L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

16 May 2009 Blog Home : May 2009 : Permalink

MP Expenses

Some thoughts on the news that many British MPs are really good at claiming on expenses stuff that shouldn't have been there.

Firstly - as Guido and Simon Hoggart note we need a proper name. I suggest "Gravygate" seeing as the participants have been on the gravy train for a while.

Secondly - as various people have pointed out (DK for one, Norman Tebbit for two) - the point here is not whether individual claims for expenses are reasonable or not, it is the overall climate of corruption and apparent inability to understand ethical behaviour. It is in fact further proof of Henry Kissinger's aphorism that:

Ninety percent of the politicians give the other ten percent a bad reputation.

It is no good whining about how "other professions" (e.g. journalists) get away with worse, it is no good saying "other countries are worse" or that MPs are terribly low paid (a claim which is laughable - they are in the top 3% of wage earners). In the private sector - particularly in the self-employed / small business part of the private sector - expense claims are not "free money". Yes you get to avoid being taxed on that part of the income when it is reimbursed but effectively it is your (company's) income derived from your (company's products/services) and if you spend too lavishly
  1. you end up not having any money to live on
  2. you end up getting a visit from the taxman wondering whether the expenses are justified
Let me give a personal example: I have just spent four days in Budapest. Because of the nature of the business even though I will be reimbursed by my (small company) employer I still had to consider the price of hotels, travel etc. because if we claim too much on expenses then our clients won't give us new contracts. In fact since I was running a marathon in Prague last Sunday, rather than fly to Budapest I took the train (7 hours and €54 vs about 2 hours and €350) and I flew back using Easyjet. I also know that some of my expenses (a few €1 subway tickets and a couple of €3 railway sandwiches for example) will not be reimbursed because I'll not be able to produce receipts. This does not concern me. I earn enough that losing a few euros is not a big deal. But I didn't need to swallow these losses, I could have taken taxis or eaten in restaurants and got receipts. I didn't because I consider that to be extravagent, I figure that if I wouldn't do it if I was paying for it personally I shouldn't do it if someone else is. MPs and other public servants (e.g. those scammers at the UN)
probably ought to bear that in mind when they submit expenses.

I'm not alone in this belief, the CTO and co-founder/owner of one of our client companies flies RyanAir and stays in cheap hotels and I know a bunch of other people who do likewise. The difference between us and the MPs is that we understand that it is OUR money.

Thirdly - Openness is the only way to stop this. If you know that your expenses are going to be examined by random strangers you may consider that the easiest defense to being perceived as on the take is not to make the claim in the first place. David Cameron seems to have grasped this which is good.

Fourthly - it occurs to me that journalists need to be really careful here because in the current generally pissed off mood of the British public it is becoming obvious that the hacks really haven't done much work to justify their salaries either. It was a single inidividual who pushed the FOI requests. It has been the bloggers and the think tanks who have set up the websites like "TheyWorkForYou" and done the digging that has led to this situation. The media could have done this but they didn't - not until all the hard work had been done and all they had to do was write up the results.

Fifthly - (thanks partly to Private Eye) "It might be enforceable in a court of law, this contract – but it is not enforceable in the court of public opinion, and that is where the government steps in." is what the Harperson said about Sir Fred the Shred. I find it rather amusing haw the nuance changes now that the Harperson and her MP colleagues are up in the dock of the "court of public opinion"...

Sixthly - and partly inspired by the Harperson's whine last week regarding the expenses row providing support to the BNP. Whining, begging and pointing to bogeymen is not a good way to win elections. If ZANU labour is reduced to this then they are basicly toast. Meanwhile, if the BNP gets enough support to win enough council seats they actually have to govern something. The chances are high that they will fail miserably and end up being just as discredited as everyone else.

Seventh - If MPs don't like the scrutiny they might want to consider some of their policies regarding the surveillance etc. of the rest of the UK population. After all the argumement the big government folk put about is that only the guilty have anything to fear as a result of all the increased snooping and data gathering. Going on their reactions MPs would seem to be very very guilty.