Paul Flynn is right about MPs' expenses, but no-one in politics can dare to admit it
Tom Harris 31 AUGUST 2016 • 2:02PM
Few who were MPs at the time will have forgotten what they were doing and where they were at 10.00 pm on Thursday, May 7, 2009.
For that was the moment when it was revealed that the Daily Telegraph had secured the details of every MP’s expenses claim for the last four years and was about to start publishing them.
In the following few weeks, every cynic’s prejudice about politicians only being in it for themselves was confirmed a hundred times over as duck houses (never actually paid out, incidentally), moat cleaning and “flipping” became the only topic of conversation.
A duck house of the same model claimed by Sir Peter Viggers as expenses CREDIT: HEYTESBURY BIRD PAVILIONS/AFP/GETTY
The issue of MPs’ expenses was always a difficult one, but in 2009 it became truly toxic. And it has remained so ever since, despite radical reforms introduced at the time.
Which is why you’ve got to admire Paul Flynn. The Shadow Leader of the House has come up with his own ideas as to how the current system of expenses could be reformed, and his conclusions have already made our country’s self-appointed guardians of public probity foam at the mouth.
Flynn, of course, doesn’t give a monkeys, which probably makes his appointment to this particular post one of the few good moves Jeremy Corbyn has ever made.
The Newport West MP has basically suggested that the body set up to oversee MPs’ expenses – the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) – should be abolished and that most of the cash it previously handed to MPs in accommodation and travel allowances should be bundled into a generous big ball and handed to them as an allowance. After that, they could do what they like with it without having to provide receipts.
But before readers come over all peculiar and reach for the smelling salts, they should be aware that none of this will happen. It should – for reasons I will come to – but it won’t. So everyone just calm down.
MPs boo and hiss at mention of their expenses regulator, IpsaPlay! 00:45
Ipsa is a truly appalling organisation. Expensive, bureaucratic, inflexible and, worst of all, incompetent, it should have been strangled at birth. But this was simply not possible, given the level of public feeling at the time. The Telegraph had barely started its daily water torture of our parliamentarians when local shops reported selling out of pitchforks and torches, forcing our nation’s leaders to do something about it.
So they came up with Ipsa. As with the dangerous dogs legislation in the early 1990s, it’s probably best not to legislate in panic, and so it has proved. A much simpler, more efficient, more transparent scheme could easily have been devised. But once an independent body that wasn’t accountable to MPs was devised, who the hell was going to vote against it or criticise the idea publicly? That’s the sort of question tumbleweeds were invented for.
So, without even a vote on the Bill’s Second Reading, we ended up with Ipsa. And as a result, since 2010 there have been very few scandals. Instead we have a steady, corrosive drip of expenses publications that either infuriate because they’re so low (“Why is he claiming for a pencil?”) or outrage because they’re too high (“Have you seen what she’s charging to travel 800 miles to Westminster and back every week?”).
Such information helps fill newspaper column inches and satisfies the type of constituent who writes regularly to their local council to complain about the state of their neighbour’s garden. But it certainly hasn’t resulted in a general increase in appreciation of MPs – probably the reverse: “Why is she claiming for staff costs? She should be paying for her researcher herself!”
MPs' expenses: Chandeliers and helipadsPlay! 00:50
One of the biggest change introduced by Ipsa was that MPs could no longer claim reimbursement on mortgages they’d taken out on flats in London. Hooray! shouted the nation. Quite right! they added. Why should MPs benefit from the capital gains of properties paid for by the taxpayer?
Why, indeed? Except now Ipsa has discovered what everyone could have told them at the very start: if you force MPs to rent instead of allowing them to buy, the cost to the tax-payer will rocket. There are hundreds of cases where MPs who had been paying mortgage payments of less than £800 a month are now forking out more than £1,500 and claiming it back on expenses. And the cost is rising.
So instead of paying for a capital gains bonus for MPs, we’re paying a lot more to fund a capital gains bonus for private landlords. Which, to many, is a price worth paying if it makes life less comfortable for MPs.
That issue of London accommodation lies at the heart of Flynn’s proposals. A lump-sum allowance would allow MPs to choose whether or not to fund a second mortgage or whatever other arrangement they prefer for their London accommodation (non-receiptable allowances are already part of the expenses system, incidentally: a modest annual sum is already paid to London MPs, but no one makes a fuss about that).
Whatever the outrage at Flynn’s proposals from named and unnamed parliamentary colleagues, make no mistake: he is speaking for a very large number of MPs who remember the former, flawed system and who yearn, not for its return, but for something more workable than the status quo.
“MPs are unpopular, always have been, always will be. And any system of remuneration for MPs will be even more so.”
Many other details can be pored over and debated till the ducks come home; the point is, none of this will happen. In these uncertain times, MPs will never risk the wrath of the media and their constituents to vote for something so unpopular. Protests that the new system would be cheaper and more efficient simply won’t wash with most voters.
Flynn doesn’t care about any of that, and good on him. He’ll be unsurprised and endlessly amused to see how much outrage he has stirred up. And most of those MPs running from studio to studio to denounce him and thereby win the approval of their constituents will be saying things they themselves do not believe. They know that Flynn is onto something, but they won’t admit it because they’re scaredy cats.
MPs are unpopular. Always have been, always will be. And any system of remuneration for MPs will be even more so. But that doesn’t actually matter because a system where we either don’t have elected representatives or don’t remunerate them would be unworkable and unacceptable. All Flynn is asking is that we bite the bullet and get on with it. What a pity he’ll fail.