66.6 – The Real Nature of the Beast

Three hundred and sixty-six Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem MPs claimed between £20,000 and £23,083 (the maximum) in Additional Costs Allowances (ACA) last year which just happens to work out at 66.6 (recurring) percent of MPs from the 3 main parties. Make of the three sixes what you will, but it does make a rather convenient point: the big problem with MPs expenses has not been the petty claims for ridiculous things but the big claims for housing – for these 366 MPs amounting to around £9m last year.

Most of these 366 MPs have opted for the “Cameron Option” – claiming at or near the full allowance for a mortgage and utility bills on a 2nd home. In Conservative Leader David Cameron’s case he’s thereby managed to claim £82,450 over 5 years for his Oxfordshire home. His explanation is interesting: “Yes, I do claim quite a lot of money for that, I have always tried to arrange my affairs so the whole family goes from London and then down to the constituency and back again – I find that’s the right way to keep my family together and yes, that does mean we have two houses of a certain size.” (Guardian website).

Very nice too. When I first started working at Manchester Business School three years ago I spent a year commuting to Manchester from our family home in Tamworth and sleeping in MBSs hotel rooms. MBS helped out, but they certainly would not have funded me having two full family homes in both places. I don’t know of many employers who would.

Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme a couple of weeks ago about whether Mr Cameron would give back to Parliament the capital gains he’d make on his Oxfordshire pile he simply dodged the question by saying it wasn’t an issue because he wasn’t selling.

Now contrast that with the MPs who have been pilloried in the Press. A very few have done disgraceful things like claiming for mortgages they didn’t have or “flipping” homes to maximise income or to avoid capital gains tax.

But most have been led to the stocks and pelted with rotten fruit over trivial amounts: the 23 MPs who have agreed to pay back wrongly claimed items pocketed the princely sum of £130,000 between them, or four and half grand each over 4 years – i.e. not much more than a £1,000 a year. And that figure is massively reduced if you take out the £93,500 claimed and repaid by just four of the 23 MPs (calculated form figures on the BBC website).

Most these later group of MPs have been criticised for the wrong thing – what they should be being attacked for is shear bloody incompetence. All they had to do to stay on the right side of the lynch-mob was to go for the ‘Cameron Option’ – don’t buy trouser presses, get a mortgage. If you didn’t need one, you could always have invested the money somewhere else and claimed the interest from Parliament – and not even The Daily Telegraph would know.

I just came back from a short business trip to Spain which was great for reinforcing a sense of perspective – whilst my Spanish and Catalan colleagues are amused by what’s going on in Britain the amusement is mostly about why there’s such a fuss over what are mostly fairly minor expenses fiddles – the total amount repaid so far is about £35,000 if you exclude the flippers and phantom mortgages.

It’s about time we all got a grip and concentrated on the real issues.

On MPs expenses the real problem is to sort out the Cameron Option and how to provide MPs who need them with 2nd homes without allowing them to profit from it.

This on-going near-hysteria over MPs expenses is also clearly displaced anger from the real problems facing the country – isn’t it time we all got a grip and got back to talking about them?

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