Parliamentary Expenses (30 May, 2009)

Every news story from Westminster is worse and worse.

Liberal Democrats have consistently supported open government

The Liberal Democrats have long argued that the expenses system needs to change. They have consistently fought for open government on this issue.

In contrast, Labour and Conservative MPs have united in attempts to give themselves protection against the Freedom of Information Act. Liberal Democrats have always opposed these united bids for protection.

In April Nick Clegg put forward radical proposals for a new way forward that went beyond what Gordon Brown or David Cameron suggested.

Attempts by Conservative and Labour MPs to give themselves protection against the Freedom of Act

For example, in the 2006-7 session senior Conservative MP David Maclean, a former chief whip for the party, introduced a private members bill, the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill, which would have exempted both Houses of Parliament from the scope of the Freedom of Information Act. The effect would have been to remove any obligation for details of MPs’ expenses to be made public.

On 20th April 2007 the Bill was talked out by Lib Dem MP Norman Baker, with assistance from Simon Hughes and a handful of MPs from other parties. But on 18th May 2007 it came back and was voted through by Labour and Conservative MPs. 96 MPs (plus two tellers) voted for the Bill at third reading a majority of them Labour but with a significant number of Tories (and no Lib Dems). In addition to these 98, a further 21 backed (or were tellers at) the closure motion which enabled the third reading vote to take place before the Bill ran out of time.

You can find out if your MP voted to block the publication of MPs expenses details at the links below

Hansard 18 May 2007: Column 944, Division 123.

This is a vote to exempt MPs from FOI laws – Aye vote is a vote for the FOI exemption.

Hansard 18 May 2007 1.33 pm.

This is a vote on the closure motion – Aye vote is a vote to help the FOI exemption get through by curtailing debate and moving to a vote on it

Both the Labour minister and Conservative spokesman said they were neutral on the bill. All Lib Dem speakers, including spokesman Simon Hughes, spoke against the Bill and the partys then leader, Ming Campbell urged MPs of all parties to reject it. (You can read a report on the debate at Details of debate on 18 May 2007. Note the report is held on the Lib Dems national web site.

Thankfully the high profile campaigning against the Bill paid dividends and the Bill ultimately fell because not one peer was willing to sponsor it in the House of Lords.

Attempts to strengthen FOI laws

Norman Baker, early in 2007, won a legal challenge to House of Commons secrecy. As a result, Parliament was forced to declare how much each MP has claimed in travel expenses broken down according to whether it was by car, rail, air or bicycle.

Tom Brake, then the partys local government spokesman, introduced a 10 minute rule bill in the 2006-7 session which would have

(a) removed the veto which allows ministers to overrule the Information Commissioner and Information Tribunal on FOI requests

(b) introduced a time limit for responses to public-interest FOI requests

(c) brought school academies and large private contractors working for public authorities within the scope of FOI legislation

The Bill did not get government support and failed to get through.

Support for toughening up expenses regime

On 3rd July 2008 an unholy alliance of Labour and Conservative MPs voted down a number of proposals from the cross-party Members Estimates Committee (MEC) for tightening up MPs expenses and allowances.

Among the recommendations rejected were:

The MPs who voted to reject this toughening up the expenses regime were 146 Labour MPs (plus two tellers), 21 Conservatives and 2 independents. No Liberal Democrat MP voted against it. Details of how each MP voted can be found here:

Details of vote: 3rd July 2008, 17.17.

(The ayes were voting for an amendment to the original motion which removed a number of the proposals. The noes were voting to keep the original robust proposals from the Members Estimate Committee intact.) James Arbuthnot voted to weaken the proposals.

The following day Nick Clegg committed that the Liberal Democrats would unilaterally introduce the recommendations of the MEC, including independent spot checks of MPs expenses.

Nick Cleggs proposals on expenses

On 9th April 2009, Nick Clegg set out a series of proposals for urgent reform of the rules on MP expenses.

These are based on the following principles:

  1. Taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent
  2. All expenses have to be justified on the basis of enabling MPs to do their job
  3. Reform should not increase, and should ideally reduce, the total cost of politics to the taxpayer.

They include

You can find more details of Nick’s proposals here

Nick Clegg’s proposal.

It has got beyond the party leaders

It is no longer enough for the Party leaders to decide on how MPs should be scrutinised and where necessary tried. Parliament itself should set up standard procedures so that all MPs are scrutinised in the same way and so that all are treated in the same way, if found guilty. Having the most macho party leader is reducing it to a game, while Nick Clegg has put forward important proposals

I believe it is my public duty to go by bus

What is really shocking is that members of parliament could not see that the rules allowed claims that were morally wrong.

As a small example, I have to get to Winchester for County Council meetings and it is my public duty to use the cheapest method. When I worked for the Forestry Commission, I had to claim at the public transport rate if it was possible to make the journey by public-transport. If chose I to take the car, I got paid the public transport rate.

Now that I am over 60, my free bus pass introduces a new point. Using the same principles, if I can get to Winchester by bus, then I should not be allowed to claim for petrol. And if I went free on the bus, then I certainly cannot claim back from the council money I did not spend.

So it is my public duty to go to Winchester by bus. That is exactly what I do and I have not submitted a travel claim for two years.

I did not need a fees office to tell me that.

It is a good thing for me to travel by bus for varous other reasons; it means that I know the timetables and the difficulties. I can get to Winchester or Guildford easily, and the timetable is reasonable. And I can get to Petersfield fairly easily. But I cannot get back from Petersfield unless I leave the District Council before 4.00 pm.

And it means my carbon footprint is smaller.

Don’t punish local councillors for the misbehaviour at Westminster

Our arrangements for paying expenses in local government are quite different from those emerging in Westminster. The rules are based on public duty and fairness and they are enforced. Officers will check that there was a meeting that day, that you were recorded in the minutes, and so on. That is right and it is respected.

So please don’t punish us on Thursday. We have much simpler rules and we stick by them.