Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Look Inside Cheryl Gillan MPs Expenses - Part 1

As mentioned previously I have been taking a look through my MP’s expense claims and this is the first post with some of my findings. There will be more to come, though the time it takes to sift and sort through everything is going to make this somewhat drawn out. A bit of an intro is in order here, so that on the later posts I can dive right in.

I have no personal or professional conflict or association with Mrs Gillan, except for attempting to get a face-to-face meeting during an organised lobby of Parliament whereby participants sought an audience with their MPs to question their voting intention on the passage of the Lisbon Treaty and urge a vote for a Referendum, or reject the treaty outright. Cheryl Gillan MP was unavailable to meet me, but did write to me after to say that she was indeed voting as I would have hoped.

Why have I undertaken the task of trolling through receipts and expenses?

To start, I am upset by the revelations in the past year about MPs expenses which fits into my view that MPs on a wider scale are not accountable enough and that some are exploiting financial advantages that are available to them because of their positions. Secondly, I like moaning and pontificating, and as someone who wants greater transparency, I feel a tinge requiring me to avail myself upon its availability with the hope of demonstrating the virtue of making the most of these disclosures.

I say this to hopefully demonstrate I have not begun looking into these expense and allowance claims for the purpose of unseating Mrs Gillan as MP, or creating damage. I would be doing this regardless of whoever my MP is, and I am simply trying to highlight some of the claims. More generally, as stated on this blog I have repeatedly stated that I am very at the way in which MPs allowance and expense are administrated, and do believe that an exceptional amount of tax payer money has been wasted, squandered, laundered and in some cases out right stolen.

This task has obviously been made harder because of the efforts to censor much of the information. There are items I am going to include that I might not have done if basic information had not been blacked out. If the intention was in part to cause less of a stir by covering certain details, they may find this might backfire my experience is now that it makes it harder to be sure claims are in order.

It is my intention to carry on reviewing other sections of these files, publishing my findings and opinions periodically. Upon conclusion of this review, I then hope to construct an letter that encompasses my findings and concerns and send that to Cheryl Gillan MP so that these can be answered – unless those concerns are already addressed earlier via the official constituency site, by public statement or via this or any other blog.

I hope my efforts can be mirrored by others, and that there is and continues to be some pro-active citizen participation.

During the Telegraph revelations Mrs Gillan only came to notice for a claim made for dog-food for a few quid that was promptly refunded and was blamed on an administrative error, it seems reasonable to me that given the volume of receipts that a small claim for dog food slipped through and that it was appropriate that it be both highlighted and repaid.

I have however found some irregularities, or at least what I perceive to be irregularities; and I have found some things I am unhappy to see have been claimed for. I have been looking through the incidental Expenses Provision (IEP) for two accounting years, 2004-05 and 2005-06. I should add, what I set out below is not the full picture of these periods, there are a few entries I am looking further into before I write about them, (though depending on the results of that may not look nor write further.) There is also the following years claims and as well as the publications for Communications allowance and Additional Cost allowances.

As this post focuses on the Incidental Cost Allowances, we should first define this appropriately as the costs incurred in running an office. There is no statement of principles for claiming in the front of the 2004 Green Book, but for substance here is the list of principles for claims as listed in the latest edition, as set out in Section 1.3 of the Green Book - MPs must (now) adhere to these:

1. Claims should be above reproach and and must reflect actual usage of the resource being claimed.

2. Claims must be made for expenditure that it was necessary for a member to incur to ensure that he or she could properly perform his or her parliamentary duties.

3. Allowances are reimbursed only for the purpose of a Member carrying our his or her parliamentary duties. Claims cannot relate to party political activity of any sort, nor must any claim provide a benefit to a political party or organisation.

4. It is not permissible for a member to claim under any parliamentary allowance for anything that the member is claiming from any other source.
Members must ensure that claims do not give rise to, or give the appearance of giving rise to, improper financial benefit to themselves or anyone else.


5. Members are committed to openness about what expenditure has been incurred and for what purposes.

6. Individual Members take personal responsibility for all expenses incurred, for making any claims and for keeping records, even if the administration of claims is delegated by them to others.

7. The requirements of ensuring value for money is central in claiming for accommodation, good or services – Members should avoid purchases which could be seen as extravagant or luxurious.

