25 November 2022

Why we should abolish MPs’ expenses – and pay them more instead


I’m not sure there has ever been an overwhelming spirit of national deference to our Members of Parliament. One has only to consider James Gillray’s cartoons from the 18th century to see that tearing strips off our politicians is nothing new.

Nonetheless, the 2009 expenses scandal was a body blow to parliamentary esteem. The problem then wasn’t so much that the rules were broken, but that they were absurdly lax. ‘My understanding is that I was acting within the rules’ was as familiar a refrain from politicians then as it was for lockdown parties 12 years later.

Under the expenses rules each item below £250 could be claimed without a receipt. £400 could be claimed for food each month (without receipts required). Main homes and second homes could be redesignated. or ‘flipped’, to allow renovation works on one to be claimed and then renovation works on the other. Even the cost of Stamp Duty could be claimed back. 

These rules have since been tightened and – most importantly – there is now transparency over claims. But the affair still casts a shadow over the reputations of MPs elected long after the the pages of The Daily Telegraph were filled with details of taxpayer-funded duck houses and moat cleaning.

This week it emerged that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority guidance is that claims will be allowed under MPs’ hospitality budgets for food and refreshments at Christmas parties for MPs staff. MPs are on a salary of £84,144 a year. Couldn’t they pay for the crisps and mince pies themselves as their festive gesture – rather than cadging off the taxpayer? 

As it happens I doubt many MPs will be foolish enough to put in any such claims, given the scrutiny they can expect to face. Yet their reputations will have suffered a blow nonetheless.

The way forward is to abolish MPs expenses. They should continue to have a staffing allowance – for secretaries, researchers and caseworkers. That is a different category. Currently, the total budget they have for that is £237,430 a year in London, which seems absurdly high. Surely three staff on £40,000 a year each is reasonable. Perhaps another £10,000 a year for paperclips, postage stamps and other assorted “office costs” – paid into a separate account which should be annually audited. But the actual expenses – the money the MP claims from us for their food, travel accommodation and so on should be abolished. MPs with constituencies outside Greater London should instead be paid an automatic allowance of £10,000. Also, the salary of all MPs should be increased to £105,000. 

Before you throw up your hands, bear in mind that these measures would actually reduce the cost of MPs. According to the Taxpayers Alliance, the average annual cost of an MP in 2020/21 was £203,880. That figure included staff costs but not the MP’s own salary. So that nudges up the annual cost to £288,024. Under my proposal that tally would fall to £245,000. 

But there would also be a bonus saving. Abolition of MPs expenses would also mean the abolition of IPSA – the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. Its operating costs are £8.9 million a year. That works out as another £14,000 for each MP just to administer the payments. That pushes the total bill up to £302,000 a year for each MP. My simplified scheme would cut that admin burden dramatically – a couple of extra staff on the parliamentary payroll department should do it. 

Who knows, perhaps the abolition of IPSA might even give MPs the inspiration to abolish some other Quangos with much larger budgets. 

It is a pity that the Boundary Commission proposes no reduction in the total number of MPs, which could have allowed a further scope for easing pressure on the taxpayer through less government, but that is another matter. 

I suppose some MPs might not welcome such a change. Even with higher salaries, they would end up with less money overall. But they wouldn’t have the tedium of putting in all those claims – or the angst of facing ignominy by putting in a demand for some ill-judged extravagance. MPs would spend less time on such vulgar fretting and more time ensuring we are wisely and justly governed. 

We are hearing about MPs planning to stand down depressed and demoralised – ground down by the abuse on social media and the low regard in which they are held. Abolishing their expenses might not seem like a supportive proposal. But while they might suffer slightly financially they would gain something more important: the respect of those they are seeking to serve.

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.