No one can have failed to notice current furore about MPs expenses. I first put information about my expenses on my website in 2007 and updated figures can be found via the Parliamentary website and theyworkforyou.com
My record in the House on MPs Expenses
The revelations on expenses first began after Freedom of Information requests about individual MPs last year. As the issue began to gather momentum at the beginning of this year, I was one of the first to sign Parliamentary Motion 492 text below thus sending a signal to the Government that I would vote against the any move to remove MPs expenses from the Freedom of Information Act (in the end, the Government withdrew its original proposal and so the matter was not put to the vote).
However, I did support action by the House authorities to ensure that details of addresses in London and other personal information that could pose a security risk (such as information that would reveal regular journeys) could be removed from information requested under Freedom of Information arrangements. Constituents who corresponded with me on this at the time agreed this to be reasonable.
As far as I can recollect, I have always voted to support openness in MPs' claims though a constituent has challenged me for being absent at an outrageous attempt by a Tory MP on a Friday to introduce a Private Members' Bill exempting MPs expenses from Freedom of Information following the first spate of FOI requests. I signed an Early Day Motion (which has the status of a formal expression of opinion) making my own position clear (click here for text). However I was not present to vote against the Bill as I had prior constituency engagements and did not think it could possibly succeed. To my surprise, it actually did succeed in the Commons but fortunately, there was no sponsor for it in the House of Lords, so it fell.
I have opposed measures to allow blanket daily claims without receipts, and have advocated a tapered allowance to assist new MPs to set up a second home but to prevent long-serving MPs from profiteering. I have incorporated this concept in my submission to the Review being undertaken by the Committee on Standards in Public Life being chaired by Sir Christopher Kelly.
EDM 492: FREEDOM OF INFORMATION (PARLIAMENT) ORDER 2009
That this House notes with concern the provisions in the Freedom of Information (Parliament) Order 2009 to remove the expenses of hon. Members and Peers from the scope of the Freedom of Information Act; notes that this Order singles out hon. Members and Peers in a special category as the only public officials who will not have to disclose full details of their expenses; further notes the High Court judgement of 16th May 2008 and subsequent reassurances to hon. Members that expenses would be published in full by autumn 2008; further notes with concern the regressive effect of this Order on parliamentary transparency and the detrimental impact it will have on Parliament in the eyes of the public; and calls on Ministers to block or repeal the Order in the interest of hon. Members' and Peers' accountability to members of the public.
In response to Gordon Brown's proposals for reforms to the expenses system, (click here fore a link to his statement to the House on Constitutional Renewal) and his call for proposals of alternative solutions, I have also tabled the following EDM, arguing that expenses allowances should decrease once a Member has been in office for a longer period.
EDM 1316: HON. MEMBERS' ALLOWANCES
That this House proposes, in response to the Prime Minister's invitation to put forward alternative proposals for financing hon. Members' additional housing costs, a system that is based on verified and necessary actual expenditure that is set at a higher maximum rate for new hon. Members for their first term of office but for all other members is reduced in real terms pro rata to their length of office.
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My Expenses claims
Earlier this year I was given access to the Fees Office records of my own claims. At the time, I did have a quick look through them and as my own expenses were low compared to the maximum (last year, I was 514th out of 645 MPs), I did not give the information a great deal of attention. I instead intended to wait for the expected publication of the information this July, once details that could not be published, like bank details and the details of contractors who had done work had been removed. Since the Telegraph’s revelations began to be published, I revisited the information the Fees Office had sent on my own claims. For data protection reasons to protect others, I could not publish this information in its entirety on my website but I went through my files and completed tables with all the details and published this on my website on 21 May.
On 28 May the Telegraph and, on 29 May, the Daily Mail both printed articles about my expenses claims (click here to read my initial response to the Telegraph's reporter). I provide the facts to balance below:
I emailed the following letter to the Editor of the Telegraph on 28 May regarding their lack of fairness given the comprehensive information I had given their reporter at very short notice:
Re your article of 28 May: Socialist with a taste for Farrow & Ball wallpaper, whilst your Chief Reporter emailed to thank me for "such a comprehensive reply" to his questions, I note that, despite having ample space to do so, you did not publish a number of the details I provided - presumably because these would have put me in a better light. In particular, you omitted that, over 3 years, I contributed over £24,000 from my salary to employ staff because the staffing allowance was inadequate. I am not the only MP to have done this - most of us are not motivated by personal greed. If readers are interested I have posted a copy of my response to your reporter on my website, www.lynnejones.org.uk
The Telegraph did not publish my letter and therefore do not appear to be interested in giving a fair picture.
