending the afternoon in a slowly revolving door

Expenses… what to say? Starting point is, yes, the revelations of the past few days, or at least the way they have been reported, are grim and hugely damaging to the reputation of parliament and MPs. I don’t intend to comment on any individual cases – except to say that I think the way the press and the BBC reported the story about Gordon Brown reimbursing his brother for paying their shared cleaner was appalling and obviously designed to mislead. Apart from that, all I will say is that I think it’s up to each MP to justify themselves to their constituents, and the wider British public. But I can understand why people are angry and appalled.
I haven’t, by the way, checked through my bundles of past claims yet; in fact I only collected them this week. I suppose I should do that on Monday when I’m back in the office. I did hear Frank Field MP say that he’d got some of Mark Field MP’s paperwork in his bundle, and there have been loads of other similar complaints, so being one of many, many ‘Mcs’ I’m expecting the worse.
I have to say I’m rather bemused to read the weird selection of items being mentioned in the press, many of which are things MPs simply aren’t allowed to claim… I suspect we will find, as with the Phil Woolas case, that the Telegraph has got the wrong end of the stick and confused receipts with claims; if someone has, for example, bought a toaster and a microwave and some bedding for their second home in a Tesco superstore, and also bought shampoo and magazines and cigarettes at the same time, then they would make clear on the claim form they were only claiming for certain items but the receipt would show everything. (Although when I’ve been in such a situation I’ve always crossed out the items which aren’t being claimed for). This must be the case for some of the confectionary and cat food and eyeliner and things like that. I also think the press have been a bit misleading when they’ve pulled out individual items from receipts and called them ‘claims’. Whoever it was who claimed 5pm for an Ikea bag obviously didn’t submit a 5pm claim; he’d have bought some stuff from Ikea’s market hall and a 5p bag to put it in, and that would have been just one item on the receipt. What was he supposed to have done? Deleted the 5p? Ditto the 26p wooden spoon mentioned on the Telegraph website as being purchased by a Labour female backbencher. (Which incidentally is the only item where there is even the slightest possibility it might be me. I’m not saying it is. I’m just saying I have one, or two, whereas I don’t have a patio heater or a wet room or a barbecue. I have no idea if I’ve ever claimed for one, but if I did it would have been with other items).
As for what you can and can’t, or do and don’t claim for, it’s a tricky judgment call sometimes… I was with my office manager in Staples in Bristol a while ago. Can’t remember what we were buying, but it was probably envelopes and possibly a telephone… put it all on my credit card, as usual. Anyway, at the till we spotted a couple of cute funny-shaped magnetic calculators, one bright pink, one purple, and threw them into the basket too. They were only a few quid each but when it came to filling out the claim form for office costs I decided that we hadn’t really needed them and had only bought them because they were fun, so I didn’t claim for them (although we do actually use them). A trivial anecdote, but one I tell just to illustrate that we’re not all engaging in some sort of MPs’ edition of Supermarket Sweep.
It’s important to note that the claims appearing in the press at the moment relate to the 2004-08 financial years. I’m told by older colleagues that the system used to be far more lax, and far more widely abused, but that was before the Freedom of Information Act and so we will probably never know the details. (And please can we have just a little bit of credit for introducing the FOI? No? Thought as much.) It’s also important to note that the system has been tightened up several times over the past year or so, and will no doubt be further tightened after the Kelly inquiry reports. I would also like to say at this point that when I voted against external audit of our allowances last year, I was patently obviously wrong. I thought the Fees Office did a pretty rigorous job in monitoring our claims, but it looks as if an awful lot of questionable claims were allowed to slip through the net. For what it’s worth, I’ve never had any cause to argue with, or challenge the Fees Office. I once claimed for a hotel room in London, because we were voting till very late at night and I had a very early start the next day. I was told by a colleague I could claim, but then it turned out I couldn’t, so I said ‘fine’. (This was in the days before I got sorted with a flat in London). But that – and the fact they occasionally chased for receipts that I’d actually already sent them – gave me the impression they were being fairly rigorous in their scrutiny.
During the period 2004-08 no receipts were required for household items under £250 per month. I am sure the coming days will reveal that some MPs abused this by claiming just under that amount each month, in the same way that I’m sure some MPs will have abused the ‘up to £250 petty cash’ each month from the office costs allowance. All I can say is, I didn’t, as will I guess become clear in a few days.
Anyway, from April 2008 (I think) the rule has been that receipts have to be shown for all items over £25 and we have now just voted – a couple of weeks ago – that receipts should be required for items below that amount too. Until April 2009 there was a £400 per month food allowance. As new MPs in May 2005 we were advised by the old hands to claim this as a matter of course; it was our entitlement. So I did, although not over the summer or other periods when I didn’t have to be in London. I admit to being uncomfortable with this. It is, I suppose, possible to argue that the cost of feeding yourself when away from home is higher, especially given the long hours, and most businesses or organisations will pay employees a subsistence rate when they’re working away. But £400 a month? So I gradually started claiming less and less under this heading. Since April 2009 it’s been scrapped and we have a flat £25 subsistence allowance for every night spent away from our main home. I’ve interpreted this fairly strictly, as nights that have to be spent away from my main home in Bristol. If I choose to spend a few extra days in London over the recess, catching up with friends or shopping, that should not of course count. But if I’m there for meetings or to do stuff in the Westminster office, then it should.
