Tuesday 17 April 2018

Jeremy Hunt: A Very Qualified Defence

No, I haven't lost my mind. And no, I'm not soft soaping his failure to register a 50% stake in his wife's property company. I mean, come on, who hasn't done this? Instead, it's the other story that has excited the press this last week: his expenses claim for a 27p car journey. Not only am I going to explain how such an apparently absurd claim is possible (the Indy notes another Tory MP put a claim in for 9p also), but I'm going to defend them.

The first thing to remember is MPs expenses are not what they used to be. Before the scandal blew up in 2009 the expenses system was used to supplement honourable members' incomes. There were all kinds of egregious abuses, the most notorious of which were expense submissions for duck houses and getting one's moat cleaned. In the furore following the scandal the system was overhauled and made much more transparent. Gone were the perks of getting the taxpayer to stump up mortgage payments for a Central London town house which you could then sell on for a tidy profit. Instead they started to resemble normal expenses you would incur during and at the behest of work. In the main, the £150ish thousand MPs typically claim covers office budgets. This includes staff, rent, stationery and IT, and travel. Using expenses to subsidise one's lavish lifestyle is much more difficult and can easily be called out by the transparency that has been introduced into the system. It's because of this we know the blessed Jeremy Hunt was paid his 27 pence.

Why the tiny claim, then? Is Hunt and sundry MPs that miserly? No. I recall the time my my former boss got stung for putting in a 4p claim. This wasn't because he was especially tight, rather it had to do with how the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority expects journeys to be specified when making an expenses claim. For instance, on a typical Friday he'd be picked up and conveyed to his first meeting of the day. Then he'd be off to another meeting or a morning surgery before heading back to the office. Grabbing something to eat, he would be driven to the next surgery around the corner in Stoke Library before going from there to yet another couple of meetings before a quick tea and whatever was going on that evening. Instead of putting expenses in for the total mileage, IPSA expects each journey to be broken down into legs and claimed for individually. Hence the absurdly low claims.

MPs could avoid embarrassing themselves this way, I suppose. But they are right to put in claims. In the first place, travel claims don't always go to the claiming member. In our case, Tristram was driven hither and thither by one of his staff. These were her expenses. Should modestly paid employees of Parliament subsidise their work's petrol? Absolutely not. The second, broader point, is being a MP is a job like any other. In the commission of their duties, expenses are incurred as parliamentary representatives. i.e. In work, not as private individuals. Therefore work should stump up the cash, whether it's for short hops in a car, a wreath for Remembrance Day, tea and biscuits for the office or whatever.

Work is work, and so Jeremy Hunt was entirely right to make his claim. But there is a broader point. IPSA and its expenses system is set up just for these sorts of press exposés, and to make the suggestion something dishonest and nefarious is going on. There are plenty of reasons to criticise MPs, but the present state of affairs benefits no one. It's time this farce was professionalised and the sting taken out of expenses.


Blissex said...

Well that's the result of voters always being keen on "gotcha!" moments, and consequently the press constant search for "gotcha!" exposures. There is a cognitive bias at work here: that every little detail that comes to light is assumed to be "just the tip of the iceberg", a symptom for something bigger, so the "acceptable" rate of failure for anything is always zero, which is impossible.

Anonymous said...

Not always the case with councillor expenses- much of it (not all) (councillor meetings- travel) often paid by self and of course all lunches between meetings etc paid by self as it should be. Councillors also work whole days and evenings often. Not expecting it to be otherwise.

Anonymous said...

Does the 150k include money that MPs can spend on a personal driver?