8. Claims must be supported by documentary evidence, except where the House has agreed that such evidence is not necessary.

The principles conclude by saying:

These principles recognise that, in the nature of our democratic system, Members will wish to explain their views about policies.

However, public money must not be used to give unfair political advantage to one political party, and for this reason there are specific controls on particular allowances.

The 2004 Green Book can be seen here and the 2005 copy here.

In the 2004 book, Incidental Expenses are defined as such:

Office and surgery accommodation

Equipment and supplies for the office and/or Surgery

Work commissioned and bought in services Communications and travel

Certain staff related costs. (In order to meet these, you must transfer funds into the staffing allowance)

[Please see the detailed guidance in section 5.13.]

Fellstream Ltd

This is the company in which the annual rent payments for the Constituency Office are paid, the payments are made directly between the Fee’s office and Fellstream Ltd.

The rent invoice is submitted once a year, and the fees office then takes care of the payments. There are a number of invoices submitted during each year in addition to the rent charges. Unfortunately many lines have been redacted so it is frequently unclear what is actually being claimed for – I make this point here as it will be relevant to later sections.

The main observations I have about their invoices are that they are handwritten on a blank piece of paper with a simple letterhead. I am not sure that my company would accept their invoices as legitimate for payment, and the given what were are looking into, accepting invoices of such quality leaves room for fraud to easily take place.

An example of a typical invoice is below.


Utilities

During the 2004-05 year, four invoices totalling £325.26 were submitted from Powergen for Electricity; the addresses have been redacted.

During the year, a number of handwritten invoices were submitted for Fellstream Ltd. Because of the redaction it is impossible for me to see exactly what has been claimed for on every line of every Fellstream Invoice but a further £84.20 was paid to Fellstream Ltd for Electricity relating to the rented office. This would appear to be a duplication of charges.

Similarly, there is an invoice for Three Valleys Water for £206.28 dated 14-Feb-04, yet during the course of the year there is one payment visible to Fellstream for the Water Meter of £34.12. Again, because of the censorship on many of the Fellstream lines, it is impossible for me to tell how much was paid to Fellstream for charges on the Water Meter.

In the 2005-06 year the same happens again with redacted invoices totalling £389.79 being submitted from Powergen, yet at least £26.06 is visible on invoices submitted via Fellstream Ltd during the same period for Electricity.

It does not appear that a direct invoice was submitted for Three Valleys Water during 2005-06 year, but at least one visible charge is made via Fellstream Ltd for water charges for £45.99.

Banner

There were consistent statements entered for Banner. Most statements have redacted the itemisation show this would appear to be the principle stationery and office equipment supplier. It is clear that items such as files, folder, staples are being claimed for.

In 2004-05 claims expenditure via Banner came to £1,103.53 and from Office World £339.34. [Total £1,442.87]

In 2005-06 claims expenditure via Banner came to £1,980.02, and £62.98 from Rymans for Ink Cartridges. [Total £2,043]

Though this seems a little high to me, I cannot see any evidence of wrong doing or suspicious claims on the banner stationery statements, perhaps partly due to the censoring but maybe because there is none.

Petty Cash

There is no provision included within the 2004 or 2005 Green Book that allows for the claiming of Petty Cash, and it is not listed as something that can be claimed for. What would be the point of implementing a system of expenses and allowance to keep MPs salaries in check if the system then just hands out regular payments of cash?

Even though it is not included as an allowable claim I have seen some forms state that no more than £250 Petty Cash is available in a single claim. This, is something I will be looking for greater clarification on as these forms would seem to provide a contradiction of the purpose and of the rules set out in the Green Book.

In 2004-05 a claim for £300 in Petty Cash was submitted, and revised to £250 and paid. This was the only claim during this year.

During the 2005-06 year, there were seven claims for Petty Cash totalling £1,450. I think it fair to question why there would be a 580% increase in such a cost year on year when there has been no visible drop-off in claims either in number or value. Furthermore, it is evident that consumable and stationery claims were being made via the receipts entered and the numerous statements from Banner, so where is all of this additional cost required?

Even though there would seem to be a contradiction in whether Petty Cash should be claimed or not, the Green Book is clear that all expenditure should be accounted for and beyond question.

Section 5.11.1 states that allowable expenditure (as set out in later pages) provided it is wholly, exclusively and necessarily on Parliamentary duties.