The Daily Mail story about my expenses, also of 28 May, included the statement:
"A LABOUR MP bought £1,100 of Farrow & Ball wallpaper with her taxpayer-funded expenses.
Lynne Jones made the claim as part of a £22,000 upgrade of her second home, paid for after she had announced that she would stand down as an MP at the next Election."
This is not true. I did not claim £22,000 after I announced, in January 2007, I would stand down at the next Election. The amount was claimed between March 2004 and June 2009. The figures up to the end of the2007/8 financial year were fully published, with relevant dates, on my website before the publication of these articles. The Mail did not contact me before printing their article and my solicitor will be writing to them.
The Telegraph also implied I had made inappropriate renovations at the taxpayer’s expense knowing I was retiring. In the story I have already referred to above, the paper stated I claimed £6,761 on renovations of my flat after I announced I was standing down at the next Election. Although the Telegraph did contact me before printing their story, they did not ask me any questions about the timings of my claims.
The facts are these and, as I have said, were for all to see on my website. After I announced I would not be standing again as an MP, up until April ‘08, the figure from the Fees Office is that I claimed £5331.99. This includes £2894.54 for a new boiler after the old one repeatedly broke down.
My understanding was that the disc the Telegraph is getting its stories from has data up to the end of the 2007/08 financial year. However, it appears they have data from the Fees Office up to at least June 2008. The Fees Office have now confirmed that the Telegraph figure of £6740 is correct but this includes a duplicate claim I made unintentionally when I submitted the identical plumbing receipt for £815 two months running. This was clearly an error which I would have expected the Fees Office to pick up. They did not but neither did they notice a £1000 underclaim one month when I failed to add up correctly. Apart from the new boiler, the other main expenditure was the re-decoration of my bedroom.
For complete disclosure, I have created a further table of my expenses from my own records from April 2008 to March 2009. To view this, please click here.
Far from starting redecoration once I had decided, in early 2007, to stand down at the next Election, I first sought estimates in 2005 for redecorating work. I still have a copy of the first estimate I got for the living room, dated 15 July 2005, which quotes £2885 for the work I eventually got done in October 2006 for £1750. I got the bookshelves done for £600 compared with an original quote of over £2000.
The point of the above detail is to show I made every effort to get value for money where I found estimates to be excessive and did not simply take the attitude that the taxpayer would foot the bill. I went for the lower cost. The Telegraph ignored the information I had given them about seeking lower estimates.
The living room needed redecoration – it had not been decorated since 1992 and then had just been painted over the original wallpaper. I went on to get the same decorator to do my bedroom. The foregoing represents the sorts of delay from getting estimates to getting work done and, had I just gone with the more expensive estimate, the work to my bedroom would have been completed months before I decided not to stand again - and like the living room it needed doing.
Since I have received a response to my enquiries from the Fees Office, it would appear that there is an error on each of the schedules I posted on my website on 21 May for 2005/6 and 2006/7. There should have been additional payments of £1250 and £1105 respectively, both for decorating that it appeared from the information previously to me had not been paid. I have therefore added footnotes to the 21 May information.
I stay in Westminster 3 to 4 evenings a week, working till after 10 and usually after midnight. I would argue that it is fair, for MPs to receive an allowance to fund a comfortable but not luxurious second home if our constituencies that are not within easy travelling distance of the House of Commons. I have a one bedroom flat near Brixton/Oval.
Whilst the current revelations relate to MPs’ expenses for the costs of having to live in two parts of the country, one or two constituents have queried the amount I receive to run my office. For clarity, I should point out that the lion’s share of an MP’s allowance is paid in salaries to the people we employ to provide a service to our constituents and is not paid to MPs personally. My office costs have now been published on www.parliament.uk. The major expenditure is office rental and room hire at Cotteridge Church.
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The Telegraph’s campaign of revelations
The Telegraph have neither confirmed nor denied that they paid money for the computer disk containing details of MPs' expenses, which appears to have been stolen from the Fees Office. Nevertheless, the information on MPs changing addresses to maximise gains from the parliamentary allowance system may not have come to light without the newspaper having access to the address details that would have been removed in the information to be made public. As such a public service has been done, though the person responsible would appear to have received a large sum of money for passing on the stolen information and this does not appear to have been passed on to charity.
