Last week the national newspapers splashed the story that MPs expenses for the year 2013-13 were higher than in 2009, the last year under the old system. The national media made much of the fact that expenses had hit a new high. This is despite the strict reductions IPSA imposed on what MPs could claim when this new independent body took over running MP expenses after the explosion of anger about the old scheme.
Should people be worried? Can Parliament do a better job at providing value for money? So let me offer some comments to readers on what has been going on recently.
My own expenses for 2008-9 were £93,629, making me the fourteenth cheapest MP to keep that year. My expenses last year were £65,807, a fall of 29.7%. As I told people at the time, I took action to cut the costs of running my office a few years ago.
Meanwhile total MP expenses of £95.4million in 2008-9 rose to £98.1 m last year, a modest increase of 2.8% over the four years. This rise is considerably lower than the rise in public spending generally over that time period.
So why does the average MP office and related costs amount to £150,923? How can I run my office and personal expenses for under half the average?
The biggest cost most MPs incur is the cost of staff. I do most of my own research. I make all my own speeches. I usually talk myself to the media if they wish to hear my views or ask me about what I am doing. Many of my colleagues employ specialist staff to research for them, to contact the media for them, and to write speeches for them. Good staff need paying, and wages have rightly gone up since 2009. That is the biggest difference.
IPSA agreed that the majority of MPs need accommodation in central London for nights when Parliament meets late or because there is not time in a long and busy Parliamentary day to get back to their constituencies. They said they should no longer be able to claim mortgage interest on a property. As a result many MPs have switched to renting, which is often considerably dearer than the current low mortgage rates on properties often bought some time ago. The large number of new MPs elected in 2010 have had to pay high rents to secure a property. London rents are a lot higher than 2009. I carry on with the bedsit I bought myself, and of course do not charge the mortgage interest on it, so that keeps the bills down.
The media has also made much of the fact that a significant number of MPs employ family members as staff. I do not myself. It is quite legal under the IPSA rules, though an MP should of course demonstrate that the family member has the skills and puts in the necessary work to justify the salary. MPs who do this often say they can make more demands on family staff members, asking for their help out of normal working hours. What is important is that any MP doing this must be able to show a proper selection process was followed, and demonstrate value for taxpayers.