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MP's Expenses......the poor lambkins


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Every night, before i climb into my bed, I kneel and say a little prayer of thanks to the Members of Parliament who devote their time so diligently to helping me, without a single thought for their own welfare.


This from today's Telegraph:



No wonder John Lewis workers have shared in the store's biggest ever bonus after another year of huge profits. The company's figures will have been swelled by MPs stampeding through the doors to spend their annual £22,200 tax-free windfall to spruce up their second homes. They must have shopped until they dropped.


The revelation of the so-called "John Lewis list" this week has caused widespread astonishment to just about everyone outside the precincts of the Palace of Westminster.

The taxpayer has been paying not just the mortgages on their MPs' second homes, which have soared in value, but the fixtures, fittings and even the weekly food bills, too. At John Lewis, the top-selling items last year were Egyptian cotton pillowcases and duck feather pillows. It's reassuring to know that our MPs only put the best on their £1,000 beds.


The disclosure of the list, after a titanic struggle with the tongue-tied Commons authorities, who wanted its details kept secret, has sent shivers down the spines of the MPs who have cashed in on the expenses system. They will face an uncomfortable wait until December when a breakdown of expenses dating back to 2004 will be published in all its "never knowingly undersold" glory.


The expenses of the Liberal Democrat MP Paul Keetch should be interesting. His past claims have included such indispensable items as a cheese grater, three large bottle stoppers and a white pudding basin - essentials for the modern MP. His most expensive claim was for the £249 used to buy a Nigella Lawson-endorsed retro-style food mixer in festive red. A Christmas present for Mrs Keetch, do you think?

Perish the thought.

Mr Keetch, when challenged about the mixer, said: "I enjoy cooking and I can prepare many wonderful meals for myself... and it's a nice red colour."


The second home allowance was set up not so MPs could practise their Delia Smith recipes with elaborate food mixers, but to enable them to cover running costs including mortgage payments, heating, some furnishings, council tax and even food.


But the Green Book of rules warns MPs they should "avoid purchases which can be seen as extravagant or luxurious".

Clearly, a £10,000 kitchen is not considered luxurious by the MPs who drafted the rules, even if their constituents have other ideas. The rules also allow our hard-pressed MPs to buy conservatories to soak up the sun at home, even though they are never in London in the summer as they have a three-month break.

At least one parliamentarian seems to have claimed for a fish tank and another for an iPod.

But antiques or "premium-grade furniture" are definitely off-limits; Stockton North MP, Labour's Frank Cook, had his claim for paving, flowerbeds and trellising at his London home rejected.

Senior Tory MP David Maclean, who tried to exempt MPs from the Freedom of Information legislation that enabled the John Lewis list to be published, claimed £3,300 for a quad bike for use in his rural constituency. The Speaker Michael Martin claimed £4,280.20 in taxis for his wife Mary.


But they can also, according to the small print, claim for the new bin taxes imposed in some boroughs to encourage recycling, even if their own political masters approved the eco-friendly charges.


Though clear on the provision for fridges, toasters and kettles, the Green Book - the Commons' expenses bible - makes no reference to the £400-a-month for food that MPs can claim when they are away from their main home. The rules only note that MPs can ask for "reasonable additional costs" for "other food"; when filling their fridges, they do not even have to submit receipts when they pass the usual discretionary cut-off of £250. "We don't want your Tesco's or Sainsbury's receipts," Andrew Walker, director of resources at the House of Commons, said grandly earlier this month. "If members did not eat, they might not be able to perform their duties."




When it comes to extravangant expenses, the Prime Minister's great friends Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper - the Cabinet's golden couple - know how to pile on the pounds. During 2006-2007, they racked up more than £300,000 in expenses, a bill that included £30,000 for the upkeep of their expensive second home in Stoke Newington, north London (rather than their cheaper constituency digs in Castleford, West Yorkshire). To run up a £30,000 bill, one assumes John Lewis sent round its own interior designer to redecorate.


But it's not just the controversy over £500 bookcases or £200 blenders, but the choice of John Lewis as the preferred retail outlet for our MPs - as Matthew Eliott, chief executive of the TaxPayers' Alliance, said: "John Lewis is a fine store but it is hardly the cheapest place to purchase household goods. How many ordinary taxpayers spend £1,500 on a TV and stereo when there are cheaper deals elsewhere?"


Of course, rather than spend the full £10,000 allowance allotted for kitchen refits, the MPs could have gone to Magnet and bought the Gothenburg, an all-inclusive kitchen suite, for a mere £4,915. It includes marble work surfaces, breakfast bar and 27 cabinets - which might be the closest some of them ever get to the pretensions of high office.


John Prescott, who had to be prised out of his grace-and-favour residence when he left the Cabinet, could have revived memories of his day as a steward on ocean-going liners by using his allowance to spend £2,543 on a pair of gold bathroom "Oceania" taps from Bathrooms International. Or perhaps he might have preferred its Nara Infinity Bath in plain white, £4,842 including VAT, which is just the job for romantic lotharios.


Ikea is running an offer on a similar table to the one at which David Cameron eats his breakfast, en famille (if the pictures on Webcameron are anything to go by). It's in birch and costs £128, as opposed to the £600 earmarked for MPs in the approved shopping list. Tesco, Britain's most successful retailer, is retailing washer dryers for £279 compared to the MPs' £500 allowance.


But all joking aside, the latest controversy over expenses means that the stock of MPs has plummeted still further. Michael Portillo, the former Conservative MP, predicted on the BBC1 programme This Week that these expenses claims are "a powder keg that is going to go up. It's going to be huge. It's a dripping roast for journalists."


The Government has already trumpeted its disapproval at the turkeys-never-voting-for-Christmas spectacle of MPs setting their own pay rises. So why not adopt the suggestion from the Liberal Democrat Norman Baker - who lavished a mere £50 on his TV rather than spend his allotted £750 - of bringing in an independent body to take an objective look at a new system?


Of course, there is one very simple way to stop any controversy about whether politicians are cheating on their expenses - and that's to get rid of them (the expenses, that is). Theresa May, the shadow leader of the House of Commons, suggested as much this week. But there was a catch. Mrs May wanted the tax-free allowance converted into taxable salary and added to their wage packets so they can spend the money exactly where they like. John Lewis, for one, will be outraged.





>:-( >:-(



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Well, yes, but as the Torygraph's very own Ann Widdicombe later pointed out, the bit that was left out of the reports, was the accompanying rules. 

The limits are the maxima, of which most MPs appear to have been kept in the dark.  The normal procedure, apparently, is for new MPs to be advised some assistance with equipping their London pads may be available.  They then have to apply, without sight of the list.  If what they ask for is deemed reasonable, it is granted.  Whether, and how many, nudges and winks may pass between applicant and overseer was not stated, and I doubt could be.

The stated reason the list was kept in the dark is because publication might have encouraged some MPs to bid towards the maximum, which to me sounds at least plausible.

There are some greedy boys and girls at Westminster, but I believe most are pretty straight, and don't milk the system for all it is worth.  It is a shame a few do, but that is true of all of humanity, in all countries.

The serious side to all this is that if we succeed in degrading our elected representatives to little better than the inmates at Ford Open Prison, we do ourselves far greater damage overall than the few rotten apples in the Westminster apple barrel could ever do.  Democracy is a fragile thing, in which we all have to have confidence for it to work. 

Just look at those states around the world that have more recently adopted it as their means of government, whether voluntarily or otherwise, and see what happens when some interest group or other doesn't quite get what it likes?  Do I remember someone in the Spanish parliament with a machine gun not too long ago?  Couldn't ever happen at Westminster, could it?  Or could it?  Remember the significance of the carpet between the opposing front benches!

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I must admit to not fully keeping up with this one as I've got enough problems at moment with out worrying about how much MP's are creaming off, but as I understand it the 'John Lewis' list refers to how max prices are set, not that items have to be purchased at John Lewis.
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