In my previous article ‘At Great Expense’ I unpicked MPs expenses and focused on the 77% that goes to paying parliamentary and constituency staff. I promised to look at the other 23%, that they claim for accommodation, utilities, travel, and so on – the kind of thing that middle managers in any public or private entity would recognise as ‘expenses’. Many of my correspondents on twitter are still living in the noughties, when the MP’s expenses scandal revealed a number of undoubted abuses of public funds, mostly around this area of spend.
This debacle is the reason IPSA, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, was founded, a fact which twitter seems to be unaware of. Some tweeps wonder why MPs can claim for a place to stay in London at all. Well, being an MP is a two-centre job, and the parliamentary calendar requires them to be at Westminster Monday-Thursday for 34 weeks of the year. (And when they are away from Westminster, they are not ‘on holiday’ the whole time, they are supposed to be working in their constituencies!) So if your constituency is quite a distance from London and you can’t commute daily, you are obliged to find somewhere to stay in town.
Not a ‘second home’
Gone are the days when an MP could buy a ‘second home’ in London and have the monthly mortgage payments repaid on expenses. It was felt to be unfair that, in a rising housing market, the public could contribute to an MP gaining a personal capital asset. Nowadays, it’s rent only. Most MPs rent a flat, some of them shared. The rent for a London flat is necessarily high and paying £2000 a month looks reasonable if you check on Rightmove or other property rental websites. The accommodation costs, utility bills and council tax they claim is for either the constituency home or the London base, not both, and the reason is that even on a salary of £84,144, an MP without private wealth could not afford to keep up two properties at a cost of £2000 each, and still have enough left to feed and clothe themselves and their family.
There are those who ask why MPs who have great personal wealth can claim for expenses at all. My wish, as I stated in my last article, would be to treat MPs as if they were middle managers in the private sector. Nobody in business has their personal wealth taken into account when an employer offers a salary. We all get paid a fair rate for the job we are doing. That’s why it’s right that every backbencher gets the same salary and can claim the same level of expenses. We want to ensure that people of modest means can still afford to go into politics; that’s why Lloyd George introduced remuneration for MPs in 1911. Before that, there was little hope that any ordinary working man or woman could go into politics.
Hotels and halls
Shouldn’t MPs stay in a reasonably priced hotel instead? Maybe, but to find somewhere close to Westminster for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday night would cost between £700 and £1100 per week, depending on the time of year. I checked on Booking.com. That’s over £30,000 per year, which is roughly similar to the rent on a one-bedroom flat in Westminster, once council tax and utilities have been added.
It has been suggested we should build a ‘Halls of Residence’ and house all our MPs on a single 600-room campus, close to Westminster. I’m doubtful about that. In the last few years we have had two MPs murdered, and in both cases it was because their constituency surgery timetables revealed where they were going to be at a particular date and time. Herding all the MPs together into one accommodation complex would be a definite security risk; besides, who would want to live next to a bunch of former Bullingdon boys who like to host late night drinks in their rooms? There would have to be a warden and security guards. And buying or building a hotel in Central London with nearly six hundred rooms would not be cheap. Dispersing MPs around London in hotels and flats might be the safest and most economically viable option.
The worst excesses of the expenses scandal have been resolved. The ‘flipping’ of which home is expensed, double claiming by married couple MPs, the payment of mortgages on London properties that are essentially being property-developed and sold on – all that has gone. The point of the story of Nadhim Zahawi expensing the utility bill that heated his stables was that it was not allowable under the scheme, he was caught, and had to pay it back – and that was ten years ago. The outraged folks of twitter don’t seem to be able to find a more recent example to shout about. Incidentally, IPSA’s records show that Zahawi hasn’t expensed a penny of accommodation costs since then.
There is one interesting hold-over from the pre-IPSA days. Some long-standing MPs who had bought property in London, but then could no longer expense their mortgage payments, decided to keep their property and rent it out – sometimes to another MP – to cover the mortgage, and then take on a tenancy elsewhere for themselves. This might seem like sharp practice, but it isn’t against the rules, and it speaks to the same principle I outlined above, that MPs’ personal wealth or other assets should not be taken into account when expenses are calculated.
