28 May 2009

Wow - that was easy

Blog Service Announcement:

I really love the service provided by Disqus and have had its commenting system on this blog for some time now. I recently became aware that there were a number of new features available, but assumed that there would be some cumbersome process required to activate them on here.

Not so: in around five minutes flat, I have updated the features, which means you can now sign in to comment using Facebook Connect or Twitter OAuth, and this included the time it took me to set up my own Facebook App, which is required for the Facebook Connect function to work specifically for this blog.

It may be form over substance, but I hope it encourages you to "join in the conversation", as they say, and make this a more vibrant blog.

/Blog Service Announcement

26 May 2009

Look Ma - our democracy works!

Last year when the banks collapsed, various people went around saying it was the "end of capitalism" - the same people, no doubt, who thought house prices would always go up and the sun keep on shining all year round. More intelligent people pointed out, that crashing is what markets, particularly if poorly regulated, do from time to time.

The same is true of the current expenses scandal - Scamalot - which some, such as Alan Johnson MP, are hoping will act as the catalyst for the introduction of proportional representation as a cure for our "damaged" democracy.

Scamalot has been terrible for Parliament, political parties and various individual MPs, but it has been fantastic for democracy. Suddenly, all these MPs who have had questions asked of them in our free press are having to answer to their own constituents, and where their position is unsustainable, they are announcing their retirement at the next election. And where errant MPs are not going voluntarily, they are likely to face a strong challenge either from another party or from a "sleaze-busting" independent. "Safe" seats are suddenly not looking that safe after all. More importantly, the sense of national outrage will lead to reform and much more openness in the future.

Tom Harris MP has already taken issue with Johnson's article (and more humourously, here, with those using Scamalot as a chance to change other things), pointing out that PR does nothing to assist democracy, but he misses the major point that most forms of PR weaken the connection between the MP and the constituency - which has proved so important recently. Landslides not only produce strong (some would say, undemocratic) governments, but they also mean that no party is immune from almost complete wipe out, meaning that they have to reach out well beyond their hard core supporters if they are to win even a single seat.

David Cameron's response this morning in a speech to the Open University in Milton Keynes shows that he understands that it is openness and accountability (that openness brings with it) which will keep our democracy vibrant. Tom Harris can mock the fix term Parliament proposal all he likes but clearly he doesn't understand that where knowledge is power, governments need to be better at sharing their knowledge, starting with the date on which we all get the chance to boot them out of office.

22 May 2009

Scamalot: dead ducks or dotty Dorries?

It needed a huge effort to top Douglas Hogg's dirty moat, but Peter Viggers' ducks finally did it this week, when it transpired that they had been claiming for a second home in the MP's duck pond, when in fact, it was their main home (or something like that).

The scandal has been so successful that it has cracked the US, getting its own slot on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and being dubbed "Scamalot" (see below for full clip).

I have blogged about this topic about as extensively as I have any other on this blog (great political story - easy to have a quick opinion) and in the main I am appalled, outraged etc, about the claims being made on the public purse by our MPs. However, there are two respects where I am starting to diverge from popular opinion: first, there seems to be disbelief that any MP (or at least one who lives within a couple of hours of London) could possibly require a second home to do their job properly - and that this should be somehow paid for by the taxpayer and secondly, that the natural reaction to this is to say "a plague on all your houses" and either refuse to vote, or vote for a supposedly clean fringe or extremist party.

So I was interested to hear Nadine Dorries on the radio this morning as she is one of the few MPs who has coherently (and from a position of innocence) attempted to put into context some of the claiming that has occurred (also blogged by her here). More interestingly, she has called out the entire media (but clearly the Daily Telegraph) for playing the shocked innocent card themselves, making out that the existence of MPs allowances is newsworthy in itself, or that a £24,000 tax free allowance was no more than a thinly veiled £40,000 pay increase.

I am also pleased to see that Iain Dale has picked up on the story of the council by-election in Hazel Blears' constituency, which was a Labour HOLD but saw the BNP move into third place, 17 votes behind the Libdems (whose vote slumped by 22%), and combined the minor parties (BNP, Greens and UKIP) took 33% of the vote. Even though council by-elections can be a very poor indicator of national trends (total turn out = 1612), these figures are pretty shocking, suggesting that there are plenty of feeble minded people out there who think that the criminals who run the BNP are better equipped to run the country than [the fraudsters running] the exisiting main parties. But how does the BBC report this: on the front page of its politics page we have: "Labour holds poll in Blears ward" - complete with a smiling photo of the idiot-savant herself, Hazel, declaring that she is "delighted". Dear God...

