Expense claims rise but MPs insist they offer good value for money
- Credit: PA
In the first of a series investigating the expenses and allowances claimed by public representatives, political editor Annabelle Dickson looks through five years of the region's MPs' expenses.
MPs today insisted they remained good value for money as the latest annual expenses price tag for the region's representatives edged up 1.2pc to £2.32m.
Claims for staff, office costs, travel and accommodation for the 14 MPs over the five years up to the 2015 election in May reached £9.5m, new figures show.
Meanwhile, six years after the expenses scandal led to an overhaul of the system, MPs in Norfolk, Suffolk and the Fens have increased their combined annual claims by 15.7pc in the four years since 2011/12.
For year-on-year comparisons we have used figures for the past four years, rather than five, due to a change in how staff costs were reported.
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Six of the region's MPs have seen their claims rise by 20pc or more in this period. Great Yarmouth MP Brandon Lewis, who claimed the most in expenses of the MPs analysed, said his high casework load and important lobbying work required a well-resourced and properly paid team of staff.
'These are the costs associated with being an MP,' he said, adding that it was necessary to provide the important service for constituents.
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Last year's rise in expenses costs by the region's MPs combined was slightly less than the national increase. Across the United Kingdom MPs spent a combined total of £105.9m in 2014/15 – a rise of 1.6pc. The totals do not include MPs' basic salary, which was set at £67,000 but recently rose to £74,000 per year.
The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) chief executive Marcial Boo said: 'As the regulator of the public funds that go to MPs, IPSA ensures that taxpayers' money is used transparently, and that MPs are appropriately resourced to carry out their parliamentary functions.'
North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb, whose total expenses increased 34pc from 2011/12 compared to the latest figures for the year to April 2015, said an office move and fluctuating staff numbers could have accounted for the rise. Mr Lamb employs three full time and three part-time staff.
He said: 'Those team members work incredibly hard to support the work I do for people in North Norfolk. Since the beginning of the year, we have opened over 4,000 new cases on behalf of local people and have dealt with almost 7,000 emails alone. I also pay all my staff – including interns – at least the Living Wage. I have never employed any family members.'
He said the increase since 2011 could also be accounted for by increased office costs after he had moved to more accessible and modern premises in 2012.
He added: 'The expenses that MPs claim to cover the cost of representing people in Parliament rightly come under intense scrutiny; the abuses of the old system identified in 2009 were indefensible.'
One of Norfolk's longest-serving MPs, Henry Bellingham, said expenses were now rigorously policed. 'It is not like the old days when there was an element of doubt about what you could and couldn't claim,' he said.
He warned that the bureaucracy of IPSA was costing the taxpayer a large amount of money, but said there needed to be proper transparency.
'I think under the old system there was a degree of secrecy about the whole thing. The amounts you were claiming were transparent and declared. The detailed claims remained confidential.'
But he warned that it had now gone to the 'opposite extreme' where MPs were being pilloried for buying five pence worth of paperclips or a pound's worth of stamps.
'There was a public clamouring for this situation to be stamped out,' he said.
During the five years the region's MPs claimed 29 items for £1 or under, most of which were for office equipment including staplers, pencil sharpeners and paper clips, which MPs said they brought as part of a bulk purchase, but were listed on expenses individually.
Central Suffolk and North Ipswich MP Dan Poulter claimed the most for travel of the MPs in the region, at just over £49,000.
He said expenses were common in many jobs. 'As a very active and dedicated local MP, with the largest and most rural constituency in our area of over 200 square miles, it is understandable that my travel costs are higher than those of MPs with smaller more urban constituencies,' he added.
South West Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss, who represents the geographically largest constituency in the country, claimed the second largest travel costs, amounting to £43,839.
Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman, who was also one of the bigger travel claimants, said his constituency was large, with its 115 villages and five towns, but he avoided taking taxis after late sittings which MPs are entitled to do, unless there was no other option.
Waveney MP Peter Aldous, who does not claim any travel costs between his Suffolk constituency and London, claimed just £1,209 for travel over the last five years.
South Norfolk MP Richard Bacon, who rents a flat from Westbrook Dolphin Square Residential, claimed the most for accommodation. He has a higher maximum budget for his accommodation claims because he has three dependants.
He said: 'It should come as no surprise that the total claims of different MPs will vary widely. This is because MPs are human beings who lead lives – in their constituencies and in Westminster – which vary widely. Some MPs are married. Many are divorced, due to the immense toll of the job on marriage. Some have children, while others don't. Some MPs are independently wealthy and choose not to make claims – some, or all, of the time – even though they could
do so. Others rely entirely their salary.'
