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.

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