In the real world, expenses are a middle-class perk from which most folk are excluded. Having worked in TV in the good days when it was a licence to print money (and claim forms), I was used to expense claims showing more creativity than programme-making. Yet when I was elected, I viewed MPs as different. More honest. Less imaginative and certainly less creative. More dutiful. Less cynical. Yet now that after years of governmental meanness we at last have an allowance system which allows us to do our job, I'm beginning to wonder if I was right to contrast our virtue and the real world's fiddling.
Our allowances are generous, mostly tightly controlled, but publicly available in a way lavish business expenses are not. That situation is well calculated to produce last week's accusations and imputations of greed, self-enrichment and dishonesty. The public doesn't like politicians and doesn't believe we should be paid at all. Yet, paradoxically, they're the drivers of the big increase in costs. Increasingly, they turn to us for help. They write us more letters and a flood of emails. Yet they can't accept that in an allowance system geared to work done (the harder you work the more expenses you get) they are the real cause of ballooning expenses. As public demands and letters escalate exponentially, so will the cost of dealing with them. The alternative is to let us concentrate on the big issues like Iraq, where we work for free, and we can all be happy.
MP fiddles are, like MPs themselves, small, petty and mean. We don't think on an Enron scale. But there is a bush telegraph where everyone tells everyone else across party lines about the tricks and the fiddles available. In a previous parliament, a Tory MP kindly told me that I should buy a high-powered, old Jaguar, even if it didn't go, then use a smaller car to do the actual travelling. In an expenses system geared to engine capacity, I could then claim the higher rate while benefiting from the economy of the smaller. Indeed, big Volvos may have financed the SDP in its early days. Another told me to get executive tickets on travel warrants to include breakfast on the train, and an Underground ticket in London. This parliament a fellow photography fanatic told me digital cameras could be bought on the office account to produce illustrated newsletters. I became the proud possessor of a Canon G2, and Grimbarians become the most photographed group in the country. Outside asylum-seekers.
This is all small stuff. So are most fiddles. When I was first elected, I was shocked to find that three MPs would regularly drive down together, then claim for separate journeys. Others got tickets on warrants at the travel office then cashed them in. Small stuff but understandable when MPs were badly paid. Mean times meant mean fiddles. I doubt the same things happen now. Mileage claims are another matter. No more big allowances for bigger cars and finance per mile falls over 20,000 miles. Scots with plane journeys and greater distances get most, though Accountancy Age has pointed out that I get more travel expenses than Gordon Brown. Yet I'll bet that not every journey claimed by every MP is actually done.
I'm not sure why some MPs have huge stationery bills. We are certainly writing more to long-suffering constituents, and most of us write to kids approaching their 18th birthday to congratulate them on reaching the age of misery, marriage and mortgages. Yet if I wrote to every Grimbarian once a month to congratulate them on having enjoyed another delightful four weeks of New Labour I couldn't run up a stationery bill on the scale of some. I do not envy the Serjeant at Arms his job of distinguishing between "annual reports" (which may be self-glorifying but count as a legitimate public expense) and party propaganda (which doesn't).
The bush telegraph tells me nothing on this issue but it does indicate that all three political parties are greedily eyeing MP office allowances. Tory constituencies have long expected contributions; New Labour began in 1997 by requiring us to finance party offices. Fortunately, this illegality foundered quickly, to be replaced by a percentage levy on salaries that was probably used to pay back Bernie Ecclestone's million quid. That didn't stop phoney individual deals with local parties for imaginary secretarial services.
The decline in party membership makes many local parties look like Beau Geste's fort: bodies propped on the ramparts with MPs running round firing their rifles intermittently to pretend that the troops are still there. Local parties are dependent on the MP and his dosh just to keep going.
Yet the bulk of the money goes to staff, without whom no MP could manage. Three families are dependent on my allowance. At London rates you don't get many staff for £79,000 a year, so I keep mine in Grimsby. I have three and a half staff. I could do with two more. Like all parliamentary staff, apart from spouses, they're exploited and underpaid. Some MPs put the spouse or some other relative on the payroll to keep the money in the family, but I've never tried this. Couldn't stand the rows and incompetence. Tony wants us absorbed in constituency work and absent from London because that focuses us on minutiae and leaves no time for the big issues where we might give him trouble.
Last but far from least of the Westminster fiddles is the second home allowance. In the main this works well. It's not taxpayer funding for Blair-style palaces but paid on receipts for interest and repairs. For those of us who live outside London it's essential because we can't go back to the days when I first came in to find Joe Ashton, Don Concannon and Kevin McNamara sharing one room and complaining long and loud about the smell of each other's feet. Yet rackets remain for those living closer in who buy Westminster flats, even though they could travel home every night - in the brave but exhausting way Kelvin Hopkins battles back to Luton. Even ministers, some with official premises, still claim Westminster accommodation which is superfluous to immediate requirements though it may be useful after the next reshuffle. Yet ask yourself this question. If a £20,000 allowance was available and legal, would you take it? Michael Trend, who claimed for a second home in London which he forget he didn't have, is a very rare exception.
It's no use standing on our enormous dignity on these matters and claiming our allowances should be confidential. It should all be published. Yet so should everyone else's expenses, including those of the journalists who torment us. Beyond that, I can't see how the system can be tightened. We should increase our staffs and put them on a parliamentary payroll to ensure proper pay and pensions, but that would cost more. Ministers could be taken off London allowances if accommodation is provided. In the main, though, we get the minimum necessary to do the job. It's pretty effectively policed and I see no sign that it's being seriously abused.
Most MPs aren't in it for the money. If they were, they'd work as accountants, consultants or City lawyers. We do the job out of a sense of duty and a desire to serve. We work hard because we owe it to our constituents. Our sense of duty keeps us going through all the tedium, the travel, the trouble, the abuse and the silly, petty meanness displayed in last week's row over allowances. They are only the rewards for doing our job as the beasts of burden of the constitution. So sit the row out. Look virtuous. Flog the 4x4 and the storm will pass. Until next year.
Austin Mitchell is Labour MP for Great GrimsbyReuse content