Thursday, 28 May 2009

All the analysis you need

However many trees have been felled to bring you in-depth coverage of the expenses scandal, it's hard to beat the succinct analysis of ITN's political editor.

Tom Bradby's conclusion, as written in Total Politics magazine?

"A small minority of MPs has been completely and utterly taking the p***." [my asterisks]

It probably works better in print. Somehow I can't hear Tom saying it on air, before adding "and now back to you in the studio, Trevor".

Wrong place, wrong time

In journalism, as in the Manchester United penalty area, there's no substitute for being in the right place at the right time.

As the Commons Speaker fell on his sword for the first time in more than 300 years, I was more than 5,000 miles from Westminster, filming in South Africa.

I'd left these shores with the naive belief that the Chancellor was one person who would know how to fill in a tax return. Not for the first time this month, conventional assumptions have been challenged.

I returned to discover my taxes had been spent on duck islands, staff quarters, Farrow & Ball wallpaper, childcare for a Minister's staff and enough large screen TVs to keep several windfarms ticking over.

There was also a further shift in the political mood, with even those MPs who believed the media were setting themselves up as arbiters of morality now apologising for their role in a discredited system.

Julie Kirkbride is still hanging on as MP for Bromsgrove despite today's Telegraph headlines.

When politicians take to the airwaves to use "my little boy" as a justification for their use of public funds, you know they're in trouble. You wouldn't put your mortgage, taxpayer-funded or otherwise, on her survival hopes.

I returned in time to read Elfyn Llwyd's transparent explanation of his own expenses in yesterday's Daily Post.

Mr Llwyd stressed his frugality by telling the paper: "I live south of the river".

Those of us who find ourselves in the same geographically challenged situation look forward to the sympathy of MPs and perhaps the odd food parcel sent with a Meirionnydd postmark.

UPDATE: Julie Kirkbride has announced that she is standing down at the next election, as will the Labour MP Margaret Moran.

Friday, 15 May 2009

A moat point

One of the more creative responses to the expenses crisis is the idea from the Monmouth Conservative MP David Davies that an independent panel of individuals "above reproach" should vet his expenses.

Mr Davies suggested to a colleague of mine that I might be a suitable person to join the panel, even though I'm not a constituent.

I was briefly tempted by the prospect of rifling through an MP's receipts every now and again. I can well understand that the idea of a journalist vetting expenses may amuse some politicians.

Alas, I fear I shall have to decline - and not for the reason that he might seek reciprocal rights to check my own (rather modest) expenses.

I am, however, prepared to inspect Mr Davies's moat should he ever try to claim expenses for one.

I am filming away from Westminster for the next week, so blogging may be light to non-existent. I suspect one fewer hack around the place may cheer up MPs feeling (understandably) a bit down in the current atmosphere even if it reduces the opportunity for shooting the messenger.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Secret Santa revealed

The identity of the MP who allegedly claimed 59 pence on expenses for a chocolate Santa has been revealed by the Telegraph.

Sian James is not very happy with the Telegraph. She tells me it wasn't a Santa. It was a packet of chocolate coins for her nephew.

It appeared on a supermarket receipt submitted under the rules alongside other items legitimately claimed but was neither claimed for nor paid.

It may appear on the unredacted receipts obtained by the Telegraph but won't appear on the redacted ones to be published next week.

The Swansea One is innocent.

Bloodied but unbowed

This is the latest MP to be caught up in the expenses scandal, possibly bearing the scars of a painful encounter with the Conservative leadership after reading today's Telegraph.
Stephen Crabb is widely seen as a Tory high-flier, a rising star, and an assiduous constituency MP. His website tells how he and his family returned to settle in Pembrokeshire before the last general election.
Except we now know that his main home for some time was a rented property in London, not the home where Mrs Crabb and their children live outside Haverfordwest.
The Pembrokeshire house was officially Mr Crabb's second home, hence he was able to claim on his expenses £9,300 for the stamp duty paid in its purchase. The taxpayer paid for the interest on the mortgage he has on this home.
This is, of course, entirely within the rules, and Mr Crabb denies there was any financial motive behind his re-designation of his second home. Like Jacqui Smith and Hazel Blears, his second home has varied between his constituency and London. It is now his London flat once more.
All perfectly within the rules, although the Conservatives' new scrutiny panel may have the final say on this.
Mr Crabb issued a statement late last night in his defence:
"Every decision I have made about accommodation as Member of Parliament has been made with the explicit guidance of the Fees Office. Indeed, the switch of my designated second home from London to the constituency in October 2007 was actually suggested to me by an official in the Fees Office.
"At the time I was not just using a room in a flat rented by another MP in Westminster, as implied in the Daily Telegraph article, I was actually the joint-tenant on a fully commercial basis and shared all costs of the property.

