Some of you are asking what my thoughts are on the Prime Minister’s latest wheeze, the daily attendance allowance for MPs who make it to their main place of work.
Last night I was asked to speak at a Saint George’s Day dinner held in the magnificent surroundings of the HAC headquarters in the City. Also present were the Secretary of State for Defence and the Master of the Rolls. I felt in such mixed company I should steer clear of the Credit Crunch and the Debt crisis. Instead I tackled the only perennially fascinating part of public spending, MPs’ expenses.
I set out my general view of the Attendance Allowance. It can best be summed up in nuanced and technical terms as “barking” – for this is a family friendly site based on moderate language.
The Prime Minister seems to have in mind every MP from outside London being able to claim maybe £175 a day for every day they make it to Westminster. The only evidence needed to support the claim would be to swipe their ID pass into a Commons entrance at some point during the specified day of the claim.
The many details which have not yet been worked out or divulged include:
1. How many MPs would not be allowed to claim anything? There are rumours that they are trying to draw a ring around London that minimises the number of Labour MPs who would lose the right to claim, and maximises the number of Conservatives who would be excluded. Is this true? Are they looking at actual journey times, which vary depending on public transport patterns more than distance?
2. How much would the claim be each day? Would it end up with the taxpayer paying more than under the second homes allowance, which surely is completely unacceptable?
3. What transitional arrangements if any would there be for MPs who have in recent years committed themselves to large rents or mortgages on second homes? Ms Harman implied there would be transitional cash for some. Who? How much?
4. Do MPs undertaking Parliamentary business elsewhere qualify? There was some suggestion from Ms Harman yesterday they might. Why? In what circumstances?
5. Why does the PM think this could be introduced as early as 1 July? We have only just received all the new rules and paperwork for the new system that came in as of 1 April this year. The PM’s proposal would require a lot of systems change, and more expense.
The Prime Minister clearly thought this back of the envelope proposal was clever. He thought he had found a quick way to tip substantial sums to MPs avoiding all need for invoices, embarrassing revelations about personal items they had bought for their second homes and arguments over what was their second home. Were he to go ahead with the vote and win it, I suspect he will disovcover great public anger and continued press fascination. The press might well then do all of the following – and more besides:
1. Follow particular MPs thought to be abusing the system , to see not only when they clock in but also when they leave on any given day
2. Seeing what the MPs do with the money they receive as Attendance Allowance
3. Trying to find cheap skates who despite the Allowance sleep on office sofas or end up in very cheap hotels
4 Seeing if any rackets are running – like one MP swiping another MP in so he or she can claim the Allowance for a day when they don’t make it to Westminster
5. Alleging that any attempt to delay proceedings or to demand an extra day’s debate is just a demand for more Attendance Allowances.
It is by no means clear the PM can win this vote. He has blundered into a Commons matter, where governments are usually wary of whipping a given answer, preferring a consensus or majority view to emerge. My best advice to him is to do his U turn early, before the revolt gets out of control. Parliamentary hothouse rumours that Labour MPs are already being threatened with de-selection from their seats if they do not do the government’s bidding is a sign of how unpopular this is with Labour MPs. Worse still would be if he wins this vote and ends up with another unsustainable and indefensible system.