Our MPs must be adequately rewarded, but this expenses gravy train should be halted

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The Independent Online

Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, we have been given an insight into the finances of our political representatives. The Act, which comes into effect in January, has prompted the House of Commons to publish the expense claims of MPs for the first time. It was no doubt considered better to get this information into the public domain sooner rather than later.

Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, we have been given an insight into the finances of our political representatives. The Act, which comes into effect in January, has prompted the House of Commons to publish the expense claims of MPs for the first time. It was no doubt considered better to get this information into the public domain sooner rather than later.

From yesterday's report we learn that some £80m of taxpayers' money was paid out to our 659 MPs in allowances for the year 2002/03. This equates to nearly £120,000 each, on top of their £57,000 annual salaries. No one, on reading this, could accuse Westminster of conducting democracy on the cheap.

The seemingly infinite routes by which MPs can claim back money from the public purse are exposed. No one has yet been accused of fraud. All appear to have acted within their entitlements, although the public may well wonder why some MPs spend so much more than their presumably equally hard-working colleagues. But the most basic question in response to this report is simply: are they worth it?

The ease with which MPs can award themselves pay rises and top up their pensions on demand has to be questioned. These are privileges unique to the cosy world of Westminster. But it is important to remember that many politicians could earn more in a job of comparable status in the private sector. It is right to pay MPs a competitive salary so that high-calibre candidates are not put off going into politics. No doubt some would still choose to enter parliament if MPs were paid no salaries at all (as was once the case), but market forces do permeate the precincts of Westminster.

The next question is: are MPs' expense allowances too generous? Here it is harder to defend the present arrangements. Of course, it is true that MPs have extensive financial commitments. They must hire staff to work for them, including secretaries and researchers. They must travel frequently between their constituencies and Westminster. They have to maintain offices so their constituents can visit them either at local surgeries, or in Parliament. To expect them to pay for all this out of their own pocket is quite ludicrous.

MPs whose constituencies are far from London clearly need to be able to claim expenses. The MP for Orkney and Shetland, for example, obviously needs a base in London. It is reasonable that MPs outside the capital are given access to a special London living allowance. Nevertheless there are undoubtedly flaws in the system. MPs who live close enough to commute to Westminster, but are technically not London MPs, are still able to claim the housing allowance. Some have made fat profits from the capital's booming property market with the help of taxpayers' money. Perhaps there is a case for forcing MPs to repay housing expenses out of any profits they make on selling their London homes. The abolition of most late Commons debates and the fact that Parliament only sits for six months out of each year strengthen the case for reform.

The House also needs to introduce a more scrupulous auditing regime. There is a temptation for MPs to abuse their over-generous 57p per mile car allowance by travelling together and then claiming individually. And some MPs employ their spouses, who often turn out to have suspiciously light workloads. If abuses like this are uncovered, culprits must get more than a slap on the wrist from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, which seems to be the most they can expect at the moment.

The Commons' challenge is to stamp out the expenses culture described yesterday by Martin Bell, the former independent MP, who recalled being "invited to sign a cheque to myself every month right up to the limit". The impression that Parliament is a colossal gravy train for its members is too damaging to be allowed to endure in an era when distrust of politicians is prevalent, and disengagement from politics so widespread. The House must put itself in order.

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