10 May 2009

How much is too much?

Although the expenses row is going to affect MPs from all parties, there’s something particularly distasteful about those from the party professing to represent the many not the few claiming for bath plugs and second-hand books. MPs are saying they’ve kept to the rules, although naturally they understand why the public are so upset and of course the rules have to change and they can’t comment on individual cases. A new independent body is apparently going to do that.

But the debate has become too focused on examples, rather than on the important more general questions. Why should MPs be able to claim for, say, groceries and home improvements? Why should the people who decide on our tax levels be able to evade Capital Gains Tax and their full council tax liability? Even if there is no rule to say money for home improvements should be repaid on sale of the property, why didn’t it feel wrong to be making a profit out of the taxpayer?

So it’s time to think about what the total package should be for the job - let’s say for the sake of argument a backbench MP. First there’s the salary. It’s been said that the labyrinth of allowable expenses has grown up as a response to comparatively ‘low’ basic pay of £64,766 a year. If I hear another Labour MP say that we’re in danger of creating a climate where only rich people can go into politics, I’m going to throw something at the TV. Backbench MPs basically do three things: constituency work; attending the Commons and committees; and party political business. Other public sector workers earning comparable amounts may work equally long hours, often managing larger budgets and more staff. So let’s stick with the salary level, and if some of the present incumbents think it’s inadequate then they should butt out.

Then there’s accommodation. In jobs where you’re expected to work on two sites, your employers should pay for what is in effect your second home. The majority of the contested issues over the past few days have concerned the purchase, refurbishment and sale of either first or second homes. None of these would apply if the costs of renting a second home were met but home ownership costs were disallowed on grounds that they were an investment rather than a requirement for doing the job; and if no costs at all were met on the MP’s primary residence. It would also make MPs lives much simpler as they wouldn’t have to spend so much time in John Lewis. Needless to say, rental costs wouldn’t be paid if an MP’s main home was within an agreed distance from Westminster.

Which brings us to travel costs. I do actually think First Class train travel is justified. Second class is crowded and noisy, and it’s likely our MPs will have to work in transit. So - a First Class season ticket between the constituency and London, which also gets you to and from the London second home. For MPs who fly home, Business Class is perhaps not so essential in the air but gives access to better working facilities while waiting, so again is probably worth it for the taxpayer.

Finally, a couple of more minor points. We’d all expect MPs to be able to keep in touch with the news, with Parliamentary business, with their constituents and with their families. Provision of PCs, laptops, broadband subscription (in both homes) and BlackBerry or similar seems reasonable. And the provision of a cash-limited hospitality budget, claimed against receipts, with the names of those entertained provided and a justification for the event, is actually a safeguard against corruption.

And just one other thing. MPs should pay their taxes. All of them, in full.


Paul said...

'Which brings us to travel costs. I do actually think First Class train travel is justified. Second class is crowded and noisy, and it’s likely our MPs will have to work in transit.'

Wish my boss would agree!

Jenny Muir said...

Mine too! That's why I know 2nd class is baaad for working in. (I think it might not be called 2nd class any more.) For flying, my employer has a policy that you can travel business class for flights lasting more than 6 hours, which makes a lot of sense. Trouble is, you have to have the money in a budget for it (e.g. a research budget), it's not paid for from a separate travel budget.

Baino said...

Jenny I agree to some degree. Our seat of Government (Federal) as you know is bang slap in the middle of NSW yet Federal politicians have to travel from cities as far away as Perth and Darwin. They do of course receive free housing entitlements when Parliament is sitting (among many other benefits). My beef is with pay. I'd rather see politicians paid commensurate wages to big business and fork out the cost of there 'perks' on their own. Leaves no room for corruption and frankly, having a PM who earns less than the average CEO is outrageous.

Jenny Muir said...

Baino - I have no problem with people being paid the rate for the job, but I question the idea that a backbench MP actually does have that much responsibility, although of course you can do a lot of good, especially if you take up an issue and campaign on it.