Both sides of the House expected to defend expenses: Anthony Bevins looks at MPs' annual expenses claims which are, on average, pounds 56,000 per member

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Indy Politics
THERE WAS a time, 1463 to be precise, when the Dorset borough of Weymouth paid its parliamentary representative in mackerel, and if some of the more lurid reports on Commons pay and allowances were to be believed there are some editors who would like to revert to that practice.

But when MPs come to consider their parliamentary office allowances next week, there will be many on both sides of the House who will defy any Government attempt to economise.

That side of the argument is well-represented by Bob Cryer, the Labour MP for Bradford South, who earlier this year paid pounds 2,000 out of his own pocket to finance his constituency office.

Although Mr Cryer and all the other 650 MPs get an office costs allowance of pounds 28,986 a year, he had spent all of that by the start of this year, and has since been paying his secretary out of his backbench pay of pounds 30,854. 'Out of that pounds 28,000 office costs allowance,' he said, yesterday, 'I have to pay for the office rent, uniform business rate, telephones, gas, electricity, cleaning, office equipment, maintenance and servicing. For the first three months of this year, I had pounds 39 left to cover all that.'

For MPs who prefer to run their constituency affairs from the Commons offices, the expenses are considerably reduced by the fact that MPs get free office accommodation, telephones, heating, lighting and stationery.

But as Enoch Powell suggested in a Commons debate on Members' salaries in 1978, it is possible that Parkinson's Law operates on parliamentary allowances as it does in other spheres of life - that if the money is there, MPs will always find ways of spending it.

One critic of the current system said yesterday that he had once visited a colleague's constituency office and had been amazed to find seven computers containing different breakdowns of his electorate. 'He must have been able to track down every cat and dog in the area,' he said.

Mr Powell, a distinguished member of the high-quality 1950 Commons intake, recalled in the 1978 debate: 'During the first 18 years that I was a member of this House, I had no secretary. In those years many complaints were made of me, but one complaint that was not made was that I neglected my correspondence or my duties to my constituents; nor was it urged against me that I was failing in diligence in applying my mind to the matters which successively were put before this House.'

A Powell contemporary told the House that he received more letters in 1978 than in 1950. He said: 'In my early days here, I used to see Members in the library writing letters in longhand to their constituents . . .', at which point Mr Powell interjected: 'Quite right too.' MPs' expenses have jumped by leaps and bounds over recent years, and show little sign of deceleration. While the pay bill for MPs has doubled from pounds 9.7m in 1983-84 to an estimated pounds 21.5m this year, expenses have nearly trebled from pounds 12.4m to pounds 36.9m. But those expenses do not just cover office, secretarial and research work. While some MPs use trains many others use cars for their parliamentary travel. Those who drive gas- guzzling cars of 2301cc and above, are able to claim pounds 15,345 for the first 25,000 miles, after which they are required 'to furnish detailed particulars of all journeys covered by the claim'.

The other big expenses claim is for MPs with constituencies outside inner London, to cover 'additional expenses incurred in staying overnight away from home whilst performing parliamentary duties'. That is currently limited to pounds 10,786 a year.

Taken with travel expenses, that helps push up the average annual expenses claim for MPs to an estimated pounds 56,671.

It is no coincidence that Tony Newton, the Leader of the House, yesterday announced that Tuesday's debate on MPs' office costs allowances will be preceded on Monday by a debate on Commons hours. The message, and the pressure, was clear. MPs will now have to vote on increases in their office expenses on Tuesday, having already voted to sit for fewer hours in the Commons on Monday.

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