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My views and what should be done
Whilst I have not changed my mind about the need to prevent the general publication of MPs’ addresses for security reasons, I feel uneasy that another motive for keeping them secret may have been to prevent the disclosure of the practise of "flipping" the designation of second homes to avoid capital gains tax and of the serial refurbishment of different properties. I am appalled that the House authorities apparently sanctioned such practises, which would never have occurred to me as being within the spirit of the "rules". I have always been open about the capital gain I am likely to make from the rise in value of my own flat in London since I bought it in 1992 and questioned why such gains should not be subject to some clawback in addition to capital gains tax. Though I make no apologies for claiming the second home allowance to enable me to stay in London 3 to 4 nights a week and to kit my (one-bedroom) flat out to a similar standard to that of my family home in Birmingham, I fully understand the public’s outrage at the revelations in The Telegraph that have cast all MPs in a bad light by association.
I also wonder why it has taken our well-paid journalists so long to wake up to this issue. Even with the broad data that has been available for many years it was possible to see that, whilst some MPs' claims were reducing year on year, others continued to claim the maximum (or near to it). As referred to above, I have advocated a system which would see the tapering of the allowance so that it reduces the longer an MP has been in post - this would stop re-mortgaging and claiming for repairs and renovations on several properties. I have submitted my views to the Kelly Review: click here for my submission.
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The recent series of revelations about MPs Expenses have focussed minds on changing that system. However, there is as much, if not more, need for attention on electoral and procedural reform. Click here for my view that we need to go back to the work already completed on this issue by Roy Jenkins’ Royal Commission in 1998.
My submission to the Kelly Review
Please click here
My interventions during a debate on Member's allowances in July 2008, calling for a tapered allowance:
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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am loth to intervene on the right hon. Gentleman, but he should perhaps come back a bit more to the motion before the House.
Mr. Spellar: Thank you for that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. But if there are, as we know, attempts to say that those who do not fill in the expenses forms as required by the party leader on a retrospective basis might be removed from the list of prospective Members of the European Parliament standing in the next election, it is possible to query whether that is just to do with their expenses or whether it is an attempt to purge the list of MEPs who might be an obstacle to the Conservative leader’s rather crazy idea of tying them up with a group of very dodgy fringe parties in Europe, which would reveal it as a rather nasty party indeed.
There is also a questionable motivation on MPs’ expenses. Again, nearly all the complaints about breaching the rules relate to Tory MPs. I stress that that does not apply to the vast majority of Tory Members, who rightly claim what they are entitled to and who are being unfairly tarnished by those who behave badly. I also note the way in which the issue has been stirred up by Conservative Front Benchers in—I presume—a vain attempt to curry favour with the BBC, an organisation that is remarkably reticent about its own salaries and expenses. Who knows whether that will become more of an issue later in the year?
Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): I do not know about the John Lewis list, but the last time I made an expenses claim was when I had to replace my iron and bought a new one for £15.99 from Harry Tuffins. If the media are really concerned about Members’ claims, perhaps they should look at the claims of those who have been Members for many years and are still claiming the maximum allowances. When I entered the House in 1992, the mortgage on the first and only flat that I bought was £250 a month, or £3,000 a year. What about Members who are able to pay huge mortgages, some of whom refinance their mortgages by letting out their original properties, buying more expensive ones and claiming the maximum allowances? They do not even have to worry about the John Lewis list.
Mr. Spellar: My hon. Friend is right: those of us who entered the House some time ago tend to make lower claims. In fact, I note that mine are substantially lower than hers.
What is actually going on inside the Conservative party? A good rule of thumb, which applies to all parties, is that leaks normally come from one’s own side. They may come from disgruntled staff, as may have been the case in some of the instances that we are discussing, or even from ambitious colleagues. In view of that, I find it slightly surprising that Conservative Front Benchers should wish to table a motion to embarrass their colleagues further, including some of their Front-Bench colleagues. Why, for example, do they want to embarrass the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), whose case is being considered by a Committee of the House?
Mr. Spellar: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it not slightly odd, however, that—as has already been said a number of times—what is essentially a matter of House business should be raised in Opposition time and thus become a matter of party business, especially given the considerable number of issues raised, quite legitimately, by the Leader of the Opposition at Prime Minister’s Question Time?
Is it not also slightly odd that the motion should have been tabled now, given that there are very good Conservative members of both the Members Estimate Committee—including the right hon. Member for Maidenhead—and the advisory panel? The Conservative leadership will know that the Members Estimate Committee is due to meet on Monday to consider a recommendation from the panel for a tightening of the audit—involving the National Audit Committee—and a rewriting of the green book. Is this a variation of the old Liberal Democrat trick of finding out which streets are to be repaired, issuing a focus leaflet demanding that repairs be made, and claiming the credit afterwards? By definition, both those bodies will have to present their findings to the House in the autumn. What was the rush for the motion?
