Another week, another set of MPs’ expenses scandals. But make no mistake – the revelations surrounding Tony McNulty and Jacqui Smith are only the tip of a much bigger iceberg.
The constant refrain in media coverage of the use (and arguably misuse) of MPs’ second home allowance is that ‘there is no suggestion that any rules have been broken’.
However, there is widespread abuse of the spirit, if not the letter, of the rules because they are far too vague and require transparent tightening. This week a supposedly root and branch reform of MPs’ second home allowances comes into operation. Senior parliamentarians, from the Speaker downwards, will shamelessly try and convince the British public that this has cleared the stables. Don’t believe a word of it. This new system has already shown itself to be pathetically inadequate – which is why the latest revelations were not nipped in the bud.
We need to embrace a receipts based system like all ordinary mortals, rather than allowing sizeable monthly cash sums on mileage, foods and drink, and second home costs to be paid out no questions asked. Naturally some claims made might not be allowable, but a rigorous system of checking would give clarity and certainty to the expenses and allowances. I cannot remember the number of times I have been told by colleagues that I could routinely claim as a London MP 350 miles car travel every month without needing to produce any evidence or receipts – effectively £2000 cash in hand a year without a murmur. This must all change.
If parliamentarians are not able to put their own House in order over their own allowances and expenses, the public will rightly ask how we can be trusted to regulate and legislate for the rest of the country. Parliament has been almost King Canute-like in its attempt to protect its trough of allowances from the tide of hostile public opinion. I know I speak for an increasingly exasperated minority of MPs sickened by the way the reputation of parliament is being undermined by this expenses scandal, especially as the economy slides into deep recession. The public’s view of parliamentarians, tinged with healthy cynicism at the best of times, is now at an all time low. Time must be called on those MPs who continue to milk the system.
The general public, in my view, appreciate that there are expenses properly incurred in living away from home. They understand the need for MPs representing seats more than a commuting distance from the Capital to have accommodation paid for in central London when the House is sitting. What dismays people is the apparent necessity for the enrichment of MPs from the public purse beyond payment for a furnished, rental flat.
Hence the outrage at the widespread practices of taking on a mortgage with public funds, remortgaging at will to ensure that payments are taken to the absolute maximum of the allowance and shamelessly calculating the location of a ‘main home’ in order to maximise the financial benefit.
The new rules may give different labels to the allowances, but will keep the door open to the same old abuses. The much derided ‘John Lewis’ list remains intact. Most of the public uproar comes from the widespread belief that most of the items should not be there at all. The second home allowance was originally – and is properly – designed to cover the additional cost of living in central London. No mortgage interest payments. No remortgaging at will. No pocketing of capital gains on the sale of a taxpayer-funded second home.
It is perhaps easier for me as one of the twenty-five London MPs who cannot claim the second home allowance to take a dispassionate approach. However, this constant drip of allowances scandals drags all our names through the mud. It seems to me that many of my colleagues simply fail to understand the level of public disgust at the stream of revelations over the extensive enrichment of parliamentarians from allowances and expenses.
During a bygone age when there was a total absence of transparency and public scrutiny over these matters, voted-for increases in second home and staff allowances were sold to MPs on the basis that they most of them could be siphoned off as the equivalent of a pay increase – often putting a family member on the ‘part time’ payroll. These allowances have more than doubled even in my eight years as an MP, at the same time as there has been reluctance by MPs voting on their own salaries to raise their basic pay.
I am sorry to say that there has also been connivance between senior backbench figures in both main parties to pull the wool over the eyes of the public. For example, it is common knowledge that four MPs representing Greater London seats have nominated as their main home a seaside property an hour or more from London. They can claim travel allowances for journeys to and from this ‘main home’ outside the metropolis. They can claim a second home allowance on another property within their suburban constituency. Yet apparently their constituencies are so far distant from central London they need accommodation costs subsidised by the taxpayer. Naturally, this is all perfectly legitimate under the rules – old or new. The public would regard this – rightly – as a scam.
No one can be certain just how widespread second homes abuses are. Only last month MPs voted to make secret their residential addresses – on security grounds..
Last weekend the Mail on Sunday itemised the expenditure of second home allowances for the 158 MPs whose seats lie within a sixty mile radius of Westminster. From that ground-breaking research, it was clear that there are half a dozen Home Counties MPs (from all parties) who do not have a second home. Many of them have been in the House only a short time and appreciate the concerns of their constituents, many of whom themselves commute daily to London. So if MPs from Reading and Luton regard themselves as within commuting distance of Westminster, it seems to me impossible to justify how suburban MPs claim a second home allowance other than as an element of their overall financial package.
This sorry spectacle conclusively shows that parliament is no longer fit to have any say in any aspect of the process regarding their remuneration. At a time when the effects of the recession are being felt acutely by hard-working people across the country, time must be called on practices that in any other walk of life would be regarded as tantamount to fraud. My mailbag has been full to bursting this week with letters from constituents deploring what they regard as a disgraceful gravy train.
Last week the Prime Minister called for an inquiry on MPs’ allowances which will only complete its report after the next General Election. It cannot be right that it will take a year or more of consultation before there is any chance of his MPs extracting their snouts from the trough of taxpayers’ hard-earned cash.
But how in this economic climate can MPs make the case for public sector pay restraints unless we get our own house in order? If the Prime Minister won’t take the initiative, perhaps other Party Leaders will speak for the people and put an end to taking the public for fools.