"I reject the allegation of ‘flipping’ my London property to make a profit as a result of taxpayer-funded refurbishments. The flat I sold in August 2007 in South East London was bought by me in 1997.
"During the 12 months that I claimed Additional Costs Allowance against this property I, along with all the freeholders on the estate, paid for obligatory external paintwork to be done and
I also claimed for five new windows following a burglary at the flat.
"The cost of this work was approximately £3,000. I am advised that this capital work did not materially affect the sale value of the property.

"Over the last four years juggling family life in two locations 250 miles apart has been extremely difficult. It has not been easy achieving settled arrangements but at no stage have I sought to change addresses for capital gain or to avoid capital gains tax.

"I stopped claiming ACA against the constituency property in summer 2008 after we had started renovating it as I did not consider it appropriate to enhance a property for which the taxpayer paid the mortgage interest.
"No renovation work on this property was charged to my ACA. I have referred all my accommodation arrangements over the last four years to the new Scrutiny Panel for independent advice on the claims I have made."

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Lembit on TV (again)

Lembit Opik is better known for appearing as a celebrity on TV rather than watching it.

But details of expense claims published by the Daily Telegraph today reveal he is also a fan of the gogglebox.

The Montgomeryshire MP (and star of numerous reality shows) tried to claim £2,499 for a 42-inch plasma television.

The claim was turned down - proof, says Mr Opik, that the system works.

He was re-imbursed £40 for a legal summons for non-payment of his council tax on his second home in south London.

The former Welsh Lib Dem leader says he's willing to pay back the claim.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Pedigree chump?

Meet Curby, the Lhasa Apso. If he looks well fed, thank you. You apparently paid for his grub.

Curby's owner, shadow Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan, claimed £4.47 for dog food as part of her parliamentary expenses. She's now willing to pay the money back.

Her leader, David Cameron, has acknowledged that tomorrow will be a bad day for the Conservative Party: “We have to start by saying that the system we had and used was wrong and that we are sorry about that.”

Curby, alas, is no longer with us, having left for that great kennel in the sky.

MPs in hot water

If I had a pound for every time I've heard the phrase "it's all within the rules" then I'd probably be able to buy myself a decent TV with enough left over for a tin opener and a few light bulbs.

The Telegraph newspapers have given MPs an uncomfortable time during the last 72 hours, and there is more to come.

The focus so far has largely been on Labour Ministers. Paul Murphy's plumbing arrangements and Kevin Brennan's (second) home entertainment have made headlines.

Paul Murphy is widely-regarded as an honest self-effacing politician, about as likely to enrich himself at public expense as he is to seek a high profile.

He may prefer to get on with the job privately but a publicity-shy approach can bring its own problems. Will voters remember him for his role in the political process in Northern Ireland and Wales or as the man who billed the taxpayer for a £6 tin opener and £1.98 worth of lightbulbs?

Most voters understand that MPs do work in two places, even if the rules are so lax you can claim for a home that is neither in your constituency nor London. Most voters don't understand how MPs can apparently maximise their expenses by "flipping" their choice of first and second home.

Funnily enough, I suspect some voters will resent more the small claims (one MP was re-imbursed 5p for a carrier bag, Jacqui Smith's bathplug cost 88p) than the bigger amounts for accommodation.

The Welsh Assembly's presiding officer, Dafydd Elis-Thomas, whose overnight "subsistence" in the House of Lords last year totalled £497 for the 27 days he attended, told the BBC: "I just don't know what they thought they were doing, and that they thought they could ever get away with it."

Perhaps the regime was tighter during Lord Elis-Thomas's 18 years as an MP, all before the Fredom of Information Act.

My colleague Felicity Evans did point out that Assembly Members have had the odd problem with expenses involving iPods, trouser presses etc. (I think it was an AM who first claimed for a Remembrance Day wreath, a habit that has caught on with one Tory MP).

Lord Elis-Thomas pointed out that the claims were of a slightly smaller scale - and backed by receipts.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Sticky moment for Boris

An anecdote from the retiring Martyn Jones about his battle with Boris Johnson for the Clwyd South seat in 1997.

"Boris went to the Chirk car boot sale with one or two supporters and it just happened to be the same day as I went with about 20 supporters.

"He was walking about by himself and so we went over to say hello and we all patted him on the back - he didn't realise we were sticking Labour stickers on his back until afterwards - those little fun things that we do."

Anyone know what happened to Boris?

