Wednesday, 28 October 2009

A sense of proportion on MPs' expenses

The leaked version of Sir Christopher Kelly's proposals for MPs' expenses suggests a degree of compromise, but also a wish to feed the media rather than develop a rational approach to the issues.

As I have argued here before, it is right that MPs should receive money for rent or modest hotel rooms rather than mortgage subsidies: there is no justification for MPs using their living expenses to build a property empire. I still think the Parliamentary authorities should buy up some apartment blocks near Westminster, so it makes money on the deal. That way, it could provide services like dry cleaning or house cleaning on a contractual basis, making money on the flats and saving money on the services.

But on two other issues, I am less convinced. The new 60 minute commute rule is fine if it is fairly enforced. But as someone who travels from home near Bath to London a few times a month, I would never allow less than 2h 30 to reach a meeting in the centre of the city, even though Bath is a 1h 20 commute. When I lived in Mitcham in South London, using the dreadful Northern Line and walking to and from the tube stations often took 1h 15. So the debate about a 60 minute commute will be fun. Far better to set the boundaries as those of the London Underground or overground lines in Greater London. And for late sittings, the option of an overnight hotel stay must remain. Indeed, if MPs are still to be allowed to travel first class, it is often cheaper to stay over than travel to and from London (from Bath it is even true with an open 2nd class!).

And on the employment of spouses, Sir Christopher is plain wrong. A husband or wife who works for an MP is likely to be able to balance constituency and London duties far more effectively than a secretary who is wholly London or constituency-based. Those I know are harder workers and often have far more useful experience. Of course, they should have the right skills and experience, and be audited to ensure they work the hours (I suspect many work twice the hours they should). But a blanket ban on spouses shows no understanding of the nature of the MP's working life. It should be dropped.

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