"An extremely capable person who operates e-mail and who uses a mobile phone" was how ex-Work and Pensions Secretary Peter Hain recently described his 80-year-old mother, to whom he pays £5,400 a year of public money for "secretarial assistance", including writing his Christmas cards, according to The Times.
This admission came hard on the heels of the news that Derek Conway, the Conservative MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup, had paid nearly £400,000 of taxpayers' money to his wife and two sons, one of whom, Freddie, conceded under cross-examination that he knew no-one at Westminster, had never met his father's secretary for whom he supposedly "filleted post and stuffed envelopes" and had no recollection of why he had received £10,000 bonuses from his father.
Once again it seems politicians are plundering the public purse to feather their own nests. It's not hard to see why Conway's expense claims resulted in a penalty of just £13,161 and a ten-day Commons suspension. "Hasn't Derek suffered enough?" asked Speaker Michael Martin. Not as much as the UK taxpayer. Even the Commons Clerk, who oversees MPs' expenses, enjoyed a £39,000 kitchen refit at our expense, says The Times part of a £100,000 refurbishment of a grace-and-favour house at 3 Parliament Street.
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Under current rules, the basic MP's salary of £60,675 can be supplemented with up to £135,850 in expenses. This includes the "necessary costs incurred" allowance of £23,000, often used to pay mortgage interest on second homes. Then there is the 40p a mile allowance for journeys, and a sundry expense allowance that does not require a receipt for items below £250. Three trips a year to European cities are also up for grabs, as is parking in Westminster worth £26 a day.
Of course, the job often requires extensive travel, as well as a great deal of administration. But the fact that nearly a quarter of the Commons employs at least one family member on their payroll (95 Labour MPs, about 70 Conservatives and 12 Liberal Democrats, according to their own parties), coupled with the Conway debacle, has led the Daily Mail to ask: "Where will this end?"
The short answer seems to be with an Inland Revenue investigation into how MPs treat expenses for tax purposes, following allegations from Conway, among others, that family members are often registered under different names to avoid detection. Party leaders have also been competing to seize the initiative within hours of David Cameron's announcement that all frontbenchers will have to reveal how many staff they employ, what they are called and what "salary band" relatives fall into, Gordon Brown replied that similar rules would apply to all Labour MPs. This would widen the lax Freedom of Information Act, which requires details of expenses to be published only annually under very broad category headings.
But after Tory MP Ben Wallace voluntarily revealed how easily he spends more than £152,000, there have been calls for bigger changes. One deterrent would be spot audits but it is unclear what punishment awaits those caught out. Lord Tebbit thinks reforms should go further and "drastically cut back the amount of money made available to MPs" to a figure of £60,000-£70,000. "Not one of the past greats not Gladstone, Churchill, nor Attlee needed a single research assistant," let alone the small army that many MPs employ today.
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