Sunday, October 21, 2012

Looking behind 'Expenses' so-called 'scandals'.

Our national newspapers seem deeply troubled about MP's expenses - in particular the two newspapers that find their way into our house, the Telegraph and the Mail. Over the last few days, two aspects of 'expenses' have made huge headlines. I do think the reporting fails to make the issues clear. So I'm doing my bit to try and help explain what's going on.

Firstly there's the story about MP's renting a flat at public expense while at the same time letting out  a property they own. This is exactly what I expected to happen when it was ruled that mortgage interest payments would no longer be a legitimate MP's expense. While I would have no interest in buying a London property myself, I really cannot see why tenancy should be so preferable to ownership. The base position is that each MP is allowed about £20,000p.a. to cover cost of living in London - rental, Council Tax, electricity etc. I've never seen any sense at all in that allowance not including mortgage interest.I accept that it should not cover any improvement or even maintenance - just mortgage interest.

The position used to be that all sorts of other home expenses were allowed under the rules, many of them utterly ridiculous (duck houses, moats etc.). Thankfully that's all been stopped. Now some of the consequences of the new policy are also ridiculous. An pre-2010 MP who owns a flat finds it not possible to sustain two properties (London and constituency) without support, and has to sell or rent out, and move into a rented property where support is avai;lable. Usually, the cost to the taxpayer is much higher under the new arrangement. The recent coverage describes this as a scandal - despite MPs having no option. The salary simply does not allow for running two homes without some support - unless the MP has another income. The usual criticism of the system that I advocate is that MPs may benefit financially from a property where value has been enhanced by the taxpayer - which is why there can be no help for improvement or maintenance. As always, a property buyer has to take a chance on the market. In passing, we still own the property in Cardiff from when I was an AM and its worth considerably less than I paid for it.

The second 'scandal' has involved MPs using first class travel. The position is that the taxpayer will pay for travel if it less than the open standard fare. So if an MP is well organised and books a first class seat in advance it sometimes falls below the accepted limit. So happens that when first elected I used the train - always standard class. But sometimes found it standing room only from Euston to Milton Keynes (and my back problem means I can't stand up that long). So now I just drive instead - more expensive, more environmentally unfriendly and more stressful.

I'm fortunate in that these issues bother me not at all. I rent a flat, and drive from Montgomeryshire to Westminster. A current disappointment is that I (and other MPs) are having to move out of our flats in the old County Hall (very convenient) and give way to overseas students (probably) because London rents have rocketed while the rent allowance has remained the same. But I have no complaint. I enjoy my job and accept the terms of employment. And there would be plenty of people who would like to step in if I didn't. I just thought I'd try to explain that these so-called 'scandals' are not quite what they seem.


bonetired said...

I am going to say something unpopular. Why on earth shouldn't the second most important man in the British government, a holder of one of the 4 great offices of state, NOT go first class?

Anonymous said...

@bonetired No reason at all - but I don't think the criticism is for travelling first-class; it's for not paying for FC, and trying to 'don't you know who I am' his way out of it.

statechaos said...

The story about george Osborne was a complete non-story. He bought a ticket for an earlier train but was delayed and opted to pay for a 1st class upgrade out of his own pocket because 2nd class was busy.In the past year he has claimed for no 1st class travel, unlike many other (mostly Labout) MPs. The journalist who started the furore should apologise. Secondly, no MP was ever able to claim for duck houses or moat-cleaning, as both claims were rejected at the time.

Dan said...

I think there are multiple issues here, I would agree with bone tired of course the Chancellor should be able to travel first class especially if travelling with several aides and clearly working. In this case the issue seems to have been did he or actually one of his aides try to do the 'don't you know who I am' to keep the first class without paying for it.

This may have been to do with the second issue, the Telegraph runs a front page shock horror story on naming which MPs took which first class seat on which journey. So it may well have been less about did he pay for it out of his own pocket or did he claim for it, and more about the fact the press are going to criticise him regardless.