The Big Question: Will Parliament ever agree a means to stop the abuse of expenses?

Why are we asking this now?

In the last few years a string of scandals involving the inappropriate claiming of expenses by British politicians has brought public trust in our politics to a new low. Reforms are urgently needed but those proposed by the Prime Minister last week have already come unstuck. One week ago Gordon Brown set out a plan to replace MPs' second home allowances with a daily "attendance allowance" for "clocking in" to Parliament, but yesterday his office announced that the "allowance" was to be junked. The move comes after the idea met a tidal wave of criticisms from both opposition leaders and even members of his own Cabinet. As a result Parliament is still no closer to reaching consensus about how to reform second home payments, though a ray of hope has appeared in the unlikely guise of Liberal leader Nick Clegg – who had been demanding that MPs should be forbidden from buying them completely. He has now watered down his stance in an attempt to reach a cross-party agreement before a debate on the issue in two days time.

What is the problem with MPs expenses?

The widely publicised revelation that Home Secretary Jacqui Smith placed an expenses claim for two pornographic movies watched by her husband is just the most recent abuse of taxpayers' money. First came the humiliation, in 2007, of Tory MP Derek Conway who directed more than £40,000 of public money to his son Freddie, a student, for "Parliamentary research". A subsequent investigation by the Committee on Standards and Privileges found there was "no record" of the work Freddie had done, and his father was suspended from the House and ordered to pay back £13,000. The Conway case opened the floodgates to a series of investigations and freedom of information enquiries by journalists which have exposed an expenses system abused by MPs in grand style.

We now know that members claim tens of thousands of pounds for second homes while they rent out third ones; that ministers like Geoff Hoon and Margaret Beckett have claimed for second homes while living in so-called "grace and favour" properties paid for by the State; and that Mrs Smith has expensed everything from a new kitchen to a patio-heater for her sister's London home. Other MPs, including the Conservative backbenchers Sir Nicholas and Lady Winterton, have claimed rent for homes they already owned outright. And these abuses, almost all of which are acceptable within the rules laid down in Parliament, have cost taxpayers millions.

How much?

Last year the total expenses bill of Britain's 646 members of Parliament was a whopping £93m.

So what has Gordon Brown proposed?

His first proposal is that all MPs should file receipts for the expense they claim – something, bewilderingly, which is not required under the present system. He also wants MPs who represent constituencies in London or live in "grace and favour" accommodation to stop claiming for second homes – obvious abuses and necessary reforms. He also suggests that MPs publish all of their outside income, and that their staff should be employed by the House rather than members themselves. While these suggestions will be included in the debate on Thursday – the plan for an "attendance allowance" will not.

Why did he propose an "attendance allowance"?

The current "additional costs allowance" worth £24,006 for 2009-10 was designed, in the words of Parliamentary administrations, to "reimburse members for necessary costs incurred when staying overnight away from their main home for the purpose of performing Parliamentary duties". But in reality MPs have been taking advantage, racking up bills for everything from mortgages to Hi-fi's. A daily allowance, fixed at between £150 and £200, and given to MPs on those days they attend Parliament was designed to ensure that all MPs were treated fairly.

Could it have stopped the abuses?

No chance. In Europe, where the attendance allowance has operated for years, it is referred to by the acronym SISO – "Sign In, Sod Off". A recent investigation by Radio Télévision Luxembourg showed that MEPs arrive in Parliament on Friday mornings, sign the attendance register to claim the allowance before immediately turning tail for home. In Britain it would seem absurd for MPs to claim £150 for merely turning up to work – and to propose such a measure in the middle of a deep recession looks not unlike an act of political suicide. That is why neither David Cameron nor Nick Clegg would care to associate themselves with it.

So can MPs sort this out?

Parliamentarians, first discredited by the expenses scandals, have been further humiliated by their juvenile political wrangling over reform. Members from each of the three main parties have been exposed for taking advantage of their expenses so it is in all their interests to settle it. But despite this no one can agree – a point made best by the contents of a recently publicised telephone conversation about the "attendance allowance" plan between David Cameron and the Prime Minister. Mr Brown apparently said: "Take it or leave it. If you didn't keep raising it at Prime Minister's Questions we wouldn't be in this mess." To which Cameron replied, "You will get slaughtered. You cannot propose to give people the same amount of money but with no receipts". The prospect of a cross-party consensus does look somewhat bleak.

What other options are available?

Sir Christopher Kelly, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, has stated that reform should be designed by an independent commission – it will have to be if MPs cannot agree. First though, the purpose of all these expenses should be clarified. They were originally introduced in 1969 to ensure that MPs in rural seats could stay for late debates and that secretaries could have pensions. Since then they have gradually escalated to give members a secret pay rise – because while salaries are made public, expenses are not. The more fundamental question of what members should earn remains unsolved. One answer, that parliamentarian's salaries should be linked to civil-servant pay is popular – though it was ignored when first proposed in the 1940s by Aneurin Bevan. After several years of scandal, one thing is obvious though – any new system will certainly require transparency.

Transparency? How so?

Parliamentarians have been able to access perks that most of us could only imagine - not least because we have rarely been allowed to scrutinise them. Currently, the Prime Minister has no plans to require the publication of receipts though this would obviously force them to behave better as misdeeds would be promptly exposed. Currently they are allowed to fester – humiliating our leaders and making the business of government more difficult. Before Jacqui Smith was exposed for claiming pornographic films she made a variety of moves towards curbing abuses in "adult industries". It is now unthinkable that she could speak on this issue with any moral authority again. So the policy work is wasted and reform is lost. Until the expenses issue is settled, our politics will continue to be undermined.

Can MPs be trusted to sort out their own affairs in this case?

Yes

*The fact that salaries are so low and that MPs offices are still poor by comparison to US Senators, for example, shows that the system works

*Members are empowered to vote on the Budget so they should be trusted to decide their wages

*Gordon Brown's retreat on the attendance allowance gives hope that all-party agreement can be reached

No

*MPs have failed to act responsibly, cloaking their perks in secrecy and fighting all attempts to find out what is going on

*The past week has proved that even basic reform can quickly turn into a childish slanging match between Labour and Conservatives

*No one should decide their own remuneration

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
The guide, since withdrawn, used illustrations and text to help people understand the court process (Getty)
newsMinistry of Justice gets law 'terribly wrong' in its guide to courts
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown with her mother Whitney Houston in 2011
people
News
Starting the day with a three-egg omelette could make people more charitable, according to new research
scienceFeed someone a big omelette, and they may give twice as much, thanks to a compound in the eggs
News
Top Gun actor Val Kilmer lost his small claims court battle in Van Nuys with the landlord of his Malibu mansion to get back his deposit after wallpapering over the kitchen cabinets
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
newsPatrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
News
Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob
peopleA new show honours Robert Fraser, one of the era's forgotten players
Life and Style
Torsten Sherwood's Noook is a simple construction toy for creating mini-architecture
tech
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
News
i100
2015 General Election
May2015

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links