ON 3 APRIL, Andrew McDonald wrote a feature for the Guardian to mark his retirement that week as head of the parliamentary standards watchdog, Ipsa. “Whisper it softly, but the MPs’ expenses crisis is over,” he began. “Indeed, it has been over for some time.”
Shome mishtake! On the fifth anniversary of the Telegraph exposures, the scandal stubbornly refuses to die. But Ed Miliband’s attempt to exploit the Maria Miller affair for party advantage is sabotaged by the fact that it was his party which in 2010 nominated Kevin Barron MP as chairman of the standards and privileges committee – aka the double standards committee.
The committee certainly lived up to its nickname when it dismissed the independent parliamentary commissioner’s interpretation of the rules and her recommendation that Miller should repay £45,000 in wrongly claimed mortgage expenses. Led by Barron, the committee reduced the demand to £5,800. Never before has a commissioner’s report been so cuttingly repudiated.
Barron and his colleagues thus maintained their tradition of letting ministers off the hook, which began soon after the coalition formed when David Laws was given a gentle slap on the wrist for fiddling his expenses to the tune of £40,000. Contrast that with the treatment of Labour backbencher Denis MacShane, whom Barron referred to Inspector Knacker for improperly claiming £12,000. In January, a month after MacShane’s jailing, a grateful David Cameron gave Barron a knighthood.
Like Maria Miller, Barron has enriched himself from the taxpayers’ generosity with housing allowances. He began capitalising on the London property boom after 2001, when he sold his Pimlico flat and bought a much more expensive one in Westminster. He claimed up to £2,000 a month – about the same amount as Miller. Like her, Barron then sold it at a huge personal profit – £500,000 in his case. So far, the Labour MP has not been obliged to hand back any of that gain to the public purse, and he has no intention of doing so voluntarily. But if Miller had been forced to repay £45,000, as recommended by the commissioner, who else might be required to stump up?
Maxed up mortgages
It isn’t just the greedy Barron in the frame. A close read of Miller’s desperate efforts to justify the hefty taxpayer subsidy to her family wealth shows that she – or more likely the lawyer who advised her – dug out precedents of MPs who maxed up mortgages on properties they had bought at much lower prices or even owned outright. She cited George Osborne, who increased his mortgage way above the price of his constituency home, and Alan Duncan, who owned outright a property on which he then took out a big mortgage – both of them charging the interest to the taxpayer.
Miller also tried to justify her profiteering by pointing to Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper, as well as disgraced ex-MPs Andrew MacKay and Julie Kirkbride, another parliamentary husband and wife. Although they lived with their spouses, each of the four claimed housing allowances as if they were separate individuals.
There are plenty more where that came from. Until the scandal broke, the Commons fees office would pay up to £2,000 a month on the basis of a mortgage statement from an MP’s bank or building society, never asking for proof that the mortgage lent was actually used to pay for a property. If Sir Kevin and his committee had accepted the new commissioner’s recommendation that Miller pay back £48,000, it would have set a truly dreadful precedent for other profiteers who are now in the charmed circle of ministers and shadow ministers.
A solemn assurance
All the MPs who went to prison for much smaller sums were charged with “false accounting”. Miller, Barron, Osborne and others signed each claim form under a solemn assurance in bold print above their signature: “I confirm that I incurred these costs wholly, exclusively and necessarily to enable me to stay overnight away from my only or main home for the purpose of performing my duties as a Member of Parliament.” For some MPs, however, a more accurate version would have read: “I confirm I incurred these costs as a way of trousering as much loot as possible using the interest-only mortgage payments the Commons dished out without asking any questions. Trebles all round!”
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Shades of Grayling
ANOTHER precedent Maria Miller could have cited (but didn’t) is justice secretary Chris Grayling, whose record is long overdue for serious scrutiny.
After his election in 2001, he claimed mortgage payments on two properties – a house in Surrey near his commuter-belt Esher constituency, less than 17 miles from parliament, and a flat in London, where he already owned two other flats that were let out.
Claiming for two mortgages was against the Commons rules, but he told the fees office it was necessary because he couldn’t get a 100 percent mortgage on the new London flat. No one seems to have asked why he couldn’t just live in one of his other flats once the tenancy expired. Indeed, the double standards committee asked no questions at all, possibly because by the time his expenses were revealed in 2009 he was already shadow home secretary, and soon to be a minister.
New kitchen units
So nothing was done about the Telegraph’s disclosure of how Grayling tarted up his flat – increasing its resale value – and got the taxpayer to foot the bills. In May 2005 he claimed £4,250 for redecorating and £1,561 for a new bathroom. In June he claimed £1,341 for new kitchen units, and in July a further £1,527 for plumbing and £1,950 for rewiring the flat. This meant that in the 2005-06 financial year he had almost the maximum allowance.
In the next year, however, he continued to submit receipts for work carried out in the previous year. In July 2006, for example, he submitted a decorator’s bill of £2,250 for work done in July 2005, claiming that the decorator had only just submitted his invoice, a year late. Another reimbursement in the 2006-07 financial year – of £3,534 for service and maintenance – was paid by the fees office even though the invoice was marked “Tax point: 22 Feb 2006” and referred to costs incurred in 2005-06. Thus he was able to spread the costs of improving the flat over two years, whereas if he had submitted all the receipts in the 2005-06 financial year he would have exceeded his allowance by £4,700.
As justice secretary, Grayling is making a name by banning prisoners from being sent books. If his expenses claims are ever properly investigated, might he discover for himself what life is like inside? Perish the thought!