Going too far
There are some differences, however, between what an MP can add to expenses that would not be normal for an ordinary middle-manager. For example, they can claim travel for dependents, and can also rent a larger property if they have a family. The Scheme of MPs’ Staffing and Business Costs says:
‘Where staying in rented accommodation or hotel accommodation, MPs may have their accommodation budget limit increased by the amount set out in Annex A for each dependant for whom they need to provide accommodation, up to a maximum of three uplifts.’
In other walks of life, your expenses are your expenses, and they are for you. Nobody expects you to take your family on a business trip. Parliament may be trying to be an enlightened employer that supports family life, but it’s hard to understand why an MP’s family would be travelling with them to Westminster. If the children are very small, surely their routine would be disrupted by weekly travel to London, and they would hardly be seeing their MP parent anyway, because of Westminster’s late hours. If they are school age, won’t they be at school in the constituency and not able to travel? Surely business travel and accommodation should only cover the businessperson?
And here is another egregious problem, not strictly to do with expenses, but certainly to do with MPs’ finances. In any other form of employment, it simply would not be allowed for an employee to take on significant work outside their main job, and yet MPs are allowed to carry out paid (often highly paid) ‘consultancy work’, directorships, and speaking engagements. Apart from taking the MPs’ focus away from their Parliamentary duties, there is of course huge potential for conflicts of interest, lobbying, and the unwarranted transfer of confidential information. This really must be stopped. If you are elected to parliament, that ought to be an all-consuming job both in the constituency and in Westminster. I would advocate an end to paid work outside the elected role.
I do recommend you take a look at the Scheme of MPs’ Staffing and Business Costs so you can see for yourself what is claimable and decide where you think the line should be drawn.
If we recall correctly
I’m making comparisons between MPs and other middle managers, but technically, MPs are not employees, they are office-holders. They don’t have the perks of sick pay, holiday pay, maternity or paternity pay, but conversely, there is no job description, and there seems to be no actual requirement for them to turn up for work, if the absence record of the current Honourable Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip is anything to go by. I’d like MPs to be better answerable to their electorate for the way they conduct themselves. Yes, it needs to be hard to sack somebody who has been democratically elected, but its almost impossible to organise a Recall Petition except under very specific circumstances.
A recall petition can be opened in a constituency if any one of three conditions is met:
- An MP is convicted in the United Kingdom of an offence and receives a custodial sentence (including a suspended sentence) of a year or less.
- Following on from a report from the Committee on Standards in relation to an MP, the House of Commons orders the suspension of the MP from the service of the House for a specified period (at least 10 sitting days, or at least 14 days if sitting days are not specified).
- The MP has, after becoming an MP, been convicted of an offence under section 10 of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 (providing false or misleading information for allowances claims).
Conditions one and three are only met once any appeals have been dealt with by the courts.
If a sitting MP is convicted of an offence and receives a custodial sentence of more than a year, they would already automatically lose their seat and recall does not apply.
The Committee on Standards is very unwilling to order the suspension of MPs for this length of time. When it suspended the North Antrim MP, Ian Paisley, for 30 days in 2018, a recall petition was initiated, but it didn’t attract enough votes from the electorate to dismiss Mr Paisley from office. There has been one conviction each under points 1 and 3 above. So MPs who have long absences from the Commons or who do reprehensible things, such as sleep through debates, bully their staff, or hold parties during Covid lockdowns, don’t generally face the consequences of their actions.
It’s in this area, not the area of expense claims, that Parliamentary practice needs to be brought in line with the rest of the world. If an MP’s conduct is called into question it is rare that the Nolan Principles are invoked, rare that the Committee On Standards in Public Life has anything to say. Indeed, it reports to the Prime Minister. What could possibly go wrong? Right now, MPs are only accountable once every five years, at a general election, and those five years can seem a very long time when their dodgy dealings can be made visible on any day, and there seems to be nobody to stop them.
Lastly, there’s the question of ‘the optics’. IPSA may be right that MPs are due a pay rise to reflect rises in the cost of living, but when much lower-paid workers are not getting these rises, it’s only going to look bad for IPSA to give the MPs their rise without question, especially when there is no element of performance-related pay in the calculations. There are also some peculiarities about losing office. It seems that a minister of however short a duration in post, may be able to claim an uplift in their pension for ever more on leaving office. The Liz Truss administration of 45 days may have accrued her and her ministers some surprising benefits.
It’s perks like this, and the subsidised food in the Palace of Westminster, that now seem like far worse grounds for public outrage than MPs’ expenses.