Hundreds attend world peace event at London Mosque, calling for immediate ceasefires and ‘sustainable peace’

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Cross-party MPs urged for a concerted effort for lasting peace.

On March 9, the eve of the start of Ramadan, more than 1,200 people from 28 countries around the world met at the Baitul Futuh Mosque for the 2024 National Peace Symposium.

The Baital Futah Mosque in Morden, London, is the largest mosque in Western Europe and is the administrative headquarters of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, the third most popular branch of Islam.

The Peace Symposium, now in its 18th year, is organised by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. Attended by dignitaries, including Ambassadors of State, MPs, and academics, as well as representatives from charities and faith communities, this annual event is aimed at promoting a deeper understanding of Islam and other faiths, and bringing communities together for the cause of peace.

As wars continued to devastate communities in Gaza, Ukraine, Yemen and Sudan, as peace-making efforts fall deeper into crisis, this year’s Peace Symposium called for immediate ceasefires and to build sustainable global peace.

The panel of speakers comprised of cross-political party representatives. Dame Sioban McDonagh, Labour MP for Mitchem and Morden, spoke of the oppression and suffering in Gaza. Addressing the Symposium, the MP said: “The Ahmadiyya community has been at the forefront of calling for peace since the very start of the conflict. It is his holiness who urged all world powers to de-escalate and work towards a lasting peaceful solution.”

Continue ReadingHundreds attend world peace event at London Mosque, calling for immediate ceasefires and ‘sustainable peace’

Parliament’s £180m expenses bonanza: photoshoots and business class flights

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

Image of loads of money
Image of loads of money

Exclusive: Train enthusiast MP claimed £52,000 on London hotels, instead of catching the train

MPs and peers have claimed almost £180m on expenses in just three years, charging taxpayers for business class flights, hotels, iPads and professional photoshoots, analysis by openDemocracy has found.

Our investigation has uncovered a spending splurge by Westminster politicians during a period that spans Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine, when ordinary Brits struggled with the cost of living crisis.

MPs claimed almost £90m on expenses between August 2019 and July 2022, while members of the House of Lords spent the same. The figures do not include £310m claimed separately for MPs’ staff.

In one case, the Conservative chair of the Transport Committee claimed £51,896 on hotels in London – despite living in a constituency just 35 minutes’ train ride from the capital.

Iain Stewart describes himself as a “self-confessed transport wonk” who “derives great pleasure from a comfortable train journey”. Yet instead of catching a train each day, he charged taxpayers thousands of pounds each year to spend at least 307 nights in a hotel.

Stewart is one of eight politicians who billed the public purse more than £40,000 each for London hotels during the period we examined. Overall, MPs billed more than £2.3m for hotels, including for trips abroad. That’s despite repeated Covid lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, which meant travel and hotel stays were severely restricted.

The finding comes after openDemocracy previously revealed how MPs had claimed more than £1m over six years to heat their second homes.

“It’s high time for a review into rules on MPs’ expenses to ensure that they are justified in the public interest,” said Anny Cullum from community union ACORN (The Association of Community Organisations for Reform Now).

“It’s scandalous that some MPs are squandering huge amounts of public money on unnecessary hotel stays, business class flights and heating their second homes, especially while many of us are struggling with rising rents, energy bills and food costs as the cost of living crisis grinds on.”

Alongside accommodation fees, some 398 MPs also racked up parking costs of £307,000 in three years – among them claims from scores of government ministers, including transport secretary Mark Harper and health secretary Steven Barclay.

The government ended free parking for NHS staff in April last year, insisting it was the “right” thing to do. Since then, ministers have continued to charge taxpayers for their parking, including Chris Heaton-Harris, Alister Jack, Johnny Mercer, Nick Gibb, Guy Opperman and Victoria Prentis.

As a perk of the job, MPs also have access to about 400 free parking spaces in the House of Commons.

‘A relaxed regime’

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Committee (IPSA), which regulates MPs’ expenses, says it ensures “value for money”, transparency and accountability. But although there is no evidence of rule-breaking, critics have urged the watchdog to review the way it upholds these principles.

The former chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Alistair Graham, told openDemocracy: “I’d be shocked if it’s true that IPSA have run such a relaxed regime.

“Clearly all these things should be publicised and IPSA should have a major second look at their rules to see if these claims can be justified in the public interest.”

Labour MP Meg Hillier, who chairs the Public Accounts Committee into wasteful spending, charged taxpayers £1,852 for photographs – including £924 for pictures of her constituency in east London.

Another Labour MP, Emma Lewell-Buck, spent £400 on a professional photoshoot for herself, while her colleague Apsana Begum also claimed £725 for photos.

IPSA is also relaxed about politicians using taxpayers’ money to award contracts to companies run by friends and political allies.

On Monday openDemocracy revealed MPs had claimed more than £1m for private spin doctors and PR firms, with many using taxpayers’ money to pay companies with close personal links to their political parties.

But the problem is not confined to the PR industry: in another case, former health secretary Matt Hancock claimed £5,720 to pay a consultancy firm run by his former adviser.

Ben Greenstone served as Hancock’s private secretary when he was minister for digital and creative industries. He went on to set up Taso Advisory Ltd, which describes itself as a “specialist technology public policy consultancy”. Hancock then hired the firm to help his parliamentary office and used his expenses to pay it on at least four occasions.

IPSA should have a major second look at their rules to see if these claims can be justified in the public interestAlistair Graham, former chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life

Other claims approved by IPSA may raise eyebrows despite being relatively small amounts. For instance, records show that Conservative MP Mark Francois – who made headlines in the 2009 expenses scandal after claiming money for chocolates, sweets and snacks – allowed his staff to claim £25.30 to cover train fares for attending the funeral of fellow MP David Amess, who was murdered in 2021.

The SNP’s Allan Dorans also claimed £37.40 for a Remembrance Day wreath that he laid at an event in South Ayrshire. The MP tweeted that he had been “determined to keep a long standing commitment” to lay the wreath, despite recovering from Covid at the time.

Meanwhile, claims made by peers in the House of Lords are not dealt by IPSA at all, and are still managed internally. Typically, peers do not receive a salary and their expenses are limited to a few specific categories, including travel and postage. But peers are also entitled to a “daily allowance” which currently stands at £332, which they can claim even if they don’t contribute to proceedings.

openDemocracy revealed last week how crossbench peer Khalid Hameed, a former private health tycoon, had claimed more than £18,000 in a year without speaking or voting in the chamber once.

In total, members of the Lords have taken more than £41m of daily allowance over the last three years, together with £3.2m travel costs.

They include money paid to an earl named Charles Henry John Benedict Crofton Chetwynd Chetwynd-Talbot, who was suspended from the House of Lords in December over a lobbying scandal. He claimed more than any other peer for travel expenses, submitting £51,000 worth of receipts.

And Ulster Unionist peer Dennis Rogan also billed taxpayers more than £47,000 for travel, including a £398 business class flight to London Heathrow. Such tickets are specifically permitted under the rules, which state that members of the Lords are “entitled to be reimbursed for the cost of a business class [plane] ticket.”

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

Continue ReadingParliament’s £180m expenses bonanza: photoshoots and business class flights

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

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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

Continue ReadingThere’s a new expenses scandal, but Westminster is silent