Lib Dem MPs' expenses – in the cool light of day

by Stephen Tall on May 13, 2009

As I surveyed the first wave of coverage of the Telegraph’s focus on Lib Dem MPs’ expenses last night, my initial reaction was captured by the headline: “it could’ve been worse (and might still be)”. That’s still my feeling.

So far as I can work out, ten eleven Lib Dem MPs have been identified by the Telegraph as having expenses claims to answer. Yesterday evening, there was talk of a dozen, so either the figure was exaggerated and we’ve seen all there is to see, or else they’re holding back a couple of the worst for a follow-up tomorrow. Alix has already gone through the list, grading the degree of questionability in each case (qualified here in the case of Andrew George).

From what I can make out, the abuses fall into three principal categories:

  • (1) wrong claims for relatively small amounts of money which will now be repaid to the taxpayer (eg, Chris Huhne’s £119 trouser-press, Nick Clegg’s personal, international calls); and
  • (2) ‘grey area’ claims for larger sums which are partially/wholly defensible, depending on how charitable you’re feeling (eg, Ming Campbell’s £10k studio flat refurbishment – given Ming rents his flat, therefore there is little personal gain, I’m inclined to view this pretty leniently. Though there are, I see, active LDV discussions on the reasonable price to pay for a cushion – perhaps I’m inexcusably bourgeois, but I don’t find £176 for five cushions a scandalous sum).
  • And the third category:

  • (3) when the Telegraph is quite simply wrong and unfair. For me, Andrew George’s claims for his flat in London where his daughter sometimes lives fall into this category – and Alix has already printed in full Andrew’s explanation, which seems convincing to me. As for the newspaper’s laughably poor attempt to smear Alan Reid, both Andrew Reeves over at his own blog and Alix at LDV have already shown this up for the desperate story it is.
  • Lib Dem HQ is mounting a staunch defence of many of those MPs named – the party’s policy and communications director, Chris Fox, emailed me this morning to detail the rebuttal from some of those named, and this is reprinted below. He also wanted to remind us of what Nick Clegg has said on the issue of MPs’ second homes:

    MPs must no longer be able to make capital gains funded by the taxpayer. Any gain in the value of an MP’s second home funded by the tax payer must go back to the taxpayers, not to the MP. From now on we should replace the second home allowance with a simple payment to cover actual expenditure on rent or mortgage interest and basic bills only. No claims should be permitted for furniture, redecoration, carpets, moats, swimming pools or anything else. These changes together would put a stop MPs from speculating on the property market using taxpayers’ money and making huge profits.”

    Here is what five of the eleven MPs named are saying in response to the Telegraph allegations:

    Nick Clegg:
    Claiming for phone calls abroad was a mistake and the money is being repaid. Nick’s constituency home had no work done since the mid-1970s. When Nick bought it 20 years later it wasn’t up to basic standards and needed renovating and redecorating. He first published those claims last year. Nick has already pledged publicly that he will hand back the value of the prioperty in full when he sells it so all invesment will be more than fully repaid to raxpayers.

    Andrew George:
    As a Cornish MP he needs accommodation in London. His daughter is a student in London and sometimes visits and stays with him. It is not her main base in London.His furnishings were placed in storage prior to completion of contracts. When the purchase collapsed, his furnishings remained in storage. They are now all in the flat he finally acquired.

    Julia Goldsworthy:
    She moved flat because her existing property was shared with her sister and her sister was getting married. The costs for which she sought reimbursement for were explicitly related to that move. The property was unfurnished and so purchased furnishings to ensure it could be purchased close to the completion date. She did not claim the full costs of all items and there were other items for which no claim at all was submitted.

    Alan Reid:
    There is a fundamental lack of understanding of the geography of his constituency on the part of the Telegraph and the Department for Resources. On occasion it is impractical for him to travel home at night, even within his constituency, due to a lack of ferries and seasonal weather can make even road access impossible in parts. The Fees Office (as was) often rejected claims which he subsequently successfully challenged after explaining the unique nature of his constituency.

    Steve Webb:
    Steve has already said publicly on his blog that when he ceases to be an MP and sells the flat that he will pay that £30,000 (and any other net capital gain) to the taxpayer. He will not take a penny in profit – indeed, the taxpayer will make a substantial net gain that dwarfs the cost of moving.