Friday, 13 August 2010

CLG expenses part II: It's not waste if MPs spend it, OK?

Down at Communities & Local Government, all the Tory ministers have been getting terribly excited about yesterday's publication of all the department's spending from the past few years. The token Lib-Dem at Eland House, Andrew Stunnel, has been conspicuosly quiet, presumably having realised that a hefty chunk of the Yellow Peril's core vote are public servants who don't take kindly to being told that they're an over-pampered drain on the hard-working taxpayers of Britain.

Grant Shapps was particularly animated,
tweeting away about the importance of exposing Labour waste and so forth (for example the £675 electricity bill for the Fire Service College - why do trainee firemen need electricity, damnit!). The grammatically challenged "Welwyn Hatfield energetic and re-elected MP" was classed as an "expenses saint" by the Telegraph, so unlike CLG colleague Bob Neill he should know a thing or two about not misusing public cash.

But, as Homer Simpson said, even communism works IN THEORY. In reality, Grant was busy troughing away with the best of them.

Despite proudly boasting that he's never owned a second home (something 99 per cent of the British population could also brag about if so minded), Grant
pocketed £2,134 of housing-related expenses in 2005/06 and £3,244 in 06/07.

"Hotel bills" he says, from those occasions where he had to stay late in the office and missed the last train back to sunny Hertfordshire. Fair enough, I suppose, though it's worth remembering that the Tories have been
gleefully complaining about civil servants wasting money by staying in hotels when away from home on business. However, in 2007/08 his accommodation bill more than doubled, rocketing up to a whopping £7,269.

So what happened in 2007? Did the cost of hotels double overnight? Did he suddenly start working harder for the people of Welwyn Hatfield? Did the Commons have twice as many late-night sessions as in the previous two years? Or has it got something to do with the fact that in June 2007 Grant Shapps became
shadow housing minister? Joining the shadow frontbench team would mean spending a lot more time in London on party business - there are meetings to go to, news programmes to appear on, fundraisers to attend, parties to 'network' at, Murdoch executives to fellate and so on.

But as we all know, the rules on MPs expenses are very clear that the taxpayer can only be expected to pay up for expenses
"wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred for the purpose of performing Parliamentary duties" - in other words, they have to have spent the money on working as an MP, not as a shadow minister. It seems a little bit too much of a coincidence that Shapps's hotel bills doubled in the year that he became a shadow minister.

If he was strapped for cash, perhaps he could have spent some of the money given to him by
estate agents, mortgage brokers and property developers (who of course have absolutely no interest in Grant's housing brief), something his transparency-loving office refused to comment on.

Between 2005 and 2008 Grant's overall expenses bill also rose steadily, climbing from £95,827 to £127,152, including an annual bill of just over
£5,500 for regular travel from his home to his office, because it would be totally unreasonable to expect a man who earns just £65,000 a year to pay for his own season ticket. This means that in 2007/08 he spent almost £13,000 of our money travelling to and from work and staying in hotels while out late - something "wasteful" civil servants have to pay for out of their salaries, which on average are just under £23,000.

So remember: if a Civil Servant stays in a hotel while doing their job, it's waste. If an MP stays in a hotel while on party political duties, it's a legitimate business expense.

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