The Daily Telegraph is now beginning to reveal details of claims of opposition parties’ MPs claims. Tonight Alan Duncan (left) is in the firing line for claiming £4,000 to cover the cost of a gardener and Guido Fawkes has broken the news that Shadow Chancellor George Osborne claimed for chauffeurs, Michael Gove claimed for stays at the Garrick Club and Cheryl Gillan claimed for dog food.
This does seem to be rather less serious than some of the Labour claims to date but it will reinforce the impression that “they are all at it”. No doubt there is more to come and the Lib Dems, Nationalists and Northern Ireland MPs are probably wondering what information the Telegraph has on them.
My suggestion is that David Cameron should make it a condition of service on his front bench that dubious claims are repaid to the public purse by the MP concerned immediately. The Party Chairman and a couple of senior members of the Board of the Party could be asked to adjudicate in cases where required. Cameron has to find a way to show that he will not tolerate his MPs lining their pockets at public expense and any that refuse to repay should lose their front bench position. Only a very tough line will distance the Conservative Party under Cameron from the sleaze engulfing Labour at present.
Iain Dale has a good take on this new angle on the story here.
UPDATE: Cheryl Gillan has said tonight that she will repay the money claimed. It should be stressed that no-one has suggested that she broke the rules but her swift decision strikes me as exactly the right thing to do.
I am fed up with hearing two stock defences from MPs:
- “I was acting in good faith”
- “It is within the rules because the Fees Office agreed it”
The latest scandals have largely revolved around the “Additional Costs Allowance”, or as it is now known, “Personal Additional Accommodation Expenditure”. This was set up when the Commons operated pretty family-unfriendly hours and MPs often had late night sittings and had to stay overnight near to Westminster. Since the reform of the hours of sitting under this Government I would argue that the need for the allowance has been greatly diminished and, as I have argued before, it now should be abolished and an accommodation block provided for those MPs that occasionally need to stay over-night. A reduction in the number of MPs (as the Conservatives propose) would make this even more viable.
However, even under the existing rules some of the practices that have been reported are unacceptable. The expenses “Bible”, The Green Book begins (at para 1.1) by saying “Parliamentary Allowances are designed to ensure that Members are reimbursed for costs incurred in the performance of their duties.” That principle has existed for many years.
Other principles in para 1.3 of the current Green Book say:
“Claims must only be made for expenditure that it was necessary for a Member to incur to ensure that he or she could properly perform his or her parliamentary duties.”
“Members must ensure that claims do not give rise to, or give the appearance of giving rise to, an improper personal financial benefit to themselves or anyone else.”
“Individual Members take personal responsibility for all expenses incurred, for making claims and for keeping records, even if the administration of claims is delegated by them to others.”
Previously there was a clause saying in effect that whatever advice Members may receive from the Department of Finance and Administration (DFA or Fees Office), they as Honourable Members retained responsibility for what they claimed and were duty bound to ensure that it was within the rules as laid down at the time. This is where I think the system often was open to abuse and the second defence cited above falls down.
Some Members claimed for what they could get away with on the basis that the DFA allowed them to. Discussions I have had with an employee of the DFA suggests that in the past they would allow claims in “grey areas” through if the MP insisted, on the basis that the ultimate responsibility for interpretation lay with the MP and it would be the MP that was in trouble if it was found to be wrong. The new Green Book seems to place more emphasis on the DFA ruling on claims and, in the current climate any MP that tried to press a dodgy claim would be committing political suicide.
The system was lax in the past and open to abuse. A culture clearly developed in the House of Commons where MPs felt that they were entitled to spend up to the limit of each “allowance” by right. Money was claimed because they could and not because it was necessary or a reasonable recompense for expense incurred. This was aided and abetted by a very lax system of vetting claims received.
Things are now belatedly being tightened up but the whole system needs comprehensive reform. In MPs’ defence it is unfair that the cost of their staff is seen as an “allowance” because, unless they employ family members, the money never goes near their pockets. The Staffing allowance is currently just under £100,000 and forms the bulk of the amount the newspapers usually cite as “allowances”. I believe this is now to be paid from a central fund.
As I have said, the second homes allowance should be abolished along with the £10,500 Communications Allowance and the “Administrative and Office Expenditure” (previously Office Costs Allowance or Incidental Expenses Provision) should be more rigorously policed. The ability to transfer money between the allowances (para 3.1.1) should also be stopped.
Sadly a sizeable number of current MPs of all parties have shown themselves to be far from “honourable” in their dealings with public funds for their own benefit. In some cases they clearly have not “acted in good faith” and they have tried to pass the buck to the “Fees Office” (or DFA) when under the old Green Book, final responsibility lay with them. Since some cannot be trusted not to line their own pockets with our money my final suggestion is that they should lose the right to self police the system. Therefore the Committee on Standards and Privileges that rules on breaches and sanctions MPs, should have a majority of independent members and former MPs, rather than just comprising currently serving MPs.
You can read the current Green Book here.
On Friday night I went into Reading to watch the new Star Trek movie. I had some apprehension as any film that tries to remake an old concept but with new actors playing the same characters is immediately suspect in my book.
I grew up with Star Trek and loved the original series. It began in the year of my birth (1966) and whilst I have always resisted being described as a “Trekkie” or “Trekker” I have enjoyed each of the new series and the successive films. I hasten to add that I have never dressed up or attended a convention!
The trailers for J.J Abrams’ new Star Trek looked amazing and the pre-publicity promised “a film that everyone could enjoy”. So I sat with my popcorn in Reading Vue Cinema and waited for the trailers for other films to pass.
From the moment the film began I was spellbound. The effects are amazing and the pace of the film and the action left me on the edge of my seat almost throughout. It starts with George Kirk having to take command of a star ship and save the life of his unborn son James T. Kirk. The story unfolds to explain how James Kirk joins Star Fleet, meets Spock and the rest of the famous original crew and then goes on to tackle Romulans and eventually take command of the USS Enterprise. I am skimming through so I don’t spoil anyone’s fun watching the film. The space scenes are mind-blowing and unlike the original series there is no wobbly set. Elements of the film are reminiscent of the best of Star Wars and due to better graphics, often surpass it.
The casting is simply superb. Chris Pine is great as James Kirk and Zoe Saldana was right as Lt Uhura but the greatest tribute must in my view go to Zachary Quinto who play Spock. He may have been slightly helped by the fact that Leonard Nimoy (the original 1960’s Spock) appears in the film but I could not fault his credibility as the young Vulcan science officer. The other more minor part that really convinced was Karl Urban as Dr McCoy. He had the nuances of accent and expression spot on.
Interestingly in reading up for this review I discovered that the film had several fake names in its early stages in order to throw those that might seek to leak elements off the scent. One such fake name was “Christa and Christan’s Big Adventure” and another was “Wet Paint”.
Whether you like or loathe the Star Trek TV series’ and previous films you should see this one. It is one of the best films I have seen in years and I fully intend to see it again as soon as possible. It is an experience you will not forget in a hurry.