It seems such a long time ago now that the Parliamentary Expenses Scandal first blew up in the national press, to be greeted by wave upon wave of public outrage and indignation as each new astonishing revelation about MP's expenses were publicly disclosed to the British electorate, from duck houses to moat clearing, from dog food to porn films, from flipping to outright theft, no doubt we all hoped that those miserable days were far behind us. But apparently not it seems.
Although the new Parliamentary Expenses Watchdog, Ipsa, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, to give it its proper, grander name, has been in place and has had oversight for some considerable time now, already there are real concerns that our elected representatives have subsequently found new and innovative ways of getting around the rules that were designed to hold them to account and thus keep them "honest".
However, before looking at specifics, it is perhaps worth offering a perspective on the matter of MP's expenses, which was offered by one of the plethora of political blogging sites; and that struck me as somewhat relevant to the issue at hand. It has been estimated that the suggested level of Benefit Fraud in the UK, amounting to £1.1 billion actually equates to around £59 per benefit claimant (based on a total of 18.5 million claimants), whereas the cost of MP's having to repay public monies in the wake of the Expenses Scandal amounted to £1.2 million, or the equivalent of £1,858 per Member of Parliament. Clearly these are not a like for like comparison, but the huge differential between the two figures, £59 as opposed to £1858, does highlight the seriousness and financial cost of criminal activity, especially at the top of our society, where the more "honourable" citizens are supposed to reside.
Recently released data for the year 2012 to 2013 would appear to suggest that Parliamentary expenses presented by the honourable members of the house have increased by around 10%, from £89 million to £98.1 million, accounting for nearly a third of the total running costs of Parliament itself. And even though some of the most outrageous claims may be a thing of the past, there are still a significant number of MP's who obviously try to squeeze every single penny out of an apparently bottomless public purse that they believe they're entitled to access, even if that means enlisting family members to draw on the taxpayer funded pot. According to a number of informed sources, where it was once unusual, now it seems an estimated 25% of our elected MP's have a member of their immediate family on the public payroll, often as office managers or researchers, regardless of whether or not they're best qualified to do the job. If only everybody was able to subsidise their household incomes, often to the tune of £30-40,000 per year, without the slightest requirement for those monies to be well spent, or indeed genuinely earned? By way of examples, Nadine Dorries has at different times employed both of her daughters on a salary of around £30-40,000 per year. Chris Grayling is reported to employ his wife on a salary of around £40,000 per annum, while Patrick McLoughlin also employs his wife on an annual salary of around £40,000.
Of course for the majority of these publicly funded "troughers", they justify their outlandish expense claims by complaining about the low level of recompense that they receive as a basic salary, the apparently measly £66,000 per year, an everyday British MP receives as a minimum wage. However, bearing in mind that the average working wage in the UK at the present moment in time is estimated to be in the order of £26,500 for a normal man or woman, one would have thought that earning more than twice that amount would have been deemed reasonable, but clearly not for most of our elected representatives. And that doesn't even begin to explain the sheer greed of those MP's who achieve ministerial positions, but still feel entitled to misuse the public purse. After all, who could survive on the salary of a Prime Minister at £142,500, or a Cabinet Minister on £134,565, or a Minister of State on £98,740, or perhaps the poor Permanent Under Secretary of State having to make do with a paltry salary of £89,435.
It's worth recalling that even after the MP's Expenses Scandal of 2009/10, our representatives are still able to claim a maximum of £137,200 per year for staffing costs in non-London locations; and £144,000 per year for those same costs if they happen to be in London itself. Those MP's who are fortunate enough to be asked to "chair" a Select Committee can expect to receive a supplement to their basic salary of £14,582, the same sort of money a full-time worker might expect to earn in one of the most deprived areas of the country, and yet for some MP's it's simply a bonus!
