The press has done a good job exposing the expenses of MPs. The system has been far too generous, and some MPs have made bad judgements about what to claim. As someone who believes in transparency and value for money, I want to see reform and a much tighter system. I was one of only 25 MPs to oppose plans to exempt MPs’ expenses from the Freedom of Information Act, which would have stopped the truth from coming out.
I am glad David Cameron and Nick Clegg both offered to pay back some money they had claimed and have told their MPs to do the same where the claims were unreasonable. It is good to see more than £200,000 has already been promised back from MPs of all three parties, with more MPs still to be investigated. David Cameron was right to apologise on behalf of MPs, and to understand the importance of this issue to Parliament and the public we should serve. He was right to say Conservative MPs should only claim for mortgage interest or rent, Council tax, and service charges on a second property they need for their job.
In 2007-8 I claimed a total of £105,917. This made me the 19th cheapest MP, claiming around £40,000 less than the average. One fifth of that claim was the mortgage interest costs, the Council Tax and service charge and maintenance on a bedsit flat in Pimlico. It is entirely used to enable me to work longer days in London when there is important Parliamentary business. During my ownership it has only been slept in by myself. I do not need it for any other purpose. The deposit and repayments of capital are of course paid for out of my taxed income.
Some people locally think that I should travel to and from London by train on days when Parliament is in session. I have given this serious thought. My nearest station is Crowthorne. On two days a week business of the House continues until 10 pm, often followed by two votes. I am not able to leave until after 10.20 pm on such occasions. If I caught the 10.50pm from Waterloo, I would arrive in Wokingham too late to catch the last train to Crowthorne which departs at 11.43. Sometimes important business can go on even later. During the budget debate on the 12th May I made my first speech just before 4pm and my last at 1:15am. It was long after midnight that the issue that had generated the most correspondence from constituents finally came up. I was back at my desk at 7am the next morning.
With the flat I am able to be in my office by 7am to deal with emails and letters, and to write my daily blog to keep constituents informed about what I think and am doing. I can be back in the flat ten minutes after the Commons business finishes for the night. It enables me to save on staff and travel costs, as I can do more of the job myself. I write all my own speeches and all the daily web pieces, and do most of my own research.
I decided early in 2008 that although my claims were low by reference to others, I could do the job to a good standard whilst cutting my costs. I set myself the target of cutting my total expenses by 10% in 2008-9 and by a further 10% in 2009-10. As an advocate of getting better value for taxpayers across the public sector, I felt it especially important to show I could practise what I preach. I have preliminary figures for 2008-9 which show that I have cut by more than 10% in that year, which will put me more than £50,000 a year below the likely average MP claim.
Throughout my time as an MP I have always had a second job. The nature of Parliament often requires it, as for years I was a Minister, and then a Shadow Cabinet member. These were very demanding jobs requiring substantial travel around the country and a great deal of case work, meetings and reading. Like being an MP, these jobs require you to be on call seven days a week, and to undertake numerous evening meetings and events. When I have not had these responsibilities I have been a non executive chairman of a company, which has always made much less demand on my time and can be arranged to avoid any conflict with the Parliamentary diary.
At the beginning of last year I agreed to chair a new company for a friend of mine who had been made redundant, for no fee and light duties. Unfortunately he died young and suddenly of pancreatic cancer towards the end of last year, but not before he had expanded the company, creating nine new jobs and brought in outside shareholders. They have asked me to do more to help them, for reward. I have agreed a contract which states “There are no fixed hours of work. Parliamentary duties always take precedence.” I have therefore decided to do more for them at times of my choosing. There is more time available for example when Parliament is in its very long recess. I will make no further claims for Additional Cost Allowance, and pay for the flat which I think is wholly necessary for my job as MP out of my other taxed income.
I trust the proper scrutiny which is currently going into MPs costs and expenses will also be undertaken throughout the public sector. We need to ensure that everyone who is in public service, as MPs are, remembers who pays the bills and uses public money wisely.