John Walsh: ‘Perhaps it’s time a major newspaper investigated cleaners’ expenses’

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The Independent Online

Gordon Brown’s sister-in-law, Clare Brown, has gone into print to explain about l’affaire Madame Mopp. You may recall that, among the epoch-making revelations about MPs’ domestic expenses, the PM was revealed to have paid his brother Andrew several thousand quid for the shared use of a cleaner. Ms Brown explained how she extended her own cleaner’s workload so that her industrious in-law shouldn’t be overwhelmed by work. In doing so, she paints an unlovely picture of Gordon’s domestic routine (“Gordon was already the sort of guy who might have to change shirts twice a day, and who would have streams of people trudging through his flat, usually leaving dirty mugs and takeaway cartons in their wake”) in which the Prime Minister resembles a sweaty drug dealer.

She tries to give the expenses story some perspective by saying that she returned from reporting a real story in Borneo to discover that all the British press wanted to hear about was her cleaner’s hourly regimen. “So now it’s my lot to write about wipes, dusters, Hoovers and J-cloths,” she sighs. “Pretty boring, for which I apologise.”

She is, I fear, missing the point. There is nothing boring about the minutiae, the tiny details of life when they become the agents of revelation. It is wonderful to discover that David “Two Brains” Willets paid workmen £115 to change 25 lightbulbs at his west London home. (Did all 25 of them blow simultaneously during an unreported power surge? Or did Mr Willetts summon the workmen each time a single bulb ceased to work? Did he lift the phone and say, “Send the boys round would you, Arnold? A 60-watter’s just gone in the upstairs loo”?) It is bliss to find Cheryl Gillan, the shadow Welsh secretary, claiming recompense for two 39p cans of Cesar chicken and turkey dog food as part of her Additional Costs Allowance. I’m less delighted to find that my hard-earned taxes went to help Andrew Lansley decorate his Georgian flat in London, spending thousands of pounds on, among other things, a Laura Ashley sofa. (Laura Ashley! So Seventies!)

I’m also intrigued to think about the chap (or is it a committee?) who sits in the Commons Fees Office monitoring all these expenses claims and deciding when an MP has gone too far. It is mere whim that makes him approve a claim of 42p for Sainsbury’s Thick ‘n’ Creamy Yoghurt (vanilla flavour) but sees him draw a disapproving line through a claim of £1.35 for Kleenex Man-Sized Tissues?

A side-effect of these investigations is to marvel at the amounts MPs spend on the people who make their lives easier. Who are the builders that can charge £4.60 for changing a lightbulb? Who is the cleaner that leaves Kenneth Clarke with a dusting-and-scrubbing bill for £1,024 a month?

Perhaps it’s time a major newspaper investigated the scandal of cleaners’ expenses. I sometimes wondered what went on when we employed a Mrs Horrobin to clean the house in 2006. She hadn’t been working two weeks when she asked for fresh supplies of Mr Muscle, three Toilet Ducks and some scrubbers. Next week it was All-Purpose Bathroom Cleaner, Limescale Remover and two new mops. (Two mops, eh? I should have smelt a rat.) After a month, her verbal requests changed to imperious written lists for litres of bleach, furniture polish, liquid soap, fabric softener, Brillo pads, Marigold washing-up gloves, and an All-Day Breakfast sandwich from Pret a Manger. Oh, and could I buy her the new Kings of Leon CD, so she had something to listen to while she worked?

Need I tell you how things snowballed after that? Could she have some drain fluid, Silver Dip cutlery polish, a microwave oven, a Dyson vacuum cleaner, a Philip Treacy hat (“to protect me hair against household dust,”) some Daylesford smoked salmon for lunch and a box set of Mad Men to watch afterwards? When she started asking for a new washing machine, a Vivienne Westwood cashmere housecoat, a 300g can of Sevruga caviar and her own office (to accommodate her new staff of three “executive assistants,”) I simply had to draw the line.

I told her she was exploiting the system, brazenly manipulating the rules of cleaner-and-household in a shameless bid for cash. “How dare you?” she said. “Please remember I am a cleaner. Nobody goes into this business just for the money...”