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18 May 2009

Interns and the National Minimum Wage

I've been guest blogging for Enternships.com - a new website which provides a way for students and enterprising young people to get internships with great enterpreneurial companies - on the thorny topic of the National Minimum Wage and its application to unpaid interns.

You can read the whole article here.

13 May 2009

The strange case of Hazel Blears and the HMRC

If only we had a word for "Schadenfreude" in the English language - we would be getting such great value out of it at the moment, which is more than you can say about our Members of Parliament and their fondness for claiming the maximum possible allowances for everything from plasma screens to drawbridge wax (OK, that may not be entirely factual).

But more significant than over or "mistakenly" claiming for the odd bit of dog food, is the tax implications of all of this - or more precisely the capital gains tax implications of desingating a house as your primary residence for tax purposes and your second home for expense purposes.

One of the offenders in this respect, Hazel Blears, has said she is paying the tax on the £45,000 profit she made on the sale of her "second home" and has been waving around a cheque made out to HMRC. Aside from the point that she is paying £13,332 on a reported profit of £45,000, which is about 29.6%, which is nice for her given that the higher rate on earned income is 40% - or 50% (or even 60% - see earlier post), I am not aware that HMRC accepts voluntary donations of tax.

Mrs Blears is apparently making the payment on a without prejudice basis. This is just as well, as if she admitted having fiddled her taxes, she would be in line for interest, penalties and possibly prosecution (although, frankly, unlikely where a taxpayer fesses up before the HMRC investigate....).

So what will HMRC do? Will they bank the cheque, say thanks a lot and no further questions? Or will they say if the tax is not due they have no jurisdiction to collect it? And what if they return it, will Mrs Blears donate the money to charity? If so, Shelter might be appropriate.

: This post on Ben Brogan's blog appears to confirm my assumption that the HMRC can only take what is in fact due to it and a voluntary overpayment will (if not repaid) be set against future liability.

09 May 2009

MPs' expenses - the saga continues

The Daily Telegraph today is continuing its fine job of harassing those MPs who have been a bit liberal in their interpretation of the rules governing the Additional Costs Allowance (or "smearing", homophobically as Ben Bradshaw moaned on Twitter today). 

Although sympathetic to the financial realities of life as an MP, I can't say my heart bleeds for those in the spotlight as a result of these revelations.  Over the past few years I have had many occassions to claim expenses for work related travel, with the costs being charged back to clients or my employer - and I have lived for six months in a flat owned by my employer.  It has always been my basic philosophy that I should be compensated for any costs incurred, but recognising that I have probably saved myself various expenses I would have otherwise incurred (e.g. on food and drink at home), I am always happy if I am working on a tiny bit of a loss. 

The trouble is that the guidelines are so broad and various MPs are so lacking in moral scruples, that they are wide open to abuse. It also looks like the House of Commons Fees Office is run by some seriously inept people - or that they are so in awe of, or cowed by our MPs that they have not got the backbone to challenge the most obvious absuses

The MPs who are going to get away without any scruitiny are the ones who are politically smart enough to claim the whole amount available in relation to mortgage repayments on the correct home and not get into the game of submitting receipts for trivial items.  

The more I read the more I am in favour of a system whereby the House of Commons maintains an estate of properties in central London for occupation by MPs who require accomodation in the capital.  These could be run very much on the same basis as would be done by a large corporation which has ex pat workers in the City - i.e. Parliament pays for furnishing and cleaning but saves money by buying furniture and cleaning services in bulk.  Much like soldiers, larger properties would be allocated according to demonstrable need (I do have sympathy for the "former Labour minister" who wanted to claim for a cot in his second home - in London - so his baby son had somewhere to sleep - there isn't a rule that says the paid-for furnishings have to be exclusively for the use of the MP).  If MPs want to live in their own London property, then they should be able to claim a more modest amount towards the upkeep of a constituency home (on a flat rate basis - say £10k per annum tax free), and equally, if they wanted to rent out their own London property and move into Parliamentary accomodation, that too would be OK. 

But to get the issue into perspective, we are talking about an allowance of a maximum of £24,000 paid to 659 MPs - less than £16 million of public money, of which, only a tiny proportion has been shown as to be abusive - and there seems to be a huge amount of attention being paid to it. Not that the small amounts are any justification for the cavalier, and in some cases dishonest, approach to spending public money, but given that the country is virtually bankrupt and spending about £1 billion every day of the year, there might be more important things to focus on.