Nadine Dorries is the MP for Mid-Bedfordshire
How can anyone forget the expenses crisis of 2009? It began on the first day of the Euro-elections and ended on the last. The public went to the ballot booths with anger towards the established political parties burning in their hearts. Via a court case with IPSA, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, the Daily Telegraph has applied for copies of all receipts from IPSA. Having won the case, IPSA has gone to appeal. It would cost the tax payer £1.5 million to produce the receipts. The Euro elections are a year away. I think we can guess the Telegraph's timetable.
Before anyone jumps to the keyboard crying" ‘What have you thieving scumbags got to hide"? I can say that the answer is: nothing. Yes, I know that a small number of MPs went to prison and that some had to pay amounts back. However, any sensible person must realise that any MP who fiddles their expenses would need to be certified following 2009, and I just do not believe it happens.
The reality is that many MPs are seriously in debt because they are too afraid to claim their travel expenses, even though their constituencies are hundreds of miles away from Parliament.
Some, when they do claim, have to wait months to be paid, and rack up thousands of pounds of debt on their credit cards.
A journalist recently told me that, post-Leveson, the residual fear in the media of targeting celebrities has meant that leading up to an election period, journalists will lean a little harder on MPs. Here’s how he explained it to me. A journalist needs copy for his paper by 5pm. He’s in a rush. He promised to have a long lunch with a colleague and has to get on with it. So, he takes a quick look at which town fifty miles outside of London has seen an increase in repossessions. If it’s more than fifty miles, the MP will need to have a flat in London in order to attend Westminster for late night votes and early morning committees.
Bingo, the journalist has his story: "Repossessions up by 8 per cent in Snodswich as greedy MP trousers £21K on second home claim." In 2009, Gordon Brown and David Cameron were both in such a hurry to clear the air and keep or get their bums on to seats in Number 10 that they put to Parliament a solution to the expenses crisis which did nothing whatsoever to solve the problem.
Sir Ian Kennedy, who was charged by Gordon Brown to find a solution to the crisis, proposed that the way forward was to change the office which paid the expenses from the fees office which cost £1 million per year to new office called IPSA. In three years, IPSA has cost the tax payer much more than that. Oh, I almost forgot: he was also appointed the Chairman on £700 per day. Nice work if you can get it.
Every MP has a staff budget of around £120,000 per annum. It is paid directly from IPSA to the House of Commons staff into the staff member’s bank account. The MP never sees the money.
It used to be paid directly from the fees office to the staff. So no change there. However, that budget is confused with MPs expenses. The public believe that the £120,000 is paid directly into MPs pockets and local newspapers compare one local MP with another to see who claims the most.
Staff salaries should be taken right out of a budget headed ‘MPs expenses’ and put into a budget headed ‘Staff salaries’, and administered by the same department which pays civil servants and the remainder of the staff in the House of Commons who don’t work for MPs. Each allocation should still be recorded and itemised but not be under a heading called ‘MPs expenses’. We knowroughly how much each constituency costs to run and how much the travel around each constituency costs. Some constituencies are extremely large and, yes, still the public believe that even though the MP has to travel hundreds of miles in a week around the constituency, he or she should pay for it out of their own pocket because, if it comes under the title of expenses, it is toxic. But he public are not paid ‘expenses’ in order to do their job – and neither should we be.
I am exploring the option of establishing a commission to look into how we can scrap expenses in their entirety. Each MP who has to stay in Westminster during the week could be given a flat rate of pay to reflect the number of nights Parliament sits. If a breast-feeding mother or an MP with children on school holiday wanted to bring their children with them, they could do. It is not the business of IPSA or anyone else how an MP chooses to juggle living in two homes with work and family responsibilities. If an MP has no choice but to be in Westminster, the solution needs to be a grown-up one.
Parliament should pay for postage, paper, ink cartridges, paper clips etc. Each office should have a stationary catalogue and the central purchasing of the House of Commons should take over the buying – in the same way that it buys for every civil servants office. The House of Commons travel office should be upgraded. It should purchase all travel tickets on behalf of MPs to and from their constituencies. The public still won’t accept this – but there is no member of the public whose employer expects him or her to travel hundreds of miles for work and not claim travel. However, it shouldn’t be in a budget headed ‘expenses’. It should be in group account headed Parliamentary travel. Checks and balances can be put in place but it should be one overall budget.
IPSA should be closed down and MPs should have the guts to vote for that. These are all only suggestions. Suggestions that would cut the cost of politics by millions - and, I read somewhere, that’s what David Cameron wants. If anyone has better ideas, they can replace these ones. But one thing is certain: until politicians have the guts to act in a way which is strong and do the right thing for the taxpayer instead of being pushed around by the media, the problem will never go away. If we want the public to have faith in Parliament, scrapping expenses is the biggest way to go about it. It won’t make the journalists happy. They will have less to write about. But it will be in everyone else's interests.