Friday, May 29, 2009



The rules on MPs expenses are contained in a 72 page publication, “The Green Book: A guide to Member’s allowances”. You can find this on the web, This contains some fascinating information that I thought I would share with readers.

The current edition of the Green Book was published in March 2009. The Forward tells us that the new edition “is the result of decisions taken by the House over the last year”. I am fascinated by “over the last year” which I take to mean on several different occasions. While the rest of us have been worrying about the recession, international terrorism, Afghanistan and Iraq and the situation in the Middle East and Sri Lanki, MPs have apparently turned again and again to worrying about their expenses!

The first Chapter is headed “Welcome”. It tells us that “MPs are provided with financial support in the form of allowances to enable them to work effectively in Parliament and in their constituencies”. It appears that “work effectively” in the minds of many MPs requires them to be relieved of all financial worries that beset the ordinary man. “Welcome” section does go on to explain that this relates to “costs properly incurred in the performance of their duties”, but perhaps MPs are too busy to have read that far. “Welcome” also tells us that “Members who are contemplating incurring an expense which is large or unusual, or who are uncertain about any allowance, should contact the Department [of Resources] beforehand for advice”. I see from Saturday’s paper that Tom Dalyell did that two months before he retired and the Department told him that £18,000 for three bookcases in which to keep his archives was a bit OTT but £7,800 would satisfy the test of being “properly incurred in the performance of” his duties as an MP. Lucky for Tom that he needed to ask the Department not HMRC. HMRC would have said that no part of the £18,000 was incurred “in the performance of the duties”, whether properly or otherwise. As I mentioned in my previous blog, Andrew Walker, the man in charge of the Fees Office is reported to have said that, “he had virtually no ability to scrutinise [MP’s] claims beyond a “common sense” test”. Personally I cannot see how even a common sense test could have produced £7,800 or, indeed, any figure other than nil.

In passing, I see that Andrew Walker said that, “responsibility for policing expenses lay with voters, they could eject an MP from Parliament if he or she had been exploiting the system”. My understanding is that even if I mobilise all of the voters of Brent North we cannot eject our MP from Parliament. Once we have voted him in we are stuck with him until such time as Her Majesty chooses (on the advice of the Prime Minister) to dissolve Parliament. But even if I am wrong, how can I and my fellow constituents carry out our responsibility for policing? Although my MP sends me a newsletter every so often, he does not include in it the amount of expenses that he has claimed. The last figure I can find on the HMRC website is a total figure for 2007/08, 14 months ago. It took the Sunday Telegraph four years to obtain the release of details of MPs expenses under the Freedom of Information Act and they only got it because the sponsor of a private member’s bill to block the release of the information (widely supported in the Commons) could not find a sponsor for the bill in the House of Lords.

So I have to leave policing to the Fees Office. Sadly, “Welcome” tells me not that the Fees Office cannot disallow expenses. Rather it “is expected to bring to the attention of individual Members instances where they may appear to be vulnerable to criticism or accusations of impropriety”. They don’t seem to have done a very good job there, then. If an MP does not recognise his vulnerability, the Fees Office can refer the matter to the Members Estimate Committee of the House of Commons.

The House has adopted a Code of Conduct which, readers will be pleased to know, “includes a number of general principles of personal conduct. These are based on concepts of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership”. Yes, seriously, even after all of the exposures in the last couple of weeks that is what “Welcome” actually says! It also gives a useful tip to MPs, “How comfortable do I feel with the knowledge that my claim will be available to the public under Freedom of Information”. Tom Dalyell apparently feels very comfortable but a number of others seem to have not noticed this tip, as now that the information has become available they do not seem that comfortable.

I do not wish to dwell on chapter 2, “The Allowances” as others have done so fairly extensively. I did however notice para, “Subsistence: A flat-rate sum of £25 may be claimed for any night which a Member spends away from his or her main home on parliamentary business”. I noticed it because HMRC have recently issued “benchmark scale rates” for subsistence that HMRC will accept from all employers (or, apparently, all employers other than Parliament which has its own, far more generous limits). These are £5 for breakfast – but only if the employee leaves home before 6.00am and actually buys a breakfast away from home and does not regularly leave home before 6.00am – and £15 for an evening meal – but only where the employee has to work later than usual, finishes work after 8.00pm having worked his normal day and actually buys a meal (or the £15 can provide both lunch and dinner if the worker is away from home for at least 10 hours). Presumably the House of Commons canteen overcharges MP’s; they surely do not simply think that they deserve to eat better than “the little people”?

An MP can also claim for the provision of an office (in addition to the one that Parliament provides for him at Westminster that is). This includes “additional costs of using part of your home as an office … but you must take particular care to ensure that you do not claim twice for the same expense”. So that’s all right then!

The MP also gets an allowance for staff. He is told though to “ensure their staff are … able and (if necessary) qualified to do the job, and actually doing the job”. I would hope so too. Curiously the Green Book contains no special rules about employing your spouse or children or ensuring that they are not paid above a market rate.

On travel, I note that, “Examples of appropriate expenditure” includes “routine travel … by the recognised direct route between Westminster, your constituency and your main home as well as travel within the constituency”. For the rest of us, home to work travel is of course private expenditure for which we cannot claim a tax deduction. Spouses and civil partners and children under 18 of MPs are each entitled to up to 30 single journeys each year between London and the constituency or the Member’s main home. For the rest of us, of course, the number of such journeys that attract tax relief is nil.

I’ve got a radical suggestion. Parliament ought to be a good employer. It should provide the maximum benefits that qualify for tax relief for the ordinary man in the street. There should be no extra tax privileges for MPs as compared with anyone else whose job has two bases. I think it would be reasonable for Parliament to revisit the tax rules that apply to such people. I do not think that the current rules are reasonable and if MPs have to fix rules that apply to everyone, including themselves, they should be given the opportunity to consider whether they might want to be less harsh than they decided to be when they fixed the rules to apply only to “the little people”.

That would make HMRC the guardian of MP’s expense allowances. They can do a far better job of this than either voters or, on the basis of the past, the Fees Office. Voters would see that MPs are both not in a privileged position and not in charge of vetting their own expenses. Such an independent scrutiny should overcome the current public suspicion of MPs’ expenses. Any revised system that either leaves Parliament in charge of vetting its own expenses or takes MPs expenses out of the ambit of public scrutiny cannot restore people’s faith in the integrity of their MPs. The knowledge that MPs were answerable to HMRC would surely do so!

Robert Maas


Post a Comment

<< Home