The following is a copy of a letter Mark sent to Mr Speaker as part of the consultation process on allowances and expenses in the House of Commons. For the sake of clarity, we should point out that as an inner London Member, Mark is not able to claim the Additional Costs Allowance (ACA) (which unfortunately does not prevent disgruntled constituents fearing that he may have his snout in the trough!)
5 February 2008
Dear Mr Speaker,
Thank you for your letter of 4 February with the news of the forthcoming review of Members Salaries, Allowances and Expenses which I heartily welcome.
I made a fulsome response to the SSRB last year and would be delighted to put my views in person to the members of the Members’ Estimates Committee in the weeks ahead. Since my early days in the Commons I have believed that the construction of the ACA is an accident waiting to happen. Clearly that crash has now occurred to the detriment of all involved in our Parliament.
I am therefore extremely enthusiastic that we bring an end to a situation where lack of clarity and use of our allowances and expenses is tarnishing the reputation of all members and bringing the House of Commons into disrepute.
I have already written to my own Party’s Chief Whip following the outcry after last week’s Standards & Privileges Committee Report on Derek Conway.
In particular I strongly supported David Cameron’s statement on Friday when he said “I believe the public are right to demand more transparency and openness when it comes to MPs’ staff pay, allowances and expenses.” He further acknowledged that transparency about employment of family members “is the first in a number of steps we need to take”.
I made it clear in my letter that I believe there is an urgent need, and has been for some time, to turn collective attention to the most abused and controversial element of remuneration, the Additional Costs Allowance (ACA).
Indeed I would remind you that the SSRB acknowledge (para 5.54) “that it is the area of ACA that the greatest scope for abuse is thought to exist” and (para 5.55) “that at times the ACA has been regarded as a means of supplementing MPs’ pay” (a sentiment confirmed by Frank Field in his contribution on the floor of the House on the 31 January).
The Mail on Sunday’s lead story on 3 February revealed how two prominent MPs had by financial sleight-of-hand enriched themselves to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds annually by claiming ACA in a manner undermining its purpose, namely (SSRB report 5.52) “to re-imburse MPs for expenditure wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred when staying overnight away from their main home for the purpose of performing parliamentary duties”.
As you are well aware, the “main home” definition of the ACA has long been open to abuse. Indeed MPs appear to nominate a “main home” at will in order to maximise financial benefit. There are many MPs “playing the system”, in some cases maintaining two homes outside central London at public expense, which cannot possibly be said to “reimburse exclusively for expenditure incurred” as a result of parliamentary duties.
In short, if you and the members of the Committee conducting the forthcoming review are to be serious about responding to the public demand for greater transparency, we should ensure that any accommodation expenditure should apply only to rental or interest costs incurred in central London.
As you may also know the Evening Standard has run a campaign for several years highlighting the wide disparities amongst outer London MPs, some of whom claim £22,000 ACA whilst other MPs in literally neighbouring seats take the £2,700 London Allowance. (see press cutting attached from 30 October 2007).
I believe the time has come to abolish the ACA (which, in my view, all too frequently results in the improper use of Parliamentary allowances tantamount to a serious diversion of public funds) and in the spirit of transparency towards the general public, roll this into an uplift in salary.
I have long made my views on the abuse of the ACA clear to my own Party. However, we are now in a situation where the subject of parliamentary pay and allowances is being publicly debated in a haphazard way such that individual members are being targeted and the integrity of the workings of the House of Commons is being undermined.
For many years becoming a Member of European Parliament was perceived by the British public as joining the “Gravy Train”. We now have the similar epithet being used for the British parliament when we all know this is clearly not the case in the majority of those who work here.
Time is now of the essence. You have the opportunity to lead public opinion on this issue. By announcing a total root and branch review with a resolve to scrap the ACA and introduce an entirely transparent pay and parliamentary expenses system for the future, I believe you can take back the high ground on behalf of us all and bring an end to what risks becoming a corrosive media campaign against our parliament.
I look forward to discussing this with you in detail in the near future.
With kind regards,
Mark Field MP
Cities of London & Westminster