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Friday, 29 February 2008

29 February 2008

Why on earth, you may wonder, do some MPs think they’re entitled to claim thousands of pounds of our money as expenses without submitting any receipts? Well, perhaps it’s because they reckon there’s an unwritten agreement that they can bump up their salaries (currently £61,280 pa), which many of them regard as ridiculously inadequate, by claiming a bit extra on expenses.

(There’s a story, in fact, that back in the days of Harold Wilson, his Chief Whip, Bob Mellish, told Labour MPs something to the effect: “Look lads, don't push for a big pay rise. Load as much as you can on your expenses.”)

Here’s what MPs are told in the “Green Book” that they’re given when they enter the House of Commons: “It is your responsibility to satisfy yourself when you submit a claim, or authorise payments from your staffing allowance, that any expenditure claimed from the allowances has been wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred for the purpose of performing your Parliamentary duties.”

As for their housing allowance, in answer to the question “What can I claim?” the rules say: “Only those additional costs wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred to enable you to stay overnight away from your only or main UK residence, either in London or in the constituency … We require receipts for items of expenditure of £250 or more (except for food), and for all hotel bills. If you are claiming rental or mortgage interest we ask for a copy of your rental agreement or your latest mortgage interest statement.”

In other words, under the current rules, anything they claim up to £250 doesn’t need a receipt, nor does anything they claim for food. I have no evidence that this arrangement is abused, but it wouldn’t entirely surprise me if, sometimes, something slips through that strictly speaking shouldn’t.

I do not intend to go into the detail of some of the recent allegations that have been made about certain MPs. There are various inquiries, reviews and what-have-yous under way which, in due course, maybe, will resolve some of the issues that have been in the headlines over the past few weeks. My hunch is that the current “we’re-all-honourable-gentlemen” arrangements are about to come to a shuddering halt.

An information appeal tribunal ruled this week that MPs should disclose in detail what they buy with the money they claim under the so-called additional costs allowance: how much goes on heating, how much on phone bills and so on. One Labour MP called the decision “absurd and ridiculous”. “It will end,” he said, “with people writing about how much MPs are paying for a pint of milk.”

All of which contrasts rather neatly with the way they do things in the US. Suppose you have a burning desire to know how much Hillary Clinton’s campaign team have been spending on refreshments. No problem: the New York Times election blog reported this week (after what it called “an hour-long investigation”) that they handed over $1,884.83 at Dunkin’ Donuts in New Hampshire, Florida and Virginia, and another $505.02 at Krispy Kremes in South Carolina.

I can also reveal (and you’ll wonder how you’ve managed to get along without this information) that the Republican front-runner John McCain spent $923.70 to Mitt Romney’s $992.91 at Dunkin’ Donuts, but also forked out another $116.79 on Krispy Kremes in Reno, Nevada. (Barack Obama’s bakeries bill comes in at $1,877.28 – so what I want to know is, how come he’s so slim?)

The point is, perhaps, that the machinery of politics does not necessarily seize up if we know what politicians are spending. I am perfectly happy to accept that, by and large, they’re as honest a bunch as the rest of us. But I’m not sure it would matter all that much if MPs did have to tell us how much they spent on milk each week, if they used our money to buy it. Boring, yes. Absurd and ridiculous? Quite possibly. But not necessarily an outrageous imposition on the people we employ to run the country.

After all, I imagine you have to tell your employers in some detail what you spend their money on. I know I do.

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