What (some) MPs do when they aren’t claiming expenses

May 11, 2009 by
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The expenses saga is depressing and – in contributing to public antipathy to elected politicians – dangerous. Many if not most MPs clearly saw the expenses system as a backdoor way of compensating them for the demands of their job and the relative modesty of their salaries in comparison to other senior professionals or executives.

Morally, there is a distinction between those who used the system to get as much money as possible back on everyday expenditure (which is lazy or opportunistic but understandable), and those who appeared to have deliberately manipulated it to make a profit. But the latter is hard to prove and the distinction may anyway be lost in the tide of public disgust.

One of my closest friends is an MP. Here are some facts about her life as I have observed it over the last twelve years:

She works an average 14 hour day Monday to Thursday, maybe a bit less on Friday but also at least one extra day at weekends. Overall, I’d say 70 hours a week, and not just the odd week but every week Parliament is sitting.   She has the advantage of representing a seat near Westminster and is sympathetic to those of her colleagues  (including ministers, who in my experience work 15 hour, six and a half day weeks) – who spend several hours every week going to and from their constituency.

In addition, she is always on call, even when she is on a family holiday abroad. Any member of the public feels they can stop my friend in the street to complain or ask for advice. On at least one occasion she has suffered unwarranted press intrusion into her family.

Although Parliament is in recess for about 16 weeks of the year, constituency duties mean the time she actually has on holiday is more or less the same as other white collar workers. She lives in a modest flat in her constituency.

Among the skills she must combine to do her job well are those of:

•         A social worker and counsellor
•         A community development officer
•         A case worker with specialist knowledge of immigration, welfare benefits, housing allocation etc
•         A lobbyist (at both national and local government level)
•         A public speaker and campaigner
•         A skilled policy analyst and scrutiniser of Government
•         A press officer and amateur journalist
•         An employer and manager of her small team of paid and unpaid helpers.

She does all these things well. She does them without expecting to be recognised or promoted and, despite her tireless work for her constituents, she knows she may well lose her seat at the next election because of the national performance of her party. 

I am not claiming she is special, nor that she deserves any sympathy for her lifestyle; she chose to be an MP and desperately wants to stay one. But she is the MP I know best and her experience is pretty similar to the other MPs I have known well socially.

Even if I could be bothered to go through the tortuous and often generally unsuccessful struggle to become an MP, I wouldn’t do her job; I’m simply not willing to work that hard. 

A few good apples don’t save the barrel. But alongside the terrible headlines about expenses we need to hear too about the day to day life of hard working constituency MPs.

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27 Comments on What (some) MPs do when they aren’t claiming expenses

  1. Daniel Vennard on Mon, 11th May 2009 9:52 am
  2. I don’t doubt that MP’s work hard. I work hard. My mum, a primary school teacher works hard. My sister, an entrepreneur, works hard. The key difference is that we, the public, take what is ours fairly and honestly.

    The political system, like the banking system, is broken. I wish for an honest open debate about the future of democracy in our nation. Not some twee new “independent body” or some soundbite “commitment to change”. This disgrace beautifully encapsulates the fundamental flaws with our party political system. I am deeply saddened by our MP’s moral bankruptcy but hope we, the public, can use it as a stimulus for genuine change.

  3. MarkR on Mon, 11th May 2009 10:38 am
  4. From the clues in your post I know who you are talikng about and I reckon about half the Labour MPs are like her in my experience of the Westminster village. Probably the same for the Libs, but no Tory I’ve come across has ever worked/lived liked this. This MP also takes public transport all the time and I’ve often seen them being lobbied on the bus by constituents.

    She is in danger because of dodgy Ashcroft money pouring in to her opponent. When Cameron talks about reforming the system he never addresses the Belize money and why he has appointed a peer who does not pay UK taxes. Let’s get it all out into the clear now. Trade unions pay UK taxes most Tory donors don’t. Let’s get that sunshine disinfecting so people like your friend stay as representatives and are not lost because of sleaze of atype not in the papers today.

  5. Susmita on Mon, 11th May 2009 12:15 pm
  6. “Many if not most MPs clearly saw the expenses system as a backdoor way of compensating them for the demands of their job and the relative modesty of their salaries in comparison to other senior professionals or executives.”

    This is probably linked to the fact that the salaries of senior executives in the not-for-profit sector has recently gone mad.

