Solving the World's problems with common sense and a flamethrower.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

MP Expenses - They Work For YOU

Time, I think, for a more serious post on the subject of MPs expenses.

A good friend recently expressed surprise that 'on the one hand people are protesting MP expense privacy and then demanding their own privacy for themselves'. I want to explain why that is a misguided approach, and why the expenses issue is so important.

Firstly - as Iain Dale so rightly pointed out, if as employees we incur expenses in our employment, we are required to submit receipts and to justify those expenses to our employer.

And that's the first point. WE are the employers of Members of Parliament.

We elect them to their post. Their salaries and expenses come from the public purse, which is filled by tax receipts from the money we earn and the items we buy. As employers, therefore, we have a right to know how the money we provide for this purpose is being spent.

This is not a question of privacy. It is a question of accountability. We should expect and demand the same degree of accountability from our Parliamentary employees as is expected from us by our employers.

The second point to consider is 'legitimacy'. The term often used in terms of expenses is 'legitimate business expense' - if our employers (or HMRC for the self-employed) don't think a business expense is legitimate, then it doesn't get paid. At present, the same rules are not applied to MPs.

An expensable mortgage subsidy for an MP who has a long way to travel from their constituency makes sense, and could be construed as legitimate. However, items on the 'John Lewis List' such as televisions or furniture - are they really legitimate? Your employer may pay your relocation expenses, but would they spring for a flat-screen TV? I think not - so why should we do so for Members of Parliament? The same applies to childcare. We have to pay for it ourselves, why should they have us pay for it?

Finally, the third point. Being a Member of Parliament is being a public figure. As an MP, you make the laws that affect all of us, and you have the duty therefore to hold yourself to a higher standard of accountability because of that. Anything - ANYTHING - involving the spending of public money must, therefore, be transparent to those paying the bills.

Some MPs already do so - Douglas Carswell, for one, and I applaud their openness and honesty. But many don't, and it is utterly wrong for them to expect different treatment from that we receive from our employers. They work for us.

The My Society Website TheyWorkForYou has started an online campaign to put pressure on MPs to turn up and vote against the order. You can join a Facebook Group to protest, or you can email your own MP and give them your opinion. Alternatively visit They Work For You and follow the suggestions.

If you have a blog, no matter what your political allegiance, please do highlight this issue.


I've sent the below email to my local MP, and will post his response when (and if) I receive it.

Dear Dr Harris

As a politically-active A******* resident, I am deeply disturbed by the proposed new legislation to further reduce transparency in the reporting of MP's expenses. Such a move would fly in the face of public opinion, as well as nullify the recent High Court decision that MP's expense claims should be itemised and transparent.

As an employee, should I incur expenses in the conduct of my work, I am required to submit receipts and to justify that expenditure before it is reimbursed. Given that MPs are elected by their constituents, and that their salary and expenses are paid from the public purse, it is not inaccurate to say that the Electorate are the Employers of Members of Parliament, and as such have a right to know how public funds are being used in the expenses process.

I have written at length on the subject on my personal website, and the issue has been taken up by several other key pundits including Iain Dale. The My Society Website TheyWorkForYou has started an online campaign to put pressure on MPs to turn up and vote against the order as well.

As my Member of Parliament, I would be grateful if you would advise me how you intend to vote on this issue. Please note that I will be making your response public on the site above, especially if you intend to vote in support of the proposed new legislation.

I look forward to receiving your response.

Yours sincerely



Ampers said...

This is a first rate post and if I have time I shall use it as a base for a blog. If I don't, I may copy it in full and provide a link to your blog.

Well done. Excellent.


Anonymous said...

Im all for openness and transparency of expenses but lets really understand the issue here.

Because so far were are kneejerking to a few abuses.

First, will it cost more to open and manage the reporting of expenses than the abuse of those expenses ?

Secondly will it result in MPs moving to having larger allowances as well as maintaining expenses.

Thirdly will this transparency result in a reduction in the oversight on spending ?

Finally, the privacy of the supplier seems not to be considered in this. If you a supplier to an unpopular party or party member and the receipts of your interaction are now public record how will this affect you?

I personally see this as an opportunity for an MP to demonstrate a willingness to share information. Otherwise we are just in a tit for tat nanny management between state and its people.

Yours .. the devils advocate in this conversation ... Loudmouthman

Dungeekin said...

I'm all for MPs who show willingness to share and be open - Douglas Carswell, for example.

However, most MPs are not showing the same tendency. For too long, the expenses system has been a gravy train with the only oversight being carried out by the same people who are claiming expenses. That wouldn't wash in the corporate sector, it can't therefore be acceptable in public office.

As for 'kneejerk to a few cases' - check out Guido Fawkes and look for 'Snouts in the Trough' articles. I think you'll find more than a few.

The principle remains. This is OUR money being spent on the John Lewis List and so on - we have a right to know how our money is being spent.

Thanks for reading.


thegirl said...

Great post. I've nothing to add, besides announcing that I'm gritting my teeth and wanting to hit someone.

Anonymous said...

This is not complicated to monitor

Just an open site which anyone can see. MP's enter their claims there, print off a copy for themselves which they keep with a photocopy of their receipts, and hand in their originals with their summary as a claim for reimbursement. MP's can even attach photographs of the slips.

Presumably this is already happening other than using a public site. If not both the auditors and the tax officials who monitor this scheme should in for more than an interview without coffee!

A public site REDUCES administrative and oversight costs. It takes one entry and every, it obviates Freedom of Information claims and anyone with "cognitive surplus energy" will double check claims.

For legistlators to want different rules for the governed and the governors leaves me speechless.

PS There was a very popular blog for a while where a college student documented his life with credit card slips. Photopgrah and quip on the slip. The site would be wonderful 2.0 campaigning.!

Anonymous said...

As for Evan Harris not replying to your message - Liberal Democrat MPs were going to vote against these attempts to restrict the application of freedom of information laws to MPs expenses - just like they did when this was attempted in 2007.

Anonymous said...

Evan Harris had also signed Jo Swinson's Early Day Motion against the changes to the FoI...