Do MPs never learn? What on earth were they thinking of when a majority of 28 won the day, keeping the additional costs allowance used to fund second homes and ensuring that expenses were audited in-house?
I started to walk between Victoria Station and Parliament, partly to save money and get off the sweaty sardine tinned District Line, but also as a result of the July 7th bombing. On that day, I realised that I hardly saw the sky from the moment that I got on the train at Carshalton Beeches to my return in the evening. The day of the bombs, I was delayed on the tube for ten minutes or so. We were told that it was due to a power cut. Being the day after the announcement that we had beaten Paris to the Olympics, we joked about Jacques Chirac pulling a fuse out in retaliation. I walked through the underground entrance in the Commons and went to my office. It was sometime before I realised what had happened even though I was yards away from New Scotland Yard, MI5, MI6 and Downing Street. If I had been a bit more diligent at work instead of turning Sky News on, I could have been cooped up for the whole day without realising that London’s future had changed forever.
It isn’t called Westminster Village for nothing. Members can lose themselves in their ivory towers quite happily. With the economy in turmoil, fuelled by the oil crisis and credit crunch; trust in politicians at an all time low following the ‘whiter than white’ government’s descent into rarely before seen depths of financial sleaze and taxes stealthily increasing whilst services worsen, this is patently not the time for MPs to bury their collective heads in the sand over their expenses. Politicians are being picked off one by one as the Press gets hold of stories sometimes of dubious worth. This will continue as the gossip feeds a ravenous public wanting to throw brickbats at the people that they believe are elected but do not represent their views.
Most of the news articles about expenses is utter twaddle. Journalists who should know better lump every single cost onto the MP as if it goes into his or her bank account. Staffing costs go directly to the staff who are on standard House of Commons contracts and are paid within set scales. That job in the Evening Standard for middle management wouldn’t look so attractive if you had to supply furniture, telephones and computers for your team, yet these costs are often added to the gravy train account.
Yet despite this there are changes that are screaming out to be made. The Additional Costs Allowance that enables MPs to fund a second home desparately needs reform. MPs that live outside London need somewhere to stay midweek. It is not acceptable to have Members living out of a suitcase for so much of the year if we want to retain a reasonably representative group of politicians in the House. However this is also a system that enables a Member to spend £10k on a new kitchen, a married couple (Conservative) to claim rent for a flat that they had finished paying the mortgage on, another couple (Labour) to pool their expenses to pay for their nominated second home in London rather than their somewhat cheaper house in Yorkshire. Last night’s vote should have seen this scrapped in favour of a more transparent system moving away from the ‘John Lewis List’ which is a secret list used by the Fees Office to validate the size of claims by politicians. With a patronage like this, it is hardly surprising that John Lewis claims to be ‘never knowingly undersold’.
More than half of the 646 MPs including Tom Brake couldn’t be bothered to turn up to vote. 172 of those that did supported the status quo. This included 33 government ministers. It was disappointing to see 20 Conservative MPs in that lobby although according to Iain Dale, only one had been elected since 1997. We have our bed-blocking old lags as well. The single UKIP MP who has had some trouble with his expenses in the past, couldn’t quite make his mind up and so voted in both lobbies, thus cancelling out his own vote.
Both local LibDem MPs were a little more free with their snouts last year when voting in favour of the £10,000 Communications Allowance which rewards incumbency by allowing current MPs to spend £10k per year specifically on pushing out their ‘message’.