Another week, another scandal about MPs allowances. It’s obviously about time they were sorted out. After all, most MPs don’t fiddle their allowances and most of the allowances are used to pay for the things they need to do their job (such as computer, staff, postage, train travel etc) rather than it going in to their own pockets. But this is all the more reason to sort it out once and for all to make sure the honest MPs are not unfairly tarnished by the dishonest ones or the ones who play the system.
What I don’t understand is how some of these MPs can be so stupid about their expenses. In the case of Dawn Butler (Labour MP for Brent South) you can actually make an interesting contrast with Sarah Teather (Lib Dem MP for Brent East). Dawn Butler has claimed £37,245 to run her home in Wembley when she already has a home in Stratford – two places that are roughly equidistant from Westminster. Sarah Teather however claims nothing as she only has the one home and doesn’t see the need for two when she lives in Willesden Green in her constituency just nine stops from Westminster along the Jubilee Line. The justification from most MPs for claiming the allowance is that they are entitled to it. That may be true, but as an MP it is important you have due regard to the most appropriate way of spending tax payers money. Using it to pay for a second home is far from a good use when you don’t actually need it.
This post isn’t intended just a Dawn Butler bashing exercise though, but it is interesting that none of the Lib Dem MPs in London claim their second home allowance (most Labour and Conservative MPs do). It’s also worth noting that Sarah Teather was campaigning on this issue a long time before the recent controversies over Dawn Butler and Harrow East MP Tony McNulty.
I don’t doubt the need for a second homes allowance in the majority of circumstances (see the end of the post for why) but I would have thought there is a simple solution to it all – turn the allowance in to a loan. Instead of taxpayers funding an MPs second home, they could instead be given an interest-free (or low interest) loan that would instead help them buy a house outright or help pay for their mortgage payments. The condition would then be that the MP pays the money back after they stop being an MP (or earlier if they wish to) as presumably they then wouldn’t need the house anymore and selling it would allow them to reimburse the state. They should also lose the right to claim an allowance for improvements to the house or buying extra furniture etc. Obviously if they spend money on the house that results in it increasing in value then they would be allowed to keep that money, but at least then the state wouldn’t end up paying for it and would be no worse off as a result, even if an MP decided to buy an extra home when they didn’t need one.
Where I accept this idea may not stack up is if an MP decides to rent rather than buy. In these circumstances, Parliament would still need to pay the rent and would obviously not receive any money back at the end. However, the MP would also not receive any financial benefit from doing this as they would purely be reimbursed for the money they spent and they would of course have to provide Parliament with a copy of their rental agreement to ensure they weren’t overcharging. I suppose this could allow them to rent from a friend who then gives them the money back, but if these rental agreements were made public documents, the press would soon name and shame those MPs who were trying to make money out of the system.
This idea may have some fatal flaw, (if you spot one please post it in the comments), but it would at least get a rid of any accusations that MPs were on the make, and it would ensure that no MPs were being subsidised by the state as Parliament would either get the money back on the retirement of the MP or the money wouldn’t go in to the pockets of the MP in the first place.
Some of the other ideas I have spotted in the press or in website comments for scrapping the second home allowance completely (and why I don’t agree)
- “MPs earn so much money they don’t need to have a home provided by the taxpayer.” There’s no denying that MPs earn a good salary but it isn’t actually that much money if you consider that they need to pay for two homes out of it. Most people who are in a job that requires two places to live are either paid substantially more than an MP gets or they do get some financial support from their employer. It’s also important to bear in mind that not all MPs enter Parliament with a lot of money in the bank and they many may not have the savings to be able to pay for a second house at the drop of a hat – even with a mortgage.
- “MPs should just commute to Westminster like many people do”. That may be perfectly reasonable if you represent a seat in or near London, but not so if you live further out, and it’s impossible if you represent Orkney and Shetland. Also, Parliament often sits in to the night and after a certain time it’s impossible to get transport out of London home.
- “MPs could just live in some sort of barracks or dormitory in London”. Would you want to spend four days of the week every week living in close proximity to your work colleagues? MPs work incredibly long hours and we have to let them escape the Westminster bubble by going to their own home or they would go mad.
- “There should be a house allocated to the MP in each constituency”. Most MPs already live in or near their constituency before being elected and so do we really want to uproot them from a home they like and may have had for many years just because they have become an MP? Also, many MPs have different personal circumstances. If you are married with five children you need a very different sort of house to an MP who is single.
- “MPs could use the internet to vote and peform many of their parliamentary duties thereby getting a rid of the need to travel to parliament at all.” I admit this plays to one of my bugbears that everything can now be done by teleconferencing and on the internet. They are both ideal solutions for some meetings, but I also believe that there’s nothing as good as actually meeting people face to face and talking. You can pick up a lot more and have much more productive meetings if people actually get to know each other rather than just being a voice at the end of a phone or writing an email. You would end up with poorer decisions if this was the way parliament met.