Sunday, October 11, 2009

Expense Reclaim

Tomorrow, MP's are going to return to Parliament and according to some reports as many as half of them will face questions over their Expenses claims. MP's will be instructed to repay bad claims and some of the worst offenders may face criminal charges. Sky News puts the number at 325 but The Sunday Times puts the figure around 100.

It is a positive move that some expenses have been examined and that those who have bent the rules pay back what they have stolen. However, my feeling is that by focusing on three areas of claims only, as this investigation has, we will not really get to the bottom of who has misclaimed and the full extent of the abuse. I fear we run the risk that other infringements be viewed as acceptable because it did not feature in this particular investigation. Let's get it straight; what MPs should and should not be allowed to claim must be encoded into cast iron rules. Taxpayers should not be subsidising a lavish lifestyle. It is a job of public service, if a generous salary and the meeting of the costs incurred of such work is not enough then MP's should not stand for election again. This is what must follow from these investigations, so with an election looming we need this sooner rather than later.

The three areas said to be focused on in this investigation are:

1. Mortgages. The rules state that MP's can claim the interest payments against their second homes, whereas some MP's have been claiming for the repayments as well. There are a lot of MP's who have made questionable designations to their "second house" and MP's and the new speaker have been slow to clarify the vague rules. Married and coupled MPs may have been double claiming.

2. Gardening. The rules are clear that maintenance of the garden of a second home is permitted, but landscaping and improvements are not. Some MPs were charging for potted plants and landscaping.

3. Cleaners. Certain cleaning items in a second home are permitted, such as carpets. But full time cleaners have been hired and not always (it would seem) on the second homes. The Green Book is vague on what is and is not allowed. Gordon Brown is likely to be implicated for payments to his brother for a shared cleaner. He has failed to avoid the appearance of impropriety and may be asked to pay back the money himself.

Again, I feel it is a positive step but it does not come close to the levels necessary. All expenses should be openly published without the excessive redaction that has taken place. Over a period of a few months I have been looking into my own MP’s expenses claims, and it is very hard in some cases to know if something is proper, or if it is an unfair claim because the redaction hides certain information. If these were available to be reviewed by the public and we could see more of the information people can police and highlight irregularities.

The rules need to be a lot clearer about what can and cannot be claimed for, and these decisions should not be taken out of the public spotlight. Basic claims are fine; we do not want to hinder people from doing their jobs. But if MP’s want to act like children, they will be treated like children by the public. Likewise, if they act like crooks, they should spare us the sanctimony when the public treats them like crooks. We also should not be paying for things like hotel gratuities, room service and newspapers which I have seen included in claims.

Moving forward, there are hundreds of checks and limits that could and should be in place. I suspect next year’s green book will be very widely read, and it needs to be a lot clearer that previous editions. Those stepping outside these guidelines can have no excuses in the future, they need to be investigated and the fees office needs to do its job and reject claims that are outside the spirit of the rules.

But, there are clearly other steps that could and should be taken, and should follow on from these latest actions that we will all know more about in the coming days. These are just some of my suggestions, others who have looked at different aspects of these expenses may have others – I would be happy to publish others idea’s here if anyone is prepared to offer some. It is a shame the released documents are so heavily redacted, because the public should be allowed access to details of what they are paying for. My review has cast more doubt than provided assurance, but in my mind I find it hard to be clear if this is because of wrongdoing that is concretely proven through the receipts, or because doubts are cast because of the hidden details. Nonetheless here are my suggestions based on what I have seen, [and to be clear, I still have much to review before I am will have completed my review].

Firstly, MPs have had the facility to claim “petty cash” of up to £250 per month in their incidental expenses. It is bewildering that such amounts be freely available given the ease to charge back even the most basic items for office use. Tomorrow, every MP and Peer should be asked to produce their individual Petty Cash registers and over the next few weeks they should tally up with an investigator their receipts versus the amounts drawn. It is not a stretch to see that to allow £250 per month with no checks could allow this to be abused and for regular claims to be put in as supplement to income, rather than to fund constituency offices.

All an MP has to do is write "Petty Cash" and the desired amount on a C2 form and they get it. That's it.

From the records, Cheryl Gillan MP (my MP) has withdrawn the following sums, none of which required any receipts or evidence for use.

2004/05 - £250

2005/06 - £1,450

2006/07 - £2,400

2007/08 - £2,600

A total over four years of £6,700.