By the way, despite what some press reports are saying about Labour MPs having affairs with each other and double-claiming the costs of hotel accommodation at Labour Party Conference and MP away-days , we are not allowed to claim for any costs at all associated with Party Conference, as it’s political not parliamentary work. And Labour doesn’t have MP away-days (or weekends). The Tories do; we don’t. So that story sounds like rubbish to me.
As for second homes, let me start by saying that the system is obviously massively flawed…. I was selected only a few weeks before the May 2005 election. I didn’t have a base in Bristol, so just rented the first place I came across (a small, not very nice flat) and didn’t have the time or energy to do anything about settling in or making it home. After the election I used the house I co-owned in Luton as my ‘Westminster’ base, although the travelling back and forth was a killer (getting home gone midnight, having to be back in London first thing the next day) and designated my Bristol flat as ‘my second home’. Over the summer recess I moved out of the place in Luton, got myself sorted in Bristol, and also sorted out a London flat – since then I have considered Bristol to be my main home (I’ve got a nicer flat now, which is small but has a wonderful view of the floating harbour), where I spend most of my time when Parliament isn’t sitting. The London flat (equally small and no view at all because it’s a ground floor flat on a main road, so I keep the blinds permanently closed) is my designated second home. I can’t see that changing in the foreseeable future.
Other dilemmas… furnishing the second home. I believe that MPs should be entitled to an allowance to do so. We don’t all inherit our furniture! But I think that the suggestion that has been made, that newly-elected MPs should have a one-off allowance of about £5000, would be better than the current system. At present if an MP has a low mortgage or rent, there’s nothing to stop them spending the rest of the £23,000+ Additional Costs Allowance on furnishings (subject of course to the ‘John Lewis’ list or home improvements).
And this is easy to exploit – although I would say, once again, that I have never done so. I don’t think we’re under any obligation to tell the Fees Office any details of our second home so there would be nothing to stop an MP with only a one bedroom flat buying two or three beds. I suppose you could then either put the extra bed(s) in your other home, or – if you were being really dodgy – you could just submit receipts for furniture that someone else had bought, or you could buy it and then return it to the store later for a refund. I have no evidence anyone has done this; I’m just saying it’s technically possible.
And of course there’s the issue of how you choose between the basic or deluxe model. I’ve always tried to work on the basis of ‘would I be buying this if I had to pay for it myself?’ Although in the early days I didn’t actually realise we could claim for furniture, so when I kitted out my second home in London from Habitat (mostly, apart from a few item from the Purves and Purves sale), I did it on the assumption I’d be paying off the credit card bill for some months to come.
For most MPs, claims for parliamentary allowances are something they do in a rushed moment at the end of the month, and the paperwork is usually something of a muddle. MPs lead fairly chaotic lives – we have two homes, two offices, we work strange hours, we have people making demands on us from all quarters, and we usually are trying to keep at least six or seven balls in the air at any one time.
I can entirely understand how, for example, could have mistakenly claimed for the same bill two months in a row. You see the bill, you can’t recall if you claimed or not, and all the past month’s paperwork is at a different home or office or you didn’t actually get round to taking a copy of it… so you put the claim in and expect the Fees Office to tell you if you’ve got it wrong. I’ve usually erred on the other side of caution, or, rather erred on the side of inaction and not got round to claiming for things I could have done, just because the receipts weren’t with me when I filled in the claim forms and I just wanted to get it over and done with. I didn’t claim for a TV licence in London for several years because I couldn’t remember whether the quarterly direct debit payments were for London, or the monthly ones, and frankly life was too hectic to be bothering about such things. (If you’re about to erupt at the very thought of an MP claiming for such things, remember, they are still paying for at least one property. I pay council tax, electricity bills, a TV licence, water rates, insurance, etc, etc, for my home in Bristol).
Anyway… that’s a probably futile attempt to go with my other futile attempts to explain the system and why we are where we are. It’s not intended to justify what you’ve been reading about over the past few days, and I agree with those who have expressed their anger at MPs sticking to the mantra ‘it was within the rules’. It’s not good enough.
As I’ve said, the rules have changed and further change is needed. I don’t have the solution. I don’t think anyone does at this stage. But if we have to wear hairshirts for a while, or from now onwards, then so be it. Frankly, we – collectively speaking – deserve it. Although I do still draw the line at sharing a dormitory with Ann Widdecombe and Nadine Dorries!

PS If this isn’t enough, I have blogged about this issue on here several times before. And I’m not prepared to post or respond to allegations about colleagues, because I simply don’t know what is true and what isn’t. Some of it might be libellous.
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