    “The expenses saga is depressing and – in contributing to public antipathy to elected politicians – dangerous”

    Actually, it might help revive an interest in politics, perhaps those who were feeling apathetic might now be motivated to get involved and get their voices heard so that this can be changed.

    I would feel better if those in the spotlight would simply say “I took advantage of the system because it’s there to be taken advantage of”.

    I fail to see how the Green Book ever allowed some of these things through and it’s good for us to be made aware of what’s going on. Some of the claims are rather akin to me asking for my lipstick and hairbrush to be paid for on the grounds that I use them before working at an event.

  7. Simon on Mon, 11th May 2009 12:30 pm
  8. Hard working constituency MPs should hold their colleagues to account over the abuses. Improving the images of MPs in this climate is up there as a PR challenge with improving bankers’. In both cases, there needs to be proper restitution before we can move on.

    Why isn’t there serious discussion about unpicking some of the abuses? For instance, MPs who have flipped their properties without legitimate reason should be required to repay the sum, with interest.

  9. Joe on Mon, 11th May 2009 1:03 pm
  10. It strikes me that the MPs are too quick to claim system failure. The cookie jar might well have been inviting, but they could have chosen not to take the cookies.

    As for the ‘hard-working’ issue. First, if our parliamentary system is forcing people to work unhealthily then it should be changed. I don’t actually believe it is.

    Long hours are no indication of productivity. If an MP has bought into the 24-hour availability culture, then they should stop and turn off the phone. As far as I am aware, there is nothing stating that MPs should do this and this attitude is entirely self inflicted.

    Second, and most importantly, MPs chose the lifestyle they adopted. Nobody forced them to put their names on the ballot paper. That being the case, there is no excuse for attempting to rip-off the tax-payer. If you don’t like the wages or conditions, find another job. Simple.

  11. Karl on Mon, 11th May 2009 3:11 pm
  12. Matthew
    I have argued the case for politicians in the past, usually in the pub, when confronted with allegations about them only being in it for themselves. It would be hard to do that now, even if I ever get back to feeling like I would want to.
    Can crackdowns on Benefit fraud be taken seriously from people like James Purnell?
    What message was Hazel Blears referring to when she talked about a lamentable failure to get it across – was it ‘becuase we are worth it’?
    You talk about the ‘modesty of their salaries in comparison to other senior professionals or executives’. I keep hearing this again and again. I am not sure I buy it. Commentators allow it to go unchallenged, which may just be a reflection of what they see as a modest salary as oppose to the majorities experience of such a pay packet. Toynbee’s Unjust Rewards book spells out clearly how clueless we all are on what people really earn and are worth.
    The other defence we hear is that the system is wrong. Wrong. What is wrong is the prevalent attitude.
    Perhaps the most depressing thought is that I have in the past argued that how politicians behave is a reflection of the elctorate’s attitudes. Maybe the sadenss is that this means we would all do the same if we in the same position?
    Do we need the Martin Bell Party?

  13. TimHood on Mon, 11th May 2009 4:14 pm
  14. As you’ve said Matthew, human beings, if exposed to an environment where sadism is the norm, will quickly find their inner sadist. The same dynamic applies to expenses- MPs have simply found their inner love of gravy in an environment where it is the norm.

    There are plenty of other norms that are undesirable- the same applies to working nonsensical hours with enormous pressure for only- yes-only 68k a year. It’s time we took a step back from this and looked at ourselves.

    Let’s say you bought a typical starter home in 2000 for 3 ½ times the average salary. In 2007, you sold it for 5 ½ times the average salary to a first time buyer who could barely afford it. You benefited enormously at some else’s expense (probably increasing your wealth by more than 24,000 a year, every year) because of an external set of economic conditions which were not of your making.

    Although at the back of your mind, you knew that this was not good for society, you still felt slightly hard-done-by because you had not made proportionally as much as some people you know.

    Now you are benefiting again because interest rates have gone down, damaging your neighbours savings while you profit from reduced mortgage payments. Do you knock 20k off the house price for the buyer, give some of your earnings to charity or to the pensioner next door whose interest earnings have plummeted.? Probably not.

    We are all human. MPs are human too- some rich, privileged and rotten, others hard working and unassuming. Some played the system shamelessly and should resign, some played it a bit and should be embarrassed, some are so rich they didn’t need to and still others should be held up as heroes.