Given the rules as set out, in my letter to Cheryl Gillan (post review) I am going to ask if Petty Cash books or some kind of audit process has been kept to keep account of these monies.

I have not done a detailed review of the later year yet, but from a quick view Petty Cash claims remain a consistent claim in the following years.

Another Administrative Error?

In 2005-06 there is a claim entered for what appears to be a mobile phone battery, but as the receipt entered shows the amount to pay is £20 as an item valued at £79.99 in credited against an item costing £99.99. However, the claim goes in for £99 despite the receipt confirming only a £20 purchase having occurred. I have not seen a claim for the mention unopened returned product – so maybe the full amount paid was £99.99 – but surely the second receipt should therefore have been entered.




Wasted Money?

In 2004-05 there was an invoice submitted for £450 & VAT from a company called Politico’s Design, there is some redacted sections, but the one itemisation states this fee is for the registration of a URL [which then seems blacked out].
A quick Google search suggests that the registration of a URL can be done for free, and through other websites for charges less than £10.

When I checked out Politico’s Website they list Cheryl Gillan MP the URL as http://www.cherylgillan.org.uk/ but also state that the website is no longer live. Their Portfolio page is here. http://www.politicosdesign.com/project.jsp?ID=15

The Politico’s Design website invoice is dated 24-Oct-04.

There is a second invoice for web design submitted in the same year, this time for £1,500 & VAT submitted via a second company called Palace Computing. This invoice is dated 17-Jan-05 and relates to the still live website: http://www.tellcheryl.com/. However, the Publisher of this website is listed as P.H. Dumville who is a local Conservative Election Agent.

Both Politico’s and Palace Computing boast directors on their websites with close links to the Conservative party. This is not in itself explicitly against any rules, but given the sums should be mentioned at least. I am not sure that this is entirely beyond reproach and questioning.

At this point, I should be clear about another point, neither of these invoices appear to relate to the set up of the current constituency website which can be found here: http://www.cherylgillan.co.uk/type1.asp?id=43&type=1

I do not know why the original website was taken down, or even when it was taken down, but it seems excessive to me for so much money to be spend on two websites that seem fairly simple in design (no offence intended towards the designers on that score) neither of which is the standing website (again of simple design) that prevails in 2009.

Perhaps I will be put right on the point of costs by people more in the know, but for comparison sake let me make an illustration. I have created this blog on the Blogger platform, established a dedicated email account, set up a twitter feed, implemented Google Analytics, registered on various blog directories and have available to me when I see fit the brilliant cover-it-live (live blog) technology all for a competitive £0.00; and I am pretty clueless with IT outside of MS Office.

There may be no case here of rule breaking, but I think this stands out as very poor use of tax payers money.

Work Carried Out

There have been a couple of instances where work has been carried out within the constituency office and claims have been submitted via invoices headed by Fellstream Ltd; so I was a little surprised to encounter an invoice that was not submitted via Fellstream Ltd, but seems to have been paid directly.

Usually in managed premises you arrange for work to be carried out as a tenant for or you have the agent do it, it would not to be seem normal to have some done by different manners, especially with the consideration that all work costs eventually leads back to the Tax Payer. So, I highlight this only because through the censoring of these documents the address where the work was undertaken is hidden, and could potentially be an indication of an invoice for work submitted somewhere other than the Constituency Office, and may be a case where this should not have been claimed as an incidental expense.



From the itemisation we can see that there is work done on shelving, but also work done around a kitchen unit to make room for a fridge…. I have never been to the constituency office, though I cannot imagine that with a small staff there is the need for kitchen units and fridges? And a fireplace? Thus it stands out and I file this under the suspect receipts heading.

I am conscience that this post is getting unattractively long so I am going to finish now, there is more to write about, including a look at the IT equipment and phone charges – but tons more to look through so I will post occasional observations [sans long intro] every few days until I have sifted the lot.

3 comments:

David Mosque said...

Excellent expose Daniel! Keep up the good work.

Tarquin said...

Very nice Dan, I thought a comment was in order simply for the effort involved, I should check if anyone properly researched mine

I take it you will be sending your questions to your MP and possibly badgering the local press?

Daniel1979 said...

thanks for the comments!

Tarquin, it never occurred to me, but on your prompt I have fired off a link to the Bucks Free Press; not sure if it will be of interest or not.