29 October 2020

Money-grubbing: why MPs should still get ‘subsidised’ food

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“Let them eat tripe,” commented one Twitter wag on enthusiastically signing a petition to stop MPs benefitting from ‘subsidised’ food. Almost a million people have joined in, pointing to the apparent hypocrisy of MPs dining out on the public purse while denying free school meals to poor children.

Petitions like this are a sad reflection on the state of our politics – petty and vengeful gestures that do nothing at all to help hungry kids. Demanding our leaders experience the same depredations as those in poverty may satisfy a peculiarly British urge to see powerful people brought down a peg or two; as public policy it’s pretty useless.

But let’s take this petition at face value for a moment and treat it as a serious proposal – how does it stack up?

It is true that MPs can claim up to £25 a night for food, but not alcohol, if they are travelling away from Westminster and their constituency – many of us who have travelled for work will recognise this is fairly standard stuff. In any case, most MPs don’t claim for food because it’s just too embarrassing.

The Independent Parliamentary Standard Authority publishes excruciatingly exact details of MPs expenses, and newspapers are very quick to pounce on any supposedly spurious claim. I had a quick check of my own MP (Harriet Harman), the MP for Westminster (Nickie Aiken) and Marcus Rashford’s MP at Manchester United (Kate Green), none of whom have claimed a penny for food this year. Parliament’s most expensive MP in 2019/20 was Ian Blackford (largely travel expenses to and from Scotland); he did claim £23.95 for ‘subsistence’ which can reasonably be assumed to include food – but that was on behalf of a member of staff.

Turning to the ‘subsidised’ meals MPs enjoy in Parliament: one-click crusaders may imagine that parliamentarians sit around in oak panelled rooms with their snouts in the taxpayer trough – but the reality is much more mundane. The catering outlets of the House of Commons do run at an overall loss, but that is because of staff costs.

Some of the venues on the parliamentary estate make a profit; others don’t because they are open at unusual times due to the nature of parliamentary business. Either way the catering staff still need to be paid.

Bear in mind too that the total costs of catering for the House of Commons has come down from £6 million in 2011/12 to £2.6 million in 2018/19, even as staff costs have gone up. Anyone who’s eaten in the Commons can tell you it’s certainly good value, but the House authorities say they benchmark prices against ‘appropriate external comparators’. The so-called ‘subsidy’ on parliamentary food is, in fact, the wages of catering staff who work long hours supporting the smooth running of our democracy.

Perhaps petition signers would prefer House of Commons catering to be run like a business, with revenue paying staff wages. In order to break even, they would have to charge each MP £4,000 extra a year for food – it doesn’t take Adam Smith to tell you MPs would simply eat elsewhere and the staff would be out of a job. More likely prices would have to go up for the 14,500 other passholders who also use these canteens. And it’s difficult to understand how treating Westminster’s staff differently to those who work in NHS hospitals helps anyone.

So realistically – if 1 million people got their wish and this petition were somehow turned into legislation – it would save little money for the taxpayer, punish MPs who voted in favour of Marcus Rashford’s campaign along with those who didn’t, and have consequences for everyone else who happens to work in the Palace of Westminster.

The vast majority of the people who eat on the Parliamentary estate are not particularly well paid. They include cleaners, security guards, policemen, civil servants and the catering staff themselves. Petition signers may like to think that Parliament is some kind of Babylon, but it’s actually a pretty grim place to work. The relatively cheap food is one of the few good things about it.

The building itself is crumbling, it’s infested with mice and liable to burn down or be attacked by terrorists at any moment. It’s desperately close to falling down but much-needed repairs keep getting delayed because MPs worry about the optics of spending £billions on their home turf.

It’s a perfect symbol for how political culture is sliding into the Thames, dragged under by the weight of lazy online opinion. Pointless petitions that play into the idea that everyone in politics is in it for themselves ignore the fact that public service involves sacrifice – and not just from those who are elected. Faced with a public who would rather they ‘eat tripe’, fewer people will be willing to make that sacrifice – and we’ll all be worse off as a result.

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Alys Denby is Deputy Editor of CapX.