Friday, December 11, 2009

The MP's Expenses that worry me the most

You'll know that while I've been exasperated at the lack of transparency in the MPs' expenses system and the unholy conspiracy between Labour and Tory MPs over the years to keep information secret, I generally think that MPs are mostly good people who work hard to serve their constituents. While yesterday's publication of MPs' Additional Costs Allowance, covering their accommodation claims for the year 2008-2009 sent the tabloids into a frenzy about a few cases, the vast majority of the money spent was absolutely necessary to enable MPs to do their jobs. It would be unfair to say that most of the ones I know are worth their weight in gold because they're all quite thin, especially Alistair Carmichael, Lib Dem MP for Orkney and Shetland, who has lost so much weight this year, so I'll just say that they're worth my weight in gold. That's much more accurate.

I have issues about MPs in spitting distance of London being able to claim for second homes in Central London but nobody could ever seriously argue that Scottish MPs shouldn't have their accommodation expenses met - unless, of course, they wish to see us return to the days when only the landed gentry or the super rich could afford to sit in Parliament.

Ok, I have a few quibbles with some cases. £43 for a garlic crusher - they sell them in ASDA for significantly less. Even my one, which was quite expensive from Pampered Chef didn't cost half of that amount. And Jim Devine, for heavens sake, have you never heard of insurance? Quentin Davies' bell tower, whether he likes it or not, will become the duck island of this tranche of claims, even though we didn't actually foot the entire bill for its repair.

There are some things which have hit the headline that I'm prepared to forgive. Gordon Brown submitted a duplicate receipt - it happens, it was noticed, it was sorted. That's why there are people employed in the House of Commons, as there are in private companies, to sort these things out. I would hope that nobody in any sort of job would be penalised for making what was in the end of the day an administrative error.

Eric Joyce, our costliest MP, it seems, got his arse kicked by the Commons authorities over a claim for trips abroad. Well, so the headline says, but if you delve into the story, his trips were paid for by other people (and, yes, I'll be checking the Register of Interests when I have time, but I expect to find the details there), but it took some time for the money to come through and Mr Joyce had charged the money on his Commons travel card. The Commons authorities decided stopping his expenses for a while was the way to concentrate his mind on sorting it out. I can let that one pass.

There is one claim that really worries me, though. Alex Salmond's. For the whole year it was less than £600. Cheap isn't always good. When the people of Banff and Buchan voted for him in 2005, they had the right to expect him to serve their interests at Westminster. And, yes, you can do so much without going there, but if you're going to represent their interests properly, you have to show up more than once every blue moon. His constituents will have been affected by the Equitable Life scandal, pensions, benefits, the disastrous 10p tax, support for our troops in Afghanistan, ID cards, taxation, training opportunities for unemployed people (or, more appropriately, the lack of decent support), 42 days'detention - all of which have been dealt with by the House of Commons in Alex Salmond's absence. A good constituency MP will also try to raise awareness of local issues by introducing new legislation or by raising an adjournment debate with a Minister who can actually do something about it.

The truth is that people need decent representation in both Parliaments at Holyrood and Westminster, which is why the Kelly Report said that MPs shouldn't also serve in other Parliaments. Labour has failed to legislate on this and David Cameron, while calling for the law to be changed, stands by while Tory MSP John Lamont tries to get into Westminster.

I don't mind paying the costs which are necessary for a healthy, functioning democracy and I don't see a benefit of having an MP who is cheap because he's never there.

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