Doughnuts, paper clips and door mats; MPs expenses claims are back in the news

Knowing what works in terms of tackling corruption is not easy.  In some places, it is straightforward enough to pinpoint what the problem is – a politician using an expenses regime for personal gain in order to, say, clean his moat or to renovate a duck house, for example – but finding a new set of processes to put that right can be surprisingly tricky.  Even now, five years after the MPs’ expenses episode originally hit the headlines in the UK, the story continues to run.  The Daily Mail (see here) ran a story on Saturday 25th January 2014 bemoaning not just the pettiness of claiming  30p for a jam doughnut (Rosie Cooper, Labour – for the record, I’d very much like to know where these 30p doughnuts are available, as that is an excellent price) , 4p for travel (Tristam Hunt, Labour), 7p for a paper clip (David Cameron, Conservative), 49p for a door mat (John Barrett, Lib Dem – are MPs now shopping at Poundland? That’s a super deal) and 19p for Blu-Tac (Pat McFadden, Labour).  The pettiness of some of these claims to one side, the Mail was also enraged as they (the MPs) simply “don’t seem to get it”.  What precisely they don’t “seem to get” remained tantalisingly unclear, as no effort whatsoever was put in to outlining what the perfect expenses regime would look like.  That, it seems, is not the Daily Mail’s job.  It’s much more straightforward to point out some of the quirks within the system, some of the grey areas and some of the more bizarre claims.  Ideas on how to put this right?  No suggestions forthcoming.

It is easy to see both why voters will be annoyed at seeing MPs claim money back on the most trivial of things and why the Mail (amongst others) refuses to outline how we might move this debate forward.  The ‘new’ post-2009 expenses regime, headed by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, is undoubtedly tighter and better regulated than the system that came before it, but making value judgements on what is and what is not an acceptable expense is actually very difficult.  MPs have long grumbled that IPSA is a bureaucratic nightmare, although few have dared say that in public.  IPSA’s challenge is to create a system that can be consistent, fair and flexible.  MPs have different needs (i.e. if your constituency is Newcastle upon Tyne Central then you should surely be entitled to claim more in travel costs than if you represent, for example, London-based Twickenham) and they face different challenges in their daily work patterns; the expenses system needs to reflect this and needs to be quick enough on its feet to recognise the difference between legitimate and illegitimate claims.   If anyone reading this blog thinks they have the answer, then IPSA will no doubt be very keen to hear from you.

On an altogether different note, the first week of the new term is always an exciting time for students on Sussex’s MA in Corruption and Governance.  Why?  The internship and project part of the course commences.  And, 2014 sees no less than 14 students involved in such things.  Hazel Stephens and Kim Castle began working this week with police officers in the UK’s International Proceeds of Corruption Unit at New Scotland Yard (see here for an example of how the IPCU works), whilst Sam Weatherill has joined up with the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Anti-Corruption in Westminster.  Michael Badham-Jones, Francisco Ortiz and Felicitas Nuehaus will be working alongside the Overseas Anti-Corruption Unit (OACU) in the Square Mile, and no less than two different groups of students will be doing projects in conjunction with Transparency International in Berlin.  Exciting times ahead!

Dan Hough

Director, Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption (SCSC)

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