The final question that must be asked is “Does this matter?” It is true that the memory of a half-baked motion rather inadequately moved just before the recess will soon fade, although it will undoubtedly revive some doubts in the Opposition ranks about the judgment of the Leader of the Opposition. However, it does not do justice to Members who make reasonable claims arising from the nature of the job. Gone are the days when it was strongly demanded of a Sheffield Member that he visit his constituency at least once a year—although the requirement was waived when he became a Minister.
Our constituents rightly want to see much more of us than they used to, and to hear from us as well. That is true not only in the United Kingdom but around the world—throughout the Anglo-sphere. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire was wrong in that regard. The balance has changed: although it is right to say that we have considerable parliamentary duties, constituency representation and constituency duties are an increasingly important part of the job. That is the way things are nowadays, and we must face up to it. It means that the great majority of Members must have two residences, and, as we all know and as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones), the cost has risen considerably. Indeed, the cost to new Members has probably reached the limit. We sensibly decided not to opt for an eastern-Europe-style barracks block for Members of Parliament, on grounds of cost and security quite apart from any other considerations.
Lynne Jones: I recall that, as a new Member, I was out of pocket for the first few years. Is there not a case for a higher allowance for new Members and an attenuated allowance for those who have been here longer?
Mr. Spellar: I think that that proposal should be considered. The Leader of the House spoke of a possible 10 per cent. limit, although I do not know whether the percentage would change according to the initial setting-up expenses. One of the issues that the panel is examining is the considerable up-front cost of setting up an office and a home and what can be done to help with cash
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flow, particularly just after an election when often people have not been paid. I hope that the panel will look favourably on the idea of giving such help. It must also be borne in mind that we have to live in our second residences for a fairly long period, and it is proper for them to be furnished.
Another aspect that we should bear in mind is the social change that has taken place in the House. Not only are there many more women here; there are many more younger Members. As I said on, I believe, 3 July, for the first time all three leaders of the main political parties have young families….
Mr. Kevan Jones: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that what the majority of Members want are clear rules that they can understand and then implement? Is not one of the biggest problems the old Fees Office, because inconsistent advice was given to both Members and their staff? We learned a few weeks ago that MPs were employing staff who had not lodged contracts with the Fees Office, but I and others had always been told that people could not get paid until that had been done.
David Maclean: Yes, that is true; there has been inconsistent advice, and that was one of the purposes of the practice audit teams that we wanted to set up. They would go round to help colleagues get things right. I say to Members of all parties that if we do not have that and instead have only a toughened up NAO going round, I suspect that all it will be able to do is report on our errors—our genuine errors and mistakes. When that is in the public domain, those genuine errors and mistakes will be regarded as crimes against humanity. Our internal practice assurance teams were able to go round and say, “David, you put it in the wrong column,” or as the Fees Office informed me in a note two weeks ago, “You’ve transposed the figures 3 and 5; it should be 53 instead of 35.” A tiny amount of expenditure was involved, but I had made a mistake in transcribing some figures on to my form.
When the NAO finds such mistakes, they will be reported as, “MP makes a mistake”, and that will be referred to the Standards and Privileges Committee the next day. We wanted something intermediary to hold our hands and help us get things right. There are 650 Members claiming the different allowances at different times of the year in different ways. We have our interpretation and, over the years, the interpretation of the Fees Office has changed, too. A Member said that when he arrived here in 1992 he went to the Fees Office, where someone said, “Oh, why haven’t you got a mortgage, old boy? You can claim for it.” The rules have been tightened up only when various things were exposed as wrong, or when genuine mistakes were made, or we had reports from the Standards and Privileges Committee saying, “This was an abuse.” We have been trying as a House to tighten these rules, not on a systematic basis but as problems occurred. Of course, in those circumstances, advice has sometimes been inconsistent.
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Lynne Jones: However, is it not still within the rules for Members to acquire new mortgages and let out the first home they claimed for, and then claim a larger mortgage? Also, can they not at a later date transfer what was a second home into a primary home and thereby make huge capital gains on the basis of taxpayer contributions, while nothing is done about that? That represents a huge amount of profiteering. The John Lewis list and new Members having to set up their homes pales into insignificance in comparison with such abuses.
David Maclean: If the hon. Lady has evidence of such abuses, they should be recorded. Such allegations were made by external people. I think Sir Christopher Kelly was worried about that. We said point the finger at someone who has got a third home somewhere that is a holiday home and who is claiming additional costs on that. We went into the mortgage issue very carefully. Let me say with all the authority I can muster that the cheapest and best deal for the taxpayer and for Parliament is for colleagues who are elected to buy a property and have a mortgage on it and get the mortgage interest paid by this House. That is a good bargain for the taxpayer at the end of the day.