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2009-05-22 - 12:05:00 - by AlisonW - Topic: UK-Politics: |

The major topic of conversation in the UK lately has – very unusually – been politics, or more precisely the behaviour of the people charged with performing the representative democracy at Westminster.

The better question, in my opinion, about the alleged abuses by MPs and Peers of the allowances system is what was actually wrong about the system and why it happened.

In every job I've had where I was refunded for expenses I incurred whilst doing that job, the essence was that I shouldn't be left out of pocket; I should not be penalised for working outside my usual hours or at other locations to my company office. Where the Inland Revenue was concerned, payments to me had to relate to extra costs incurred "wholly and solely" on behalf and because of the work I did.

So where did MPs go wrong, indeed did they?

Expenses can be organised as 'expenses' – where the refund is exactly the amount of the extra cost – or 'allowances' – where a set figure is paid from which the individual covers the related cost. Often a job may pay an 'evening meal allowance' or a 'per diem' and if the individual pays more they can't claim the extra but sometimes they may not spend it all and keep the difference. The allowance system is easier for an employer to operate as it is faster and simpler.

Members of the House of Commons appear to have had a mixture of these options. The 'Additional Costs Allowance' came in during Thatcher's government years, in part because the full salary amount recommended by the independent pay review board was not then authorised. Then, as has happened a number of times since, the PM of the day decided that the population at large would think MPs overpaid, so instead the ACA was introduced as a way to semi-hide the overall increase of payments to MPs. MPs haven't "set" their own salaries, they were only asked to "accept" the recommendation-reduced-by-the-PM figure.

Recently one MP commented that MP salaries were said to be comparable to a typical GP, but has now dropped well behind. A few years later and it was supposed to be comparable to that of a Head Teacher at a secondary school, but again that teacher is now paid well above the rate of an MP.

"We get the MPs we deserve" is, indeed, a truism. But we should also accept that they have a serious job to do, and that they have that job to do not only in the Chamber of the House, but also in the committee rooms, and Westminster Hall, and Portcullis House, and their constituencies.

The MPs – and would-be MPs – I know all work an effective 7-day working week, of far more than the typical 8-hour working day. As such they should receive a sensible rate for the job. To suggest they shouldn't would mean a return to only those with private incomes being able to put themselves forward, and that would be a great loss to us all.

The media has now covered this issue for two weeks, and whilst it is clearly important it has detracted from external, and more important, issues. Possibly Labour are even happy about this reduction in questions about their handling of the economy?

With the removal of the address and other information from the data that was due to be published it would not have become clear how many people were, clearly, 'on the fiddle' re 'flipping' on homes and taking the proverbial, so The Telegraph is to be thanked for their actions, illegal or not there was clearly a public interest defence.

Statements about claims being "by the rules" or "approved by the authorities/fees office" are trying to weasel out of getting found out of, basically, taking the p***. If someone is on benefit they can only get Housing payments based on the average costs in the area, not get whatever they ask for. There is almost an argument for building an 'MPs apartment block' within the sound of the division bell and funding only that. Australia have something similar in Canberra, so it is clearly workable. If someone wants to live elsewhere then the costs are up to them, not the tax-payer.

It is difficult to know exactly how widespread the abuse has been as the published data is, not surprisingly, that which makes the best editorial. Clearly though there are some deep questions over the attitudes displayed by what might be a majority of members, across all parties.

One could argue that where money is 'repaid' then they've then received tax-free loans at the expense of the taxpayer. The issue is considerably more complex than just the amounts of money involved. For all MPs it is unclear to me that new selection/adoption meetings by the (usually, comparatively) small number of activists involved will make an substantial difference (other than costs). Similar with calls for an immediate General Election; without all the evidence getting published and considered it is too soon.

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