There is a new ComRes poll reported tonight for the Independent on Sunday:
Conservative 41% (up 2%)
Labour 32% (down 2%)
Lib Dem 15% (down 1%)
This is broadly in line with tonight’s YouGov poll and suggests that Conservatives have around a 10% lead now.
There is a new YouGov poll reported tonight for the Sunday Times tomorrow:
Conservative 45% (up 4%)
Labour 32% (down 2%)
Lib Dem 14% (down 1%)
This is a significant change from the last YouGov poll and would see David Cameron in 10 Downing Street with majority of over 100!
There is likely to be another poll tonight and it will be interesting to see if the trend of increased Conservative leads is continued.
I was amazed this week to read that Members of Parliament are preparing to vote on a recommendation from the Speaker’s Committee that they should exempt themselves from parts of the Freedom of Information Act. The High Court ruled last year that MPs should have to publish details of expenses claims made since 2005 and that receipts should be provided. The Speaker Michael Martin fought this case against disclosure and now the committee he leads wants to take Parliamentary time to make MPs a special case.
MPs have a basic salary of £63,291 per annum; large compared to most of their constituents but less than many senior professionals. However, they have a generous expenses regime. They can claim 40p per mile for car travel and until recently the first 350 miles per month within their constituencies did not have to be receipted, so many claimed this every month regardless, totalling an extra £1,680 per annum. There is also a central travel budget from which MPs can claim rail and air travel to and from their constituencies.
They have what is called the “Incidental Expenses Provision” (IEP); currently £22,193 from which they can claim all of their office running costs, as well as pocketing “petty cash” (until recently up to £200 without receipts each month) from the allowance every month. A smart MP will use this allowance to claim for costs incurred at home such as their mobile phone, land line and maybe internet access, in addition to the more usual costs of keeping their constituency and Westminster offices in stationery, printer ink and other consumables. In addition to this there is a central pool of IT equipment which supplies PCs and printer hardware to a basic standard and which doesn’t come from the MP’s expenses. There is also “Centrally Provided stationery” and its associated pre-paid postage costs for letters to constituents on Parliamentary business; again centrally paid for.
Since 2007 there is also the “Communications Allowance” (currently £10,400 per annum) to pay for direct communications to electors such as Parliamentary Reports and any associated mailing or delivery costs. This can also be used for some surveying of opinions on particular local issues but the wordings of questions and end use of the information gathered are quite tightly controlled by the Parliamentary authorities.
There is the oddly named “Additional Costs Allowance” (ACA) of £24,006 per annum which essentially supports a second home in London for MPs who represent constituencies some way from London. It is used to buy, furnish and run a London flat at tax-payers’ expense which then belongs to the MP when they cease to be an MP. There is also a London Supplement of £2,916 for MPs in central London. MPs in outer London can chose this or the ACA.
The biggest allowance is the “Staffing Allowance”. It is currently £100,205 per annum and is to employ the staff that a Member needs to reply to constituents’ mail, answer the phone, draft speeches and questions to be delivered in the House, and generally provide background support and research. This is the sum that makes MPs “allowances” seem so inflated and unfairly so in my view. How many other jobs would treat the employment of staff essential to support someone in the conduct of their basic job as an allowance?
However, one wheeze that is not widely known is that, with some restrictions, MPs can request transfers of money between these allowances. So money from the staffing allowance can be transferred to the IEP and vice versa. This does allow more scope to cream off sums into family members’ pockets or for creative expenses claims.
The Green Book sets out all the rules on MPs allowances but there is considerable flexibility in its interpretation by the House authorities. There is no doubt that MPs should be held accountable for what they claim from the tax-payer and that publication is the best way to ensure that this is not abused but I suggest some other reforms:
- I would abolish the ACA. MPs should not be able to buy themselves a second home at public expense. Instead I would suggest that an arrangement be made with the owner of a local hotel that MPs can use at short notice when they have to stay overnight in London on Parliamentary business. The cost would be charged centrally and published. In the event that it was full, MPs should be able to claim actuals (up to a limit) to stay in an alternative hotel in the area.
- The Staffing Allowance should be abolished and MPs be allowed to employ up to three full time (or part time equivalent) members of staff on strictly defined salary scales. At present they are so loosely defined as to be almost meaningless. There should be no ability to transfer staffing money into other allowances.
- The Communications Allowance was introduced recently to further protect MPs incumbency. This should be abolished completely. The IEP would then be the source of funds for communications from the MPs office.
- Any sums paid to family members from the public purse should be published immediately. At present expenses are published about a year after the event and there are subtle ways of paying them other than employing them directly that need to be made open.
I do not believe that MPs need some further big increase in basic salary “in order to attract the best”, as some have argued. There is no shortage of candidates at a General Election and it is for the public to decide at an election whether their sitting MP is up to the job or if they prefer an alternative. David Cameron’s pledge to cut the number of MPs by around 60 if he wins the next election is a welcome start to a process of reducing the cost to the public purse of maintaining our Parliamentary representatives.
(I have avoided the vexed subject of MPs’ pensions as this warrants a whole article on its own!)
MPs, by and large, are decent and hard working individuals but the principles underlying any funding from the public purse should be necessity and transparency. All vestiges of cover up and dodgy practices should be swept away and we should know what they are receiving personally from the tax-payer and what any family members receive. The issue of what support they receive for their Parliamentary duties in staff, IT and stationery should also be clear but is less contentious.
That is why it is wrong for Parliament to try to bring down the shutters once again on what the public can have a right to know.