I tend to shy away from overtly political topics on this blog, but the MPs’ expenses furore seems somewhat outside the normal political boundaries – even the LibDems seem to have dirty fingers – and I wanted to put in my tuppenyworth, prompted by the MP in the constituency I used to live in emailing a link to his online statement on his own actions.
What I find interesting about his statement is that – despite accruing expenses within the rules and for what appear to be wholly understandable and acceptable reasons – he is repaying half of the legal costs of acquiring his “second home” in London.
This suggests some very weak thinking: he appears instead to feel he has to be seen to be doing something. He hasn’t (and doesn’t think he has) done anything wrong. He is worried that others – his constituents (or the media?) – might think that the legal fees were high.
Many, many years ago, I was the financial controller of a small part of a larger organisation, and I had to sign off certain expenses claims. Including my boss’s. He had difficulty in distinguishing the company’s money from his own, and several times I had to tell him he couldn’t claim for particular things. It wasn’t comfortable, but it seemed pretty clear to me what were expenses incurred in the course of the business and what weren’t, and I had to say so.
Many of the MPs’ expenses reported in the Daily Telegraph are clearly not business related – almost any private business would quibble over servicing an Aga, buying cat food and a chocolate Santa, or purchasing eye-liner (and that is only up to the Es!) – unless it is agreed that it forms part of their remuneration (and at that point becomes taxable). Just like other workers, MPs expenses must be incurred “wholly, necessarily and exclusively” to do their job (the words come from the HMRC about employees, but they were just used by an MP on Radio4’s WatO). It is pretty easy for most items to work out whether these conditions are met. Usually, one can also apply a “reasonableness test” – is it reasonable for someone to charge those items as expenses. (Clue: husband watching videos – of whatever nature – no!)
Many MPs were clearly “swinging the lead” – seeing what they could get away with (horse manure, anyone?), and they should be subject to review and censure. But the sight of MPs falling over themselves to pay back what seem perfectly reasonable expenses is bizarre. And paying back half of the expenses which you clearly feel were ok (because otherwise you’d be paying back all of that money) is doubly so.