New parliamentary expenses wheeze: three of our region’s MPs cashing in

Meme by the author

After the MP expenses scandal in 2009, anybody could be forgiven for expecting the bad old days of MPs making specious claims on the public purse to be over. Back then, voters were furious that MPs who had inflicted austerity on them in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis were claiming the costs of building a duck house, heating their stables or cleaning out their moat, to name but a few ‘egregious’ examples. Sadie Parker argues that this time, it’s worse…

Many MPs had to pay back expenses ‘claimed in error’. Some ended up in court. At the 2010 general election, over one-third of elected MPs from all parties either stood down or were thrown out by the electorate. New rules and processes for expenses were put in place. It was supposed to be a fresh start.

Now here we are, only a dozen years later, suffering the consequences of the twin misfortunes of the Covid-19 pandemic and a badly-botched Brexit, and we discover that our MPs are mocking us again. MPs have syphoned off taxpayers’ money in corrupt contracts, they are lobbying for firms and organisations with whom they have second jobs, and exploiting weaknesses in the expenses policy.

Whereas before the ‘both sides argument’ was valid 12 years ago, it is not this time. The dodgy public health contracts awarded at above market price without competition to ministers’ mates and party donors during the pandemic, robbing British taxpayers of billions of pounds, are exclusive to the Tories. While a handful of Labour MPs do have second jobs, they tend to be as doctors, educators or policy experts. It is ‘consultancy’ and ‘advisory’ roles that seem to be open to the sort of abuse of which Owen Paterson was found guilty. Only three Labour MPs have jobs in consultancy, compared to 90 Tory MPs.

Paul de Laire Staines, the disreputable far-right journalist behind the ‘Guido Fawkes’ political gossip website, has tried to argue that Keir Starmer earning £26,000 a year as a human rights barrister in the first four years that he was an MP is somehow equivalent to Geoffrey Cox earning over £1 million per year advising tax havens. However, Keir Starmer gave up his licence to practice law in 2019 when Labour brought in a new policy regulating and limiting second jobs.

When it comes to exploiting weaknesses in the expenses policy, once again it is Tories who lead the way. Take, for example, the wheeze of renting out a home that an MP owns in London, and then renting another London property to stay in themselves – paid for by the taxpayer. Although this is technically not against the letter of the rules, it is most definitely against the spirit. While seeking to provide MPs with accommodation to do their job, the rules are designed to try to prevent them benefitting unfairly at the public’s expense.

Of the 17 MPs found to be taking advantage of this wrinkle, 15 are Tories, and of those 15 Tory MPs, three of them are from here in the south west. MPs only have to declare property worth more than £100,000 and/or properties that give rental income of £10,000 or more a year. Here is what we know about the arrangements of the three South West MPs caught up in the so-called ‘Landlord MP’ row.

  • Sir Geoffrey Cox, MP for Torridge and West Devon, claims £1,900 a month from the taxpayer for accommodation while renting out his own London Property for £1,000 a week, which is located closer to Westminster.
  • Liam Fox, MP for North Somerset, has declared one property in the SE1 area of London worth over £100,000 and on which he earns £10,000 or more in rent. He charges the taxpayer £2,166.66 a month for rent for himself.
  • Anne-Marie Morris, MP for Newton Abbott, charges the taxpayer £1,917.50 a month for accommodation. She has declared two properties valued at more than £100,000 each, one in London and the other in Surrey, both yielding £10,000 or more in year rent.

The landlord MP wheeze is not new. Both Liam Fox and Anne Marie Morris have had to answer to the Standards Commissioner in the past. Here’s the thing: they carried on doing it. MPs claim that the changes made in 2010 by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), the expenses watchdog, left MPs who had bought properties in London to live in while attending parliament having to subsidise the cost of that accommodation. To stop MPs from making capital gains on taxpayer funded properties, the new rules only allowed MPs to claim for ‘rental payments and associated costs’.

These arguments, which bear more than a passing whiff of greed, are unlikely to impress constituents. On top of these extravagant sums, MPs can claim for utilities, internet and telephone costs. To be clear, this is all additional to their £81,932 annual salary. The vast majority of constituents live on a fraction of this amount — 95 per cent of the population earns less than £81,932 per year — so it must be galling to hear MPs whingeing that this is not enough to keep them in the manner to which they feel entitled.

In one of the Tory MP WhatsApp groups with 250 members, Nadine Dorries, MP for Mid-Bedfordshire and possibly the worst Culture Secretary this country has ever been cursed with, chided a junior minister who complained about two weeks of devastating press coverage on Tory corruption. She reminded him that those who lived through the expenses scandal of 2009, had five solid weeks of torrid headlines. According to Dorries, The Telegraph (which led with the story) would contact a few MPs at noon, give them five hours to comment and then publish. In a further twist of irony, scrutiny-shy Geoffrey Cox advised the government of the British Virgin Islands against maintaining an open register of MPs interests for this very reason.

The PM and his MPs have tried to pretend that voters are not interested in squalid stories of Tory corruption. Clearly, if he truly believed that, he would not have thrown Geoffrey Cox to the press wolves, to try to shift the spot-light away from Owen Paterson’s rule-busting lobbying and his own repeated breaches of the ministerial code. The polls disagree, with a Savanta ComRes poll showing the Tories dropping 6 points below Labour in a survey commissioned by the Daily Mail.

Arguably, trying to smear the Standards Commissioner and blow up parliamentary arrangements for holding MPs accountable to the rules, just to get Owen Paterson off, is even worse than what happened in 2009. For one thing, had it succeeded, it would have weakened those processes and paved the way for even greater exploitation in the future.

We cannot let MPs get away with this. Keep writing to them, petitioning to get standards tightened up and protesting. Let them know that their money-making schemes and sense of entitlement are not acceptable, especially when their botched Brexit is hitting the economy. How dare MPs from the party of government complain they don’t earn enough when those who can least afford it are now confronted with higher costs for their weekly shop, energy price-hikes and a cut of £20 per week in Universal Credit support — thanks to them?