Wednesday, 13 May 2009

A message for Keith Vaz: call me!

Dear Keith,

If you read my blog can you give me a ring back please? I'd like to interview you about expenses and ask whether you think you should pay any money back like some of your colleagues have. I know you have given us a statement, I know it was within the rules, but you rang the editor and I hoped that this meant you would want to give your views over the phone or in person. Maybe you have sent a pigeon or a horseman will deliver a message with a time or date or something or anything. That's probably it.
Love Martin x

Anyway, county council election trail has started, and over the next three weeks we will be writing in detail about the big issues and battlegrounds. Tomorrow's is travellers, and there are few more divisive, emotive issues than this one. The main parties have set out their arguments, most of which revolve around breaking illegal camps up quickly but ensuring they have somewhere to go. The spokesman were a credit to their parties, but knowing politicians as I do, some will use this issue for their own gain, probably by spreading fear of crime.
Although travellers can cause problems, it is a minority, they deserve to be treated with respect. If they are treated as they should be then when they break the law they can have no complaints when we throw the book at them.
Oh, we will also have a spangling exciting election section on from the morning. You should look.

Tomorrow I will be writing about a major change in the political make-up at the city council. One thing any council needs is a robust opposition to scrutinise decisions made by the cabinet and its officers. Too often the Mercury has been the main scrutineer. It is part of our job, but we cannot speak out at meetings or start change from within the council. Good luck RG.

1 comment:

  1. Not done this before so want to make it clear this is my opinion (in case my email address, and therefore employer's name, appears).

    I don't mind MPs claiming their genuine expenses of living in a second home if (1) they need it to properly, or better, perform their duties to their constituency; (2) they claim within the rules; (3) they are claiming genuine expenses and not profiteering. The proper purpose of the expense system seems to me to be to cover the reasonable accommodation expenses of MPs who need to stay in London but whose family home, based in their constituency, is too far away to commute. On that basis, I don't mind if they claim right up to the limit allowed.

    I do object to MPs seeing it as a sideline, a nice little earner to supplement their salary. The following examples of MP claims may all be within the letter of the rules (though I'm not sure they are within the letter of the law, particularly the tax law) but seem to be a clear taking of the pee to me: (i) MPs who have claimed their main family home is their second home in order to better equip it, (ii) MPs who have nominated their London flat their second home for expense purposes but told the HMRC it is their principal home in order to avoid CGT upon its sale sale; (iii) MPs who use the expense system to buy then systematically refurbish a property (or a chain of properties, 'flipping' them each time) with the purpose of making a profit. The MPs who have apparently claimed mortgage costs as expenses for 18 months after the mortgage was paid off, or while letting their flat out and thereby recovering the mortgage expense by other means, have not just taken the pee, they have committed fraud.

    By comparison to them, I actually have some sympathy for Phil Hope, the junior health minister show has agreed to repay £41k. Looking at the expenses he claimed, and the pictures of the flat they relate to on the news last night, he seems to have actually claimed for buying and furnishing a pretty modest little flat. It's not a Mayfair mewshouse and he hasn't spent thousands on posh cushions. He seems to me to have done what was intended by the spirit of the rules. Seeing him get hung out to dry and having to find £41k to repay while other MPs (such as those listed above) get mere passing references seems grossly unfair. The public seem angry merely because he received a large sum of money, but unable to distinguish that from those who claimed money that was obviously fraudulent.

    I don't think MPs who have been fraudulent should get away with just repaying the money that they should not have claimed in the first place. They are only paying it back because they were found out. It sends the message of "Try it on. If you get caught, the worst that happens is you have to pay it back." Let your average Joe try that with an insurance or benefits claim and see how far they get once found out.

    It seems the system needs reform as politicians (and even the parliamentary expenses office) are unable to self-police, and a policy of expecting them to remain within the rules has not worked - they have stretched them to the letter, rather than adhering to the spirit of the rules. Perhaps we need to try a new, more explicit, literal set of rules. Let MPs claim for expenses. But this must be in relation to their London accommodation and for (i) either rent or mortgage costs (ii) furniture; (iii) a capped amount of service charge or insurance and maintenance of the building.

    Just my tuppence worth.