Again, having looked through Cheryl Gillans expense claims, there are many receipts for all sorts of stationery some redacted, some not. It is clear that Banner provided all kinds of stationery needs from Printers & shredders to staples and flush folders. Why the need for so much in Petty Cash? I have no idea, but I would like to see the petty cash books and £6,700 in receipts to justify these claims. If 646 MP’s claimed the same sums, we would be talking about £4.3m if we took £6,700 as the average. This would be before we look at the Lords. This is for one line of a single type of expense, the amounts could be much higher.

An MP in this period collecting the full amount of “petty cash” could have potentially drawn £12,000 without any checks or follow up. This as far as I can see would have been an easy supplement of £3,000 per year for those who would have taken advantage.

It would be relatively simple for an investigatory team to total these sums and then put it to MP’s to provide their own back up. Petty Cash withdrawals should also be immediately stopped, if the existing suppliers can provide breakdowns there is no need to have a system where blank withdrawals can be made… there, that’s £1m+ a year of tax payers money saved.

Next, each office should have an inventory built based on the expenses receipts. Cheryl Gillan has made a number of Computers, Printer, Fax and general IT purchases. I am certain she would not have been the only one do have done so. It is impossible for me to accurately produce an inventory because a number of Banner statements are completely redacted so as to hide the details of what has been purchased. From my review, I find it hard to fathom why so much of this equipment and numerous computers are required. Certainly given that it would appear one secretary and her Husband are the only people on the payroll. Additionally there is a £1,600 annual invoice for the lease of two more computers. IT costs consistently seem excessive and I am not convinced if this is a wide trend that taxpayers funds are being protected.

The fee’s office or the investigators should (and could) build an inventory of all things purchased and audit all constituency offices to ensure that the big ticket items such as computers, laptops, mobile phones, printers, faxes, designer desks, and fancy chairs are being used as per their expense claims. I do not think it would have been impossible given all of the revelations that have been exposed that MP’s could have been doing some Christmas and Birthday shopping at the tax payers expense, or even a little home shopping.

Additionally, one could in Cheryl Gillans case question why four BT bills are being covered each month under the costs of the constituency office? One is the Secretary’s home phone, what are the other 3 for? In one particular slip, the people doing the redaction let the name slip….

Why would an MP’s spouses name be on a constituency office phone bill?

Again, it is the redaction that does not help. I have doubts about the validity of these, but how can I know?

I will not go into the details on the mobile bills, but again, the redaction makes it hard to understand if the multiple bills pertain directly to my MP or if others are getting their bills covered at our expense. I am not sure why an MP needs more than one mobile phone through different providers to execute their roles as our representatives.

My third suggestion to the current investigation team would be for staff costs to be checked. I think it is right and fair that people be employed to help MPs do their jobs. I am not sure that we have in place the best or easiest system to execute this. I think where family members are being employed, there is a need to ensure that work is actually being done and it is not a case of a family member being put on the payroll for token work. I am not against the employment of family members; but if a system of checking that value for money is not available and adhered to, then I think it would be against the public interest for such arrangements to continue, and in which case we should look to end such arrangements.

There is I am sure some relatively easy checks that can be done on the claims already made and I hope that some time and resources are afforded to these. Focus on the big costs like mortgages is right, but the smaller loop holes need to be checked too.

Moving forwards, I think me and the rest of the blogosphere and media could come up with many common sense limits and checks that could be implemented to save everyone from this embarrassment in the future. Yes the rules and the fees office were lapsed, but MPs took a lot of money, and spent a lot of time trying to thwart the Freedom Of Information attempts. They have been exposed, but not through their own initiatives, but through the efforts of a whistle blower and a National Newspapers’ campaign. There is much still to be exposed, and it is right that those who have abused the public face criminal charges. MPs are not above the law. If those of us lucky enough to still be in jobs did the same to our employers there would be no question of whether criminal actions would follow.

I hope we keep this in the public eye, because sunlight is the best disinfectant and also the best only way to seek a new mandate. The public must be allowed to wade through the muck and make their observations, as well as have their opinions and objections heard. We must come through this with all the faults exposed, and with all the culprits held to open account. If this does not happen, and if the public are not afforded the opportunity to act as the jury the integrity of politicians in general will never be afforded a position of respect and trust in the public mindset; and that is crucial to any government’s ability to function effectively.


Pete said...

No receipt - No money


Anonymous said...

You miss the main scandal regarding our MP Cheryl Gillan. Why does she need a second home allowance for a residence in Paddington when she represents Amersham and Chesham a mere 40 minutes from Westminster. This has cost the taxpayer the best part of £100,000 over the years. It would have been more cost effective to pay for a Travel Lodge near Westminster if it was impossible to get back to Amersham after her work in London. I wonder how many of her constituents claim expenses for working away from home in London. Cheryl Gillanshould repay this money. All the other issues are immaterial by comparison although also valid.