Ten ways to clean up the Commons
So the system is to blame? Then change it with the following plan of action, offered by Jane Merrick
Sunday 17 May 2009
Parliament is on its knees. Bricks have been thrown through MPs' windows. One minister has resigned. And yet, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg cannot reach agreement on how to end the expenses scandal and restore trust in Westminster. Here
The Independent on Sunday presents a 10-point plan for cleaning up politics – proposals that all parties need to consider if they have a chance.
Hand back the profits on sales of homes subsidised by the taxpayer
Mr Clegg proposed this, but does not have the backing of the Tories and Labour. Many MPs have amassed huge property portfolios that have been boosted by second home allowances. When these homes are sold, all profits should be taken as tax.
Modest flat-rate allowance to pay for a second home
The £23,083 limit on second home, or additional cost, allowances is too high and has been shown to be open to exploitation. It should be about half the current figure. This would cover the cost of hotel accommodation or the rental or purchase of a flat for those MPs with constituencies more than 20 miles from London.
Keep it as it is, at £64,766. For a 36-week year, this is generous. It is also the second highest in Europe, second only to Italy, which is not known for its squeaky-clean politics. Travel should continue to be subsidised, but all first-class travel should be banned on rail and internal flights.
Ban claims on gardening and furniture, and restrict food expenses
The new flat-rate allowance should cover only utility bills and rent or mortgage interest. A new subsistence allowance of £40 a day, to cover food and drink, should be made available, but only when Parliament is sitting. There is no reason why the taxpayer should fund MPs' Christmas turkeys or summer lunches.
Halve claims for MP couples
The case of the married Tory MPs Andrew Mackay and Julie Kirkbride, who used each other's main residence as their second home, doubling their allowances, shows how the system can be abused. MPs who have spouses outside politics and are the family breadwinner have to make their allowances stretch, so MPs married to one another should not get double.
Westminster secretary/assistant to be paid directly by Commons, as will any incidental office expenses. This has been agreed in a Commons vote. Constituency office expenses to be paid by the Fees Office, up to agreed limit, only on receipt of invoices.
Ban the £10,000 communications allowance
It is not necessary for this large amount of taxpayers' money to be spent on glossy brochures and newsletters for MPs to tell their constituents how great they are. This payment also favours the incumbent against any challenging candidate at elections.
Publish all claims online, regularly
Retrospective claims should be available under the Freedom of Information Act, after approval, as they are now. (The Tories began on Friday to publish live updates of the Shadow Cabinet's expenses.) Addresses should not be published but be open for examination by journalists and other legitimate enquiries to monitor any incidents of "flipping" second homes.
Set up a scrutiny panel for all claims
The Green Book of rules needs to be strengthened to enforce all of the new allowances above. The Treasury or an independent body should carry out an annual audit and monitor the work of the Fees Office. All parties should demonstrate to the new body that they are carrying out regular checks on MPs. Mr Cameron has set up a scrutiny panel for his own party, starting with the Shadow Cabinet.
MPs who refuse to pay money back must be expelled and face deselection
Those MPs who have had the whip removed, or are suspended from their party, should be forced to go through reselection if their candidacy for the next election has already been approved. There are still some MPs, including cabinet ministers, who have gained from "flipping" their second homes but have not paid money back.
Honourable Ladies and Gentleman?
Labour MP for Reading West has not claimed anything for a second home since 2001. He travels mainly by train, costing £6,413 in fares last year. He claimed for £222 in staff travel last year, and just £66 the year before. He commutes from Reading to London every day.
The millionaire ex-minister has more than one property, but does not charge the taxpayer for it, and has claimed nothing on second home allowance during the period that expense claims have been released. Handed receipts to local paper, who could find nothing questionable in them.
Labour MP for Luton North lives in the same street as colleague Margaret Moran, who claimed £22,500 on second home allowance to treat dry rot. He commutes from his constituency to Westminster every day. "I frankly didn't know that all those things were possible within the rules,' he said last week.
Kettering Tory is the cheapest MP in Westminster, costing £47,737 in addition to his salary, over £100,000 below the highest claimant. Claims close to the maximum for the second home allowance, but keeps other costs low - staffing costs last year were £400, while he spent £71 on stationery and £435 on stamps.
Tory MP for Ludlow has a second home in London, but does not claim for it because it is "not the right thing". Has claimed nothing for a second home since being elected in 2005. Last year he claimed £130 for staff travel and £232 for family travel.
Cambridge Lib Dem MP claimed nothing on his second home allowance between 2004 and 2008. In 2007, he had one of the lowest expenses portfolios of all MPs, coming 634th out of 646, costing the taxpayer £98,709. Travels to and from Cambridge every day because it "keeps him in touch".
Claimed expenses of more than £16,000 for a mortgage which had already been paid off. The ex-agriculture minister, continued claiming for the mortgage interest on his constituency home for more than 18 months after the loan had been repaid. Suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party following the revelations.
Claimed £22,500 for dry rot treatment at a house 100 miles away from her Luton constituency – which she owns with her partner - days after nominating it as her second home. The Labour backbencher insists she acted within the rules but has agreed to repay the money.
Tory grandee submitted receipts for hundreds of sacks of horse manure used by his gardener. Mr Heathcoat-Amory submitted 19 claims totalling £388.80 over a three-year period to 2007. The highest bill was for £45. He has claimed thousands of pounds to maintain his garden, including services like mowing and watering.
Alan and Ann Keen
Husband and wife, both Labour MPs, claimed almost £40,000 a year on a central London flat although their family home was within 10 miles. The two MPs claimed £55 a week for cleaning and charged the taxpayer £50 for a service call to reconfigure the sound on home cinema system.
Resigned as David Cameron's Commons aide over "unacceptable" expenses claims. The Bracknell MP apologised "profusely" after it emerged that he and his wife – fellow MP Julie Kirkbride - effectively had no main home but two second homes, and were using public funds to pay for both of them.
Former Conservative Cabinet minister included claims for the cost of having the moat cleared, piano tuned, moles treated, bees removed and stable lights fixed at his country manor house. Employed a full-time gardener and "lady" to keep house at the estate, parts of which date back to the 13th century.
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