There’s nothing private about an MP’s expenses
The Independent, 10 April 2006
By Heather Brooke
Few of us would assume we could claim more than £120,000 in expenses every year without handing over receipts to the boss. Yet that’s exactly what Westminster MPs are doing, forgetting that it’s the public who put up the £80 million claimed for staff, postage, offices, second homes, travel and ‘additional costs’.
With such a lack of transparency, it’s no surprise that Tony Blair is now facing questions about a ‘black hole’ in his expenses. In the past four years, about £45,000 of Blair’s expenses have remained publicly unaccounted for. On Saturday, Downing Street admitted for the first time that £15,000 claimed for his constituency home in Co Durham was not being used to pay the costs of a mortgage on the property.
Politicians must understand that if your nose is in the trough, expect to have your tail tweaked!
The Scottish Parliament has accepted this. After the Easter Break, they will begin online publication of all MSPs’ expense claims, utility bills, travel and mileage forms. This level of transparency will make Scottish politicians some of the most accountable in the world. The Scots should be proud of the proactive approach taken by their government. Instead of reacting defensively to a series of expense scandals, George Reid, the Presiding Officer at Holyrood, decided to throw open the doors of the expense system.
“It means we’ll no longer have to respond to mounting Freedom of Information requests for MSPs’ expense claims,” said a Scottish Parliament spokesman. Such requests led to the resignation of Tory MSP leader David McLetchie over questions about taxi misuse. Brian Monteith, a former Tory Monteith was forced to pay back £250 after admitting he made false claims for taxis to return from various nights socialising in Edinburgh restaurants and bars. The Scotsman revealed how Alex Salmond claimed £8,500 to commute by taxi from his home in Linlithgow to the Scottish Parliament, and Keith Raffan, the former Liberal Democrat MSP, claimed mileage expenses for driving round his constituency when he was out of the country.
If this is happening in Scotland, it’s undoubtedly going on in Westminster to an even greater extent. After all, there are only 129 MSPs (compared to Westminster’s 659) and they get roughly half (£61,240) the amount of their Whitehall compatriots.
Only in October 2004 did MPs even agree to publish headline figures for expense categories. By contrast, the Scottish Parliament began publishing these figures in 1999 and in each subsequent year they added more detail. We know that Geraint Davies, Labour MP for Croydon Central, topped the list in 2005 by claiming £176,026 while Terry Davis claimed the least (£42,709), but we have little detail on where and why this money was spent.
It is erroneous for MPs to claim such information is private. MPs are public representatives. Money for expenses comes from the public. Therefore MPs’ have an obligation to account for how they spend this money to the people who provided it in the first place.
Instead, politicians have refused all FOI requests for a detailed breakdown of expenses. A few weeks ago, the Commons was finally forced to publish totals for all travel by air, car and rail, but this is a case of too little, too late. A myriad of sins can be hidden in sum totals. For example, they’re not going to expose the MP who uses taxpayer funded black cabs to ferry himself to Annabel’s for a private rendezvous. The abuse by Scottish MSPs’ of expenses would never have come to light under Westminster’s secretive rules.
As I so often hear from the State when it invades my privacy – what’s the problem, if you have nothing to hide? Can I then assume, using the Government’s own logic, that our MPs do have something to hide as evidenced by their stubborn refusal to open up? One should always be suspicious when politicians hold fast the doors of government with white-knuckle desperation. Invariably it means there’s something scandalous going on. Other people’s money is remarkably easy to spend, so if MPs want us to have faith in their propriety, they must open up.
In the long-term it is in MPs’ interest to create a transparent and accountable expense system that rewards responsibility and highlights abuse. One the public can trust because they can see their MP isn’t on the fiddle.
Westminster’s feudal secrecy is completely out of step with other democratic countries, too. Members of the Houses of Oireachtas in Ireland have published detailed expenses since 27 July 1999. Australia and New Zealand came to the same decision years ago. In 1991, I discovered as a young reporter covering the Washington state legislature, that all senators’ and representatives’ expense receipts were public records available for anyone to view. Not only that, but they had to publish their entire tax return as well.
Matthew Elliott, chief executive of the Taxpayers’ Alliance and author of “The Bumper Book of Government Waste” recently made an FOI request for a detailed breakdown of MPs’ additional costs allowances after hearing rumours that some politicians were using taxpayer money to buy expensive electronic goods and a top-of-the-range food mixer.
“The sums may be small, but if they are being profligate with their personal expenses, they are probably not giving good value for money with larger spending projects,” Elliott said. “Open government is crucial for taxpayer value, so MPs should open their expenses to scrutiny.”
The short-changed British public deserve better from Westminster.
This is the full version of the article in Monday’s Independent.