Some people, cynically, wondered if there is a link between the timing of Mr Jones's announcement and the imminent publication of details of MPs' expense claims.

He told us: "I have claimed on receipts ever since i got here. Would you believe i have subsidised my office costs , probably not but it's true. ... last month I had £342 left in my second home allowance to pay a rent bill alone that was £1745.40 - it is not adequate. ... the job is in two places and so we need another home."

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Hanging up his bow tie?

His is one of the most distinctive bow ties seen at Westminster since the era of Robin Day.

But the word is that Martyn Jones's neckwear of choice is unlikely to be seen in the Commons after the next general election.

After 22 years as MP for Clwyd South, Mr Jones, who is 62, has apparently decided to call it a day. Expect an official announcement within the next 24 hours.

Besides his unusual taste in ties, he'll be remembered for his eight years as chairman of the Welsh affairs select committee, his campaigning on dormant accounts and Wrexham Lager.

Happy anniversary

It's a week of anniversaries, as you may have noticed, although the chances are you won't have spotted one political silver jubilee.

It's 25 years this week since the unlikely triumvirate of Ann Clwyd, Bill Cash and Virginia Bottomley arrived in the House of Commons via by-elections in the Cynon Valley, Staffordshire and Surrey.

"We have not had a celebratory drink together," confessed Ms Clwyd.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

The Lawnmower Woman

I'm occasionally a bit slow on the uptake, so I missed this gem of a contribution from questions to the First Minister in the Welsh Assembly.

Eleanor Burnham, for it is she, chose to raise widespread concerns about traffic delays on major roads (caused by work to cut the mid-carriageway grass) in her own inimitable way:

"If there is to be any cutting of grass, can it not be done at night? Could the grass not be concreted over, so that there is no need for grass-cutting?"

Perhaps Eleanor is ahead of her time. It would certainly solve problems with the pitch at Wembley.

The idea has yet to become official Lib Dem policy, but you'll remember where you first heard it if and when it does.

All roads lead to Cardiff

Tonight sees the launch of the London branch of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, the brainchild of Lord Roberts of Llandudno.

I haven't seen the agenda but there's a rumour that item one may be education on devolution.

There's certainly scope for improvement, if this written exchange from the House of Lords is anything to go by:

Roads: A470
Asked by Lord Roberts of Llandudno

To ask Her Majesty's Government what proposals they have to upgrade the A470 road.

Lord Davies of Oldham: The responsibility for trunk roads in Wales is devolved to the Welsh Assembly Government.

Friday, 1 May 2009

When you're in a hole....

One surreal week. Having managed to lose a vote on an opposition day debate (the first time a Government has managed that in 30 years) it was perhaps no surprise that Ministers ducked a confrontation on the issue of MPs' second homes.

It was a week, more than any other, when Gordon Brown was compared to John Major, with memories of Norman Lamont's "in office, but not in power" jibe stirred up by the self-inflicted wounds suffered by the current Prime Minister.

It would not be a total shock to discover Gordon Brown tucks his shirt into his underpants. The moment when the Speaker called the PM to make a statement, only for Mr Brown to try to leave the chamber, will be replayed as often on YouTube as last week's statement on expenses delivered to camera with occasional smiles.

The PM may hail the biggest changes to parliamentary expenses in 25 years, but that will count for nothing if some of the receipts to be issued in July are as incriminating as some MPs fear. The most controversial issue - the way MPs are compensated for having to live and work in two places - has not gone away.

Out in the real world, where voters are worried about swine flu and making ends meet, this week's economic news was not universally bleak, with mixed news about house prices and jobs.

It was pretty bleak if you're one of those being made redundant by JCB in Wrexham. Today's FT points out that the company's boss had called for wage subsidies but rejected direct help from the Welsh Assembly Government.

JCB say it couldn't make the WAG scheme work for them. No news yet on whether the company's latest cuts will make it unable to continue to provide helicopter and private plane travel for David Cameron.

One JCB employee appears to have survived the cull. Shadow Foreign Secretary (and former Secretary of State for Wales) William Hague is paid between £45,000-£50,000 as its parliamentary adviser, according to the Commons Register of Members' Interests.

Thanks to last night's Commons votes, we'll soon know precisely how much Mr Hague earns from JCB and what he does for it.

But when it comes to parliamentary advice you don't need a JCB driving licence to know that when you're in a hole, stop digging.

Today's newspapers report yet more disquiet among past and present Ministers about Gordon Brown's leadership.

But on current form, were Mr Brown to be handed the traditional whisky and pearl-handled revolver the only certain outcome would be a bullet in the metatarsal.