    But let’s stop all this ‘all MPs are…’ table thumping and understand what kind of society we have on our hands.

    By the way, I worked for a number of years as a public servant overseas- I can tell you this is the tip of the iceberg- playing the system is rife within the public sector, and yes, I was partly guilty of it too- it seemed to be the norm at the time.

  15. Mike Amos-Simpson on Mon, 11th May 2009 7:22 pm
  16. I’d like a definition of ‘modest’ – comparing to others who are overpaid doesn’t make a salary modest. For anyone who’s had to relocate at their own expense for a job, pay their own travel to get to work, purchase their own transport to be able to work, complete endless forms to be reimbursed for a coffee (after checking its allowed), or paid for office items up front with their own cash its very very difficult to take any defence of what’s been allowable and what’s been taken as expenses by MP’s.

    I understand the feel to provide some balance against general opinion but of the list of skills you list that doesn’t seem like such a big deal to me and as others have already pointed out there are many others on genuinely modest and lower salaries who work at least as hard and without large staff teams to hide behind when things get difficult.

    I’m in favour of people getting a fair deal for the job they do, and to some extent I agree with the principle that you need to reward people fairly to attract and retain good quality people – BUT – there are many people equally and quite likely better capable of doing these jobs who would be willing to do so for much less. I think some real energy should be put towards finding how to start attracting those people into politics. A good start would be to take away the causes of the image that MP’s are rich hypocrites.

  17. matthewtaylor on Tue, 12th May 2009 7:09 am
  18. Hi Mike

    I don’t disagree that many people work hard, although I do wonder how many people do work the hours of my friend (70 hours a week really is not an exaggeration) and under the same level of pressure. But you are right that a big disincentive for becoming an MP s the low esteem in which politicians are held, something which is now much worse.

    Thanks for the comment

  19. matthewtaylor on Tue, 12th May 2009 7:17 am
  20. Thanks Tim. This is a really thoughtful comment. I agree entirely that examples of bad behaviour like this often emerge from a culture which normalises that behaviour. And that over recent decades we have seen greed normalised more broadly in society, although this I think is now changing. This is why it is vital that we have full immediate transparency in the allowances system.

  21. matthewtaylor on Tue, 12th May 2009 7:22 am
  22. Thanks Karl. The question of salary compatibility is problematic – do you compare with a city banker or a secondary school deputy head (who both earn a lot more than an MP’s basic) or with a front line public service worker or small business person. But it is important to remember that even with all these terrible examples of expenses abuse most MPs are hard working public servants who don’t rip off the system

  23. matthewtaylor on Tue, 12th May 2009 7:26 am
  24. Hi Joe

    I agree that MPs chose their life, and I made that point in my blog. But if you have a demanding constituency with, for example, lots of asylum and housing cases, the are a never ending queue of people who really do need your support. And good MPs also work tirelessly as social entrepreneurs; getting things off the ground, banging heads together etc. So they could work less hard but if they did they would help fewer people.

    Thanks for the comment

  25. matthewtaylor on Tue, 12th May 2009 7:28 am
  26. Hi Simon.
    I agree entirely. Flipping is impossible to justify, but also hard to prove. The answer, as I have written n the past, is the immediate publication of all MPs’ claims. It has been the secrecy that has allowed all these abuses to take place.

  27. matthewtaylor on Tue, 12th May 2009 7:32 am
  28. Hi Mark

    I agree that on the whole Labour MPs work harder, because their constituents are more demanding; more asylum cases, more housing cases. On the other hand the the people t is hardest to defend in all this are Labour ministers. They had good salaries, the privilege of being ministers and they don’t have to pay for much in their day to day jobs but still many of them tried to screw the system

  29. matthewtaylor on Tue, 12th May 2009 7:35 am
  30. Hi Daniel

    I share your dismay, even while wanting to defend the honest hard working majority. Yes, we need a bigger debate but it should be about the way we think about politics (the ‘us and them’ nature of public discourse) rather than just the sins of MPs

    Thanks for the comment

  31. joe on Tue, 12th May 2009 7:41 am
  32. Matthew, I am sure many of us could ‘help’ many more people if we spent a lot more hours in community work. This might also be a route to self-destