There’s a new expenses scandal, but Westminster is silent

Spread the love

OPINION: Taxpayers are still being billed huge sums for controversial expenses, from MPs’ PR to business class flights

Image of loads of money
Image of loads of money

Original article by Martin Williams republished from OpenDemocracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence


When Parliament was rocked by the expenses scandal in 2009, politicians pledged to clean up their act. But 14 years on, how much has actually changed?

This week, an investigation by openDemocracy revealed a £180m spending bonanza, with politicians charging taxpayers for a litany of controversial claims.

Among them, we found that a peer had claimed £18,000 just for turning up to the House of Lords, despite not speaking or voting in the chamber, and that MPs have been billing us for huge sums to heat their second homes, while ordinary Brits struggle with spiralling energy costs.

We found that, over the past three years, MPs have splurged £1.1m of taxpayer money on private PR firms offering to boost their “personal brand” and “incumbency”. Politicians also claimed for business class flights and personal photoshoots, while others claimed tens of thousands of pounds on London hotels rather than simply catching the train.

Incredibly, none of the cases we reported on are against the rules.

Despite some important reforms to the system after 2009, a culture of omertà prevails in Westminster. Most political leaders choose to avoid talking about MPs’ expenses altogether, for fear that one of their allies will be exposed and embarrassed.

Last month, for instance, Labour launched an attack on the Tories over “lavish” spending by government departments. But the party has remained silent about openDemocracy’s investigation, which covers MPs and peers from all political parties.

Our findings come as MPs are set for another pay rise next month, bringing their wages up to £86,584 – while many still rake in extra cash from second jobs.

MPs have splurged £1.1m of taxpayer money on PR firms offering to boost their ‘personal brand’ and ‘incumbency’

It would be disingenuous to suggest that nothing has changed since 2009. Back then, MPs were caught claiming expenses for duck housesporn videos and the cost of cleaning out the moat of a country estate. After the scandal broke, more than half of MPs agreed to pay back the money and a new expenses watchdog was set up, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA).

But the truth is that Westminster’s expenses system is still in need of major reforms. Too often the rules are lax, allowing politicians to claim for things that seem excessive, unreasonable, or ethically questionable.

In some ways, we have actually gone backwards. For instance, before the expenses scandal, there was an explicit ban on using taxpayer money for “advice for individual members on self-promotion, or PR for individuals”. But this line is not included in the current rulebook. Indeed, our investigation suggests that spending on PR services is rife and that IPSA does not even check the content created – using our money – by private contractors.

And when expenses are used to pay consultants or businesses, there is no obligation for MPs to award this work in a fair or competitive manner. We found dozens of cases where money was being handed to companies run by friends or political allies. The rules only ban payments to family members or businesses that an MP has a direct financial interest in.

The rulebook is also confused when it comes to geography. How can it be right that the constituency of Windsor – which is more than half an hour’s train ride from central London – is considered by IPSA to be within the capital, yet the commuter town of Harpenden is not, despite the fact that a train from there takes just 26 minutes? This distinction means the MP for Harpenden and Hitchin is entitled to an extra expenses budget that is denied to the Windsor MP.

Peers can claim £332 a day for simply turning up – or even for attending an online meeting

Meanwhile, the rules governing the House of Lords are still written internally and don’t even fall under IPSA’s remit. Peers can claim up to £332 a day for simply turning up, regardless of whether they contribute to proceedings. In fact, they can claim this even for attending a ‘virtual meeting’ online.

There is also little attempt to cut costs, even by those setting the rules. Peers are specifically told that they are “entitled to be reimbursed for the cost of a business class [plane] ticket”.

Parliamentary expenses may be a thorny issue for many in Westminster, but ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. Defenders of the status quo often say that the vast majority of claims are legitimate – and perhaps they are right. But we need an expenses system that allows no leeway; a system that can assure the public that every claim is in their interest and constitutes value for money.

Everyone agrees on this, but authorities have actually moved to undermine these principles. IPSA has even made expenses less transparent, in a supposed bid to improve security after the murder of Tory MP David Amess in 2021 (despite there being no evidence that Amess’ attacker used Freedom of Information laws to plot his attack). Last year the watchdog was also forced to U-turn after telling MPs they could claim expenses to cover an office Christmas party.

It is easy to blame MPs over excessive and controversial expenses claims. And be in no doubt, in many cases the criticism is justified. But if we really want to clean up the system, we need a major review of the rulebook itself.

Original article by Martin Williams republished from OpenDemocracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence

Leave a Reply