Monday, May 18, 2009

Collateral Damage

All MPs are venal money grabbing bastards out to fleece us, right? If you say yes then I'm afraid you're wrong. It's taken a full week of expenses stories for me to come a slightly different confusion. That is that some MPs are venal money grabbing bastards out to fleece us, whilst the majority of the others are not.

Sure, the ones that have claimed thousands upon thousands of pounds for property where mortgages have been fully paid up already are bastards. Likewise those that have thought the way their garden's look should be paid for by us are bastards. However, has anyone else noticed that in a number of cases, MPs have simply asked the Fees Office what is appropriate for them to claim within a given set of receipts?

In some cases we've had allegations about things being bought and claimed for when in fact they have not - rather a receipt for multiple items was submitted but only certain permitted things were asked to be reimbursed. So I find myself asking, if I were an MP and I was told that I was entitled to claim different allowances, I would be asking the Fees Office what I could claim for. Now, one could argue it should be obvious what is, and what is not appropriate, but I'm now starting to wonder if it really is that simple.

I would imagine, that across an MPs desk comes a hell of a lot of paperwork. I would also imagine that some MPs may very well just send a bundle of receipts and/or invoices over to the Fees Office with a cover letter saying "what can I claim for out of this lot". True, you could criticise them for being lazy, a point I wouldn't disagree. But it seems that the Telegraph questions tend to take the assumption that if a receipt was submitted it was consciously done so with the intent to scam us out of money. Again I;m not so sure it's as simple as that anymore.

There is no doubt that some MPs have been guilty of taking the piss. But in the past week I think there have also been some who quite genuinely didn't. Ben Bradshaw for example, did nothing different to what a married straight MP did, as I noted at the time. Likewise, I actually believe Phil Woolas denial of him claiming for nappies and ladies clothing. I think it's obvious that it was a case of the Telegraph seeing a multi-item receipt and assuming that it was covered in full.

I've already mentioned my view on the issue of Nadine Dorries renting rather than buying a property and coining it through resale capital gain. Her office too though submitted receipts, en masse, as it were, some were paid, other were not.

It seems to me that the "it was within the rules", or "the Fees Office approved it", or the "the receipt was mistakenly submitted" lines are not necessarily weak. It's just that when put in context of the most serious offences - like mortgage payments for non-existent mortgages or moats - they don't wash.

The real problem is that Telegraph's mission to expose the MPs milking it for all its worth are themselves milking the stories for all its worth. The result is that the very worst excesses rightly make the front page, and the other, probably innocent MPs, make the small column coverage inside, by which time the reader is so pissed off they don't stand a chance however honest their defence may be.

The Telegraph needs to start separating the wheat from the chaff a little bit more, the collateral damage could be dangerous.
Note: Yes, I did just defend MPs. Scary huh?

26 comments:

Boo said...

Heretic!

Well actually you are making sense. I think some people need to take a deep breath and consider what they would have claimed for.

View from the Solent said...

"That is that some MPs are venal money grabbing bastards out to fleece us, whilst the majority of the others are not."
Well, up to a point, but ...
As has been pointed out, how many of that majority knew what was going on and said and did nothing? (Or to put it another way, how few didn't know?) That makes them complicit.

Anonymous said...

£141,866 is both Ed Ball's salary and his wife's salary.
After the usual tax and NI is paid (I HAVE to assume they do pay THAT?!!),the total comes to £7,500 EACH per month net salary.
So £15,000 per month joint net salary in the Ball's household.
Annual net salary = £180,000
Per week = £3,461

They claim £600 per month for food.

Now,think of the pensioner who is living off an annual state pension of £4,716 per year.
= £90.70 per week.

Any savings they have saved over their lifetime as any kind of nest egg has virtually zero returns at the moment.So they are now eating into their nest egg just to pay the hugely increased utility bills,food bills etc.

Think of a 75 yr pensioner,living alone and trying to simply survive on £90.70 per week while these two MP's bank £3,461 per WEEK and then claim £138 per week (£600 per month) on food.

So the WEEKLY net income for these two characters is actually 73% of the 75 yr old pensioner's ANNUAL pension.

Feeling comfortable with the sums so far? Obviously Jack Straw will need help understanding these figures as of course "accountancy is not my strongest suit" - he is, after all, only the Justice Minister.

Or perhaps another way of looking at it is this;

Balls and wife claim ONE AND A HALF times more, for their food every week,than a pensioner gets every week to live off.