Clearly there are those who will defend MP's and their basic salaries, their expenses, their extremely generous final salary pension schemes and the valuable end of tenure allowances that they receive when they retire, or are voted out of office. It is interesting though to contrast the rule of the many with the exceptions of the few. The Conservative MP, Zac Goldsmith appears to be one of a remarkable group of elected representatives who claimed the absolute minimum of expenses, if any at all, save for those reasonable legitimate expenses incurred by their office staffing arrangements. No plasma TV, no moat cleaning, no duck houses, no meals, no newspapers, no sweets, no Royal British Legion poppy, or anything equally bizarre. No, Zac Goldsmith and a handful of other MP's do what every other working person does in this country, they paid for such things themselves, out of their own pockets; and didn't expect the taxpayer to pick up the tab.
Okay, so Zac Goldsmith is a millionaire, but then again, so is David Cameron, conservatively estimated to be worth £4 million in his own right, but that still didn't prevent him from claiming for a seven pence (7p) bulldog clip, or thirty eight pence (38p) for a staple remover. One can only speculate as to how much it actually cost the public purse to actually process those two ridiculous items, by the time you factor in the costs of his own office expenses and Ipsa's own office charges? Or how about the case of Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, who by all accounts is a multi-millionaire, having sold his interest in an Education Resources Company for £17 million. According to his expenses returns, he asked the taxpayer to refund him five pence (5p) for a paperclip, eight pence (8p) for a page marker and forty-one pence (41p) for a black folder. At the same time Mr Hunt is also one of a number of high profile MP's who are reported to be actively milking the expenses system by claiming rent on a property that is either leased or owned by someone connected with his own constituency party, leading some to believe that he is in fact financing his own political party by the back door, a practice that many believe will become the next big political scandal in the UK.
In order to avoid any charge of being partisan about the issue of MP's milking the system in order to illicitly fund their own political operations, other representatives accused of highly questionable expense claims in regard to the payment of rents include nine Conservative Cabinet Ministers, sixty eight Labour MP's and thirty Liberal Democrat MP's, including their own party leader, one Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister. Other notables whose actions over the issue have been highlighted by the media include Ed Davey, Francis Maude, Nadhim Zahawi, Nadine Dorries, Tim Farron and the Education Secretary, Michael Gove.
Instinctively, when considering the likely expenses of party leaders one would have thought that Mr Cameron would have the greatest level of expense, given that he's the man who runs the country; and has lots and lots of things to do. Then you would expect that Mr Miliband would have the next highest level of expense, bearing in mind that he's Mr Cameron's shadow in Parliament, with equally arduous duties, but without the responsibilities or power. It has always been an accepted principle that the Deputy Prime Minister's post, is a none job, a case of being a spare body, as and when the Prime Minister is busy, out of the country, or worse still dead. Whatever the circumstance one wouldn't have imagined that the Deputy's job would incur more public expenditure than that of the other two more senior posts, currently held by Cameron and Miliband. And yet, according to the latest Ipsa claim returns, where David Cameron claimed a total of £121,873 (including his bulldog clip and staple remover), Ed Miliband claimed £136,115 (most of which was spent on office expenses), surprise, surprise, Mr Clegg outdid them both by claiming a total of £152,553, which was not only £30,000 more than Mr Cameron and £15,000 more than Mr Miliband, but also included the £145.50 cost of a TV Licence. Evidently it appears that although the Deputy Prime Minister's position post might be relatively unimportant in political terms, when it comes to the cost of doing the job, it is a far more expensive post than any of us ever imagined.
Of course those claims include the payroll costs of the staff that the individual MP's employ, but if you want to know who holds the title of the most expensive representative, not including payroll costs, then you need look no further than Ian Paisley of the DUP. According to most sources Mr Paisley's parliamentary expenses, excluding payroll, was £100,204, while the next highest claimant was Alistair Carmichael at £82,878, followed by David Morris with £75,902 and Debbie Abrahams with £74,615.
