Monday, 28 January 2008

The (very) Late Lunch Briefing

More dodgy money accusations

The dodgy money stories continued over the weekend. The big casualties were Alan Johnson and Tory MP Derek Conway. As far as I can tell so far, the Johnson story is a storm in a teacup and not much will come of this. The Tory case is slightly more interesting however. It goes back to a debate I had with Matt Wardman and Dave Cole over MP’s wages and expenses.

I made the case that the problem with MPs remuneration is not their direct salaries – even if they do vote for their annual pay rises themselves. These annual pay rises are under such massive media scrutiny that they couldn’t possibly get away with massive inflation busting greed. Hence the other day they only voted for a below inflation increase. They could hardly do anything else. Anyway, they all know that there is plenty of scope to bump up that bank account with the various allowances MPs get. Enter Mr Conway.

Really? Mmm.

Derek Conway has described paying his son £1000 a week but not declaring it as “administrative shortcomings”. To me, and I might add for legal purposes I emphasise sounds like – no accusations, this sounds like hogwash! I may well be wrong, but handing over a grand a month to a student to work an extra 17 hours a month just seems unlikely to me. How many MPs do similar things but pay a student that is not related or previously known to them? How wise is it to pay a grand a month to someone who has eye on his university work and a good night out in the evening as most students? Good pocket money anyway – I wonder if Mr Conway gave his son any extra pocket money out of his own pocket?

It does raise the issue of just how much scrutiny are out MPs getting at the moment. You may remember a couple of weeks back of the Lords who were complaining that they didn’t get paid sick pay – not realising that in their scramble for claiming allowances, they didn’t actually get a properly salary at all and were therefore not eligible for sick pay. We have MPs who are claiming housing payments for a second home yet are within easy commuting distance of London. The annual expenses claims are now published with some real belter from last year.

How honest are our MPs?

LSE did some research in to MP allowance and I think you will find some of the findings very interesting. For a start, there is no correlation between party affiliation, constituency size, average income of the constituency and marginality of the constituency are all uncorrelated with the total amounts claimed. It is the older and more experienced MPs that claim less for some reason. In terms of hiring staff it is the Lib Dems that spend the most per MP. Overall though, the findings were quite positive – generally speaking our MPs do not milk the system. However, it is clear that some of them, a minority of them, do...

More scrutiny will weed out the cheats

It will come as a surprise, maybe, that cabinet ministers claim the least on average – about £9k less than your average MP. It is no coincidence I don’t think that these are the MPs that are also under the greatest scrutiny. It is my belief that it is not so much the fact that our MPs can claim a allowances that is the problem, but it is far too easy for them to do it and the checks just are not good enough. Hence, I have no problem with Mr Conway employing his family, but more needs to be done to prove that his son is doing what he is paying to do. It is also a very good reason why MPs should not be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

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