Now think of those people who are trying to earn a living and are paid the minimum wage - the kind Mr & Mrs Ball's have helped to ensure they have another 7 PENCE per hour........

Still feel comfortable?

Of course,if any of these calculations are incorrect (I have checked them several times),I will revert to Mr Ball's excuse - "I made a mistake / it was an error".

dizzy said...

Sorry, but what exactly does this have to do with my post?

Forlornehope said...

Yea well the Barclay brothers are hardly known as great champions of democracy are they. How long do we have to wait before we get their list of "approved integrity" candidates. Sark was just the dress rehearsal.

Obnoxio The Clown said...

Dizzy, I must disagree.

I think that the Telegraph has only focussed on the most egregious thievery, but the real issue is the monstrous sense of entitlement that MP's feel, vide Ann Widdicombe and her snide remark about her cat having to mow the lawn at her main residence. My employer expects me to be away from home a lot and he certainly will not reimburse me for the cost of having my lawn mowed.

I am still convinced that there are many immoral expenses in the list of "clean" MPs, we are just not being told about them because they are trivial.

I could get sacked for improperly claiming a cup of coffee if it was not an expense incurred in the line of business. Why should an MP not be held to the same standard of accountability?

Anonymous said...

Well done for at last making the point that not every item on a list of receipts constituted a claim. But we do now need to hear the Fees Office's side of the story, most particularly on how it interpreted the Wholly, Exclusively and Necessarily test, because it looks as though it was rather more relaxed than a tax office would have been.

If any of your readers are tax accountants, it would be interesting to hear their views on what HMRC would have done if faced with some of the claims we have seen.

Bardirect said...

I agree, the Telegraph scoop does not equate with good journalism, no distinction was drawn between the sums "claimed" and the sums "paid" when the Fees Office seem to be guilty of inconsistencies allowing and disallowing claims for similar items on an unpredictable basis.

Reputations have been tarnished generally but perhaps in many cases for the wrong reasons.

The best evidence of the Telegraph's stance concerns Short's mortgage - a non story, 3 years old and a clear cock up, recognised and she repaid a rather small amount.

Anon said...

The second homes allowance (ACA, as was, now the PAAE) is not subject to the "wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred in the performance ..." test. If it were, it would make the allowance nonsensical because it would be impossible to incur any expenses that fell within the stated test. The test for the second homes allowance, but not for some other of the allowances, is drawn differently and, in my view, in a way which leaves most of the MPs on safe ground. Those that should be losing sleep are those that have claimed for non existent expenses or for expenses actually incurred but not in connection the nominated second property, e.g., for furniture delivered elsewhere. I wopuld forget suggestions of offences under the Fraud Act or the Theft Act and head straight to the common law offence of cheating the public revenue; for which the maxmium sentence is life imprisonment and an unlimited fine.

Half The Story said...

I do hope they actually are attacking the MPs on the basis of merit, so what about those who are connected and who are the chaff.....

megamurph said...

Your points are fair, but irrelevant. Behind the widespread anger at the expenses issue is the fact it is now clear that all MPs are guilty of taking an attitude to their own governance which is utterly at odds with the one they have inflicted on the rest of us. For decades the professional political classes have drowned us in a tsunami of law and regulations and guidelines and moral exhortations which they have insisted we obey without leaving the least margin for error on our part. Now it's clear that there has been one law for us and an absence of law for them. Their excuse for giving themselves the pass is that it wouldn't have been "practical" or "convenient" for them to be subjected to the kind of rigorous approach that they have inflicted without mercy on the rest of us. Whether it is tax, health and safety, employee rights, human rights or traffic laws, from the way we speak or smoke or drink or fill in forms to the way we run a business or claim a benefit, we have found ourselves condemmed and sanctionned for not meeting a standard from which it appears our betters consider themselves wholly exempt. That is why we are mad and if MPs cannot hear the tumbrils coming then they have only themselves to blame.

Gareth said...

Anon 14:51,

Pages seven and eight of the Green Book say:

"Claims must only 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.

...

Members must ensure that claims do not give rise to, or give the appearance of giving rise to, an improper personal financial benefit to themselves or anyone else.

...

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

Section 3.3 of the Green Book says:

"Taxation of allowances Expenditure for which reimbursement is claimed under the provisions of the Green Book should be wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred for the performance of a Member’s parliamentary duties, and therefore deductible from income for tax purposes.