Of course much of this apparent extravagance might be due to the increasing cost of the representatives having to travel from Westminster to their constituencies, or vice versa. If that is indeed the case then the members of the House mentioned are in good company, as there are a number of other MP's who have presented equally swingeing claims for travelling the length or breadth of the country ostensibly for the benefit of their often much poorer voters. Cases in point include Jim Murphy, Labours Shadow Defence spokesman, who is reported to have cost the public purse £33,224 for one hundred and eighty-eight Premium Air Flights, because obviously standard flights won't do. The disgraced Labour MP, Eric Joyce claimed a total of £43,410 for the cost of two hundred and eight Business Class flights, presumably because he couldn't be bothered to find an alternative. Anne McKechin, the Labour MP for Glasgow North racked up one hundred and sixteen air journeys that cost the public purse a total of £21,405, while our former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, was reimbursed £886 for the cost of a journey from Edinburgh to Brussels where he was booked to give a speech to the European Union. It is a noticeable fact that despite spending very little time in the House of Commons these days, let alone involving himself in serious Parliamentary debates, Mr Brown is reported to still have one of the most expensive constituency offices in the entire House.
No doubt, careful and ongoing analysis of our elected representatives expenses will uncover further evidence of the greedy and acquisitive nature of some less "honourable" members in the House, although what good such discoveries actually serve remains to be seen. A good many of those caught up in the main Expenses Scandal still remain in place, having obviously managed to assuage the anger of their local constituents at the time. One has only to look at the case of the former Peter Mandelson to recognise that liars and miscreants do prosper in Westminster, when a two-time wrongdoer can subsequently be enobled by a British government. One only has to look at the case of David Laws, now a serving government minister, who was forced to resign after seventeen days, because he had hidden the fact that an estimated £40,000 claimed by him, had in fact been paid to his full-time partner, but was subsequently forgiven his wrongdoing because he had made a mistake.
Neither should we forget MP Nick Harvey who claimed £7.20 for the cost of a journey from his home to attend a local Poppy Day service, or those eleven MP's who claimed £5,000 or more for accountancy services, even though such services are explicitly excluded under the new "improved" Parliamentary Standards Authority. Or how could any of us forget the £10,000 claimed by the now disgraced Liberal Democrat Energy Minister, Chris Huhne, for carrying out a survey regarding possible boundary changes being proposed for his own constituency. Or how about the case of the former Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, who charged the taxpayer £6,000 for hotel accommodation in London, even though he owned a flat in Pimlico at the time. And how could anyone of us forget that while we're all struggling to pay for our basic utility bills, but the likes of Maria Miller and dozens of other MP's are claiming their gas, electric and water from the public purse, leaving us to not only pay our own, but theirs as well.
And for anyone naive enough to still believe that our MP's are irreplaceable, or vital to our nation's democratic process, then please consider this. Out of the worst thirty worst performing MP's in terms of participating in House of Commons votes, some twenty four were elected under the Labour banner, five under the Conservative and one under the Liberal Democrat banner. Now, although it may well be the case that not every Commons vote is vital to the interests of their own individual constituencies, are these awful voting figures perhaps indicative of the particular MP's wider approach to the Parliamentary system as a whole, in other words, are they actually earning any part of their £66,000 salary, or their possible £137,000 expenses, after all, who would possibly know, or more importantly, choose to find out?
During the 17th century and following the death of King Charles I, Oliver Cromwell was said to have stood up in Parliament and said to the assembled members "You are no Parliament. I say you are no Parliament; begone and give your place to honester men" an historic sentiment that might find traction today, given the state of our national legislature. Of course, Cromwell was known to have had the support of the New Model Army at the time of his dissolution of that particular Parliament and was able to enforce his demand through the use of forty well armed musketeers, who swiftly cleared the disreputable chamber. Now wouldn't that be a sight to be seen in our modern country, a forced clearout of the dire, the damned and the disreputable; and especially those rascals and reprobates who have somehow managed to find sanctuary in our nation's democratically elected chambers.