Keith Simpson, who claimed the second biggest accommodation expenses, said: 'I have rented the same flat in London very close to Parliament since 2001 and the rent has increased over that period reflecting central London prices. I get into Parliament at 7am and usually leave about 9pm to 10pm.'
Cabinet minister Ms Truss, who does not claim for a hotel or rent because she owns her own home, was the lowest accommodation claimant. The system allows MPs to claim associated costs such as energy bills. Mr Bellingham, who also owns a home in London, also claimed far less than other MPs.
Mr Bellingham said he was subsidising his accommodation costs in London because he was not able to claim for his own home after MPs were banned from making mortgage payments amid historic abuse which saw MPs 'flip' houses.
He said: 'IPSA took a dim view of people claiming on mortgages so they phased that out. MPs shouldn't use taxpayers' money to play the London property market. I think the mischief was through the MPs who kept flipping their properties. They would claim a mortgage, they would then sell it and move on.'
But he warned it was having an impact on MPs' personal lives. 'It is hard on people who have families. I know the amount (IPSA) pay for rent looks very big when you are in King's Lynn or Norwich, but in London you can't get more than a two-bed flat for that amount of money.
'The big dilemma for a lot of the MPs, and for quite a few who came in under the new regime, was that if they wanted to relocate to London during the week it is very hard to do so if you have young children. What a lot of MPs do is keep their family in a constituency and that is not good for marriages.'
Many MPs criticised the 2009 expenses scandal, but said they had to claim in order to be able to do their work. North East Cambridgeshire Stephen Barclay claimed the most for office costs. He did not respond to our questions.
Norwich MP Chloe Smith, who claimed the second most for office costs, said: 'The types of cost are what you would find in any office: phone bills, postage, printing, stationery, rent and also sensible security. I keep all my expense costs under review all the time to try to get the cheapest deal. After the abuses of the past – which happened before I entered Parliament – taxpayers have a right to know how their money is spent. Expenses are necessary – without them, ordinary people could never be elected to the Commons.'
Suffolk Coastal MP Therese Coffey said of her claims: 'My expenses are publicly available on the IPSA website. Transparency is key and constituents can contact me directly if they have any queries.'
West Suffolk MP Matthew Hancock, who is also minister for Cabinet Office, saw his spend on staffing rise by almost a third from £102,000 in 2011/12 to nearly £136,000 last year. A spokesman for Mr Hancock said: 'All of Matthew's expenses have been declared in the right and proper manner.'
What can be claimed?
Gone are the duck houses, moats, new kitchens and mortgage payments.
The expenses scandal put an end to that and an independent body was set up to tighten up the rules, scrutinise and shine a light on what MPs were claiming.
It also put an end to the situation whereby MPs decided their own pay and pension arrangements.
The majority of MPs have to live and work in two places with parliament largely sitting from Monday to Thursday, and occasionally on a Friday. They also have duties in their constituencies when parliament is in recess, on non-sitting days and at weekends. MPs can claim for rent for a second home and its associated costs (depending on where their constituency is, but up to £22,750 each year for most of our MPs). Some opt to claim £150 a night for a London hotel. Those who have children under 21 who are studying are also able to claim a supplement of up to £2,425 for each one.
Up to 30 single journeys for family members between the constituency and Westminster can also be claimed. MPs outside London can claim up to £23,250 for their constituency office and up to £138,600 to employ staff. They can also claim for travel between their constituency and London, for journeys within the constituency boundaries and 20 miles beyond if it is for their parliamentary work. Taxis costing up to £80 are allowed if the House of Commons is sitting late or there is no other reasonable method of transport available, or it is not practical.
There is also a budget of £25 per night for food and non-alcoholic drinks when travelling outside London or their constituency for parliamentary work.
Investigations editor David Powles on why we are running The Price of Democracy
The 2009 expenses scandal thrust into the limelight some of the unacceptable ways some, but certainly not all, MPs were manipulating the expenses available to them for their own good.
Revelations of abuse by some MPs, including fraud, fake receipts, claims for ornamental duck houses and moat cleaning, did so much to damage the reputation of all those who served the public in such a way, not just those in the wrong.
Six years on, our Westminster representatives have, thankfully, worked hard to clean up their act.
But that doesn't make it any less important for the expenses and allowances received by our public servants to be placed under scrutiny.
And that's exactly what this week's The Price of Democracy series intends to do.
We will put the focus on MPs, the Lords, Euro MPs and local councillors so that you can make informed judgments on whether they provide good value for the public purse. And we'd love to receive your views on
our findings, which you can do by logging on to our website and taking part in our week-long reader survey, the results of which will be published in this paper next week.