This does not apply to Winding-up Expenditure on dissolution to which section 291 of the Income Tax (Earnings and Pensions) Act 2003 applies.

In the case of PAAE, which is an allowance to which section 292 of the Income Tax (Earnings and Pensions) Act 2003 applies, expenditure must be necessarily incurred in staying overnight away from the Member’s main home."

Champagne flutes, massive Bang & Olufsen tellys, £18,000 bookcases and the like are not neccessary and are extravagant. Modest furnishings, utility bills and a modest food allowance strike me as reasonable. Along with perhaps a basic contribution to rent or mortgage interest, not always covering the lot. Enough for a single person to live on. Anything else to accommodate your spouse and family should come out of your own salary.(Mr and Mrs Balls I am looking at you.)

Knut said...

It is nice to read some common sense in this issue. Yes, as you rightly say, some MPs are bastards. However, I feel that the Telegraph is making too much out of some allegations where no actual wrongdoing is intended. Your example of submitting reciepts in bulk with a covering letter is a good one. MPs, despite some evidence ot the contrary, are human after all.

The Telegraph has done us good in exposing serious troughing, but now they seem to be painting all expenses claims as potentially fraudulent.

yokel said...

Until a couple of weeks ago, the EU had a problem. After the voting in June, the Lisbon Constitutional Treaty will come into effect. That calls for a Europe of Regions, not Member States. So Brussels will deal direct with Guildford, the Capital of the South East Region, or with Bedford, the Capital of the East of England Region. At that point, the whole Parliament thing at Westminster will be superfluous to requirements. So the problem is: "How do you abolish the Westminster Parliament without getting the English to mount one final desperate rebellion against rule from Brussels?"

The answer appears to be to get the English to do it themselves. All this material has only just been leaked, yet the system has been there paying these allowances since the 1970s. All the MPs and all the lobby journalists have known about it, and have conspired to keep quiet about it. So why now?

Not only has the behaviour of some MPs been very smelly, I believe that the timing of the disclosure is also very smelly. I am sure that this is one of the EU's carefully manufactured "beneficial crises".

Let us be very careful about what we demolish over the next few months, and even more careful about what we replace it with.

Ruth@VS said...

While I agree that the Telegraph has made some errors of interpretation, overall it was correct.

I used to both claim and approve claims for payment, and most people (including myself) would try very hard not to submit a receipt which included items not on the claim. You get a separate receipt, it's easily done. If it's impossible to do so, you carefully put a line through the unclaimed items and mark them as such.

It's not hard. If any of these people had worked in the real world, they would be familiar with this principle. I don't see HMRC (or even my accountant!) accepting my excuse for the quality of paperwork "too busy" or "I didn't mean that".

"it was within the rules" is the refuge of the moral coward. As an example - many companies have rules which allow employees to claim food and drink costs when working away from their normal place of work. Most people earning a £60k salary would not dream of claiming it - you have to buy food every day anyway, and you know that you are well paid so you don't bother.

Yes, there seems to be a claims culture among MPs, but some of them went way beyond the cultural norm. Not all MPs claimed these things, so it was possible to make a choice not to. Everyone has the ability to make a choice.

Anonymous said...

Well said Gareth, apart from the obvious rip-off by certain MPs it is obvious to most people that a large proportion of MPs have not followed the Green Book Guidelines and the Fees Office has facilitated it.
It now also appears the Speaker Martin has no idea what the Fees Office gets upto!

trevorsden said...

I agree with you Mr .

Gareth - once a home or base is deemed necessary for the carrying out of duties it then follows that an MP ought not be out of pocket for certain running costs.

I cannot think that 'food' fits the bill, but eating out or take-aways in certain cases might well. Other maintenance issues (but not furnishings) could also fit this bill. Fiddling it like Smith is criminal and a fail to see why a genuine first home in a constituency (like Browns) should count at all.

We have to face facts that an MPs life does warrant certain expenses. They should not however be secret.

Nick said...

I'm sorry but the majority are troughing.

Add up the sleaze, throw in the nepotism, eg 40K a year to Mr Smith, and its rampant.

Nick

jailhouselawyer said...

I recall prisoners who had ACAB (All Coppers Are Bastards) tattooed on their fists. It is wrong to tar them all with the same brush. The same goes for MPs. The Daily Telegraph did post an article relating to ten honest MPs. That's not many out of 646 MPs. There may well be other honest MPs. However, it would appear rather than the odd apple in the barrel being rotten to the core, here we have an orchard with varying degrees of rottenness.

Blind Steve said...

On the other hand, where are they ? Where are the ‘honest’ MPs appearing on Newsnight, News 24, Sky News, Marr, The Daily Politics, This Week, Today, etc, to explain that they are honest and to roundly condemn their venal colleagues ?

For the last ten days all I have heard is “can’t comment on specific cases”, “not familiar with the details”, “it’s for individuals to defend their own claims”, and all the usual childish fingers in the ears deflection tactics routinely deployed by the “political class”.

So OK, there may be some MPs who are not venal, but the remainder are surely craven, afraid to stand up and speak out against what they know to be wrong.

They are surely then just as deserving of our contempt.

Anonymous said...

@Blind Steve: There is one who spoke out: Can't find it on the Telegraph site but it is here:

http://tinyurl.com/itwisnaeme

Rexel No 56 said...

Dizzy

I agree, this is becoming like the Salem witchhunt.....

.... the mere mention of an MPs name by the Telegraph is sufficient to condemn them regardless of the facts.

It will be fascinating to look back in a year or so's time to see who has benefitted from what is happening.

FWIW my speculation is that it's a No 10 initiative that has run horribly out of control.

Use the Telegraph to trail the official release of the allowance data and spin that it's "small beer".

Then, in July, use the combination of the official expenses release and the information on Tory second jobs to drive home the "rich Tory bastards" meme.

R56

the pro from dover said...

I know what you are trying to say, Dizzy, but you are wrong.

The big picture is that all Governments are incapable of doing anything by themselves. (the only time they do anything remotely right, is when they react to something), and that this government in particular has been supremely incompetent, and devious to boot.

In this instance, because they have been too scared since they took power a dozen years ago to set proper salaries for MPs, and instead by setting up a corrupt system of MP staff salaries & MPs expenses they deserve all the abuse they get.
Furthermore, by removing anyone who had the nerve to try and control their excesses, bullying their Accounts office so that they were too cowed to object, and finally trying to twist legislation to their own benefit, they built a foul and obnoxious system of graft and fraud.

They all let us down, and deserve everything they get.

Michael Martin though he was the old fashioned MP Union shop steward, he didn't want to be guardian of the morals, and didn't think he was supposed to be. I am sure he is very proud of what he has achieved, and can't believe he is going to be shafted by his flock. The fact that he is entirely wrong in his understanding of the role, goes back to Tony Blair (all things do). He built the system of ‘on-message’, tame apparatchik MPs forced on constituencies, he promised them no power, but lots of perks, and set up Martin as Speaker (it should not have been a Labour MP).

Remember TB himself also managed flip and re-mortgage enough times to run up a multi-million pound property portfolio of his own, on a salary of how much? He also managed to destroy all his own expenses receipts just before he left office. Do you think, in any way, that this was a co-incidence?

Anonymous said...

It's a tipping point. Joe Public is enjoying watching the 'elite', who have spent 12 years taxing and legislating the joy out of life, get hit where it hurts.

I've never known so many people take an interest in politics before and for it to be such a prominent topic of conversation.

It it going to take years before any sort of reputation in the house can be restored and there will have to be a lot of sacrificed goats in the process.

Maybe MPs will once again remember who they work for.

Gareth said...

trevorsden,

Yep. All in the open. No excuse to hide it.

Smith's second home episode is an odd one. The rules used to be that Ministers had to designate their London home as their main residence. That was changed but Smith appears to have not been aware of it, or chose to claim expenses on her (blatantly) main residence instead.

The alternative for Smith would have been to use a grace and favour home. I suspect she chose not to so she could have a semi-legitimate London home to allow the redesignation of her constituency home for expenses purposes. What she may not have known is that a number of other Cabinet members use grace and favour homes AND have managed to get their constituency home on expenses.

I can't fathom why any of those with grace and favour accommodation are allowed ANY ACA expenses at all. That includes Brown.

paulo said...

The Telegraph, again today, hi-lites some of our more honest MP's; the fact is the honest ones only throw into sharp relief the disgraceful theft of the others.
Nick Brown £18,000 on food, no receipts in four years, salary £90k+. Oh no, lets not start apologising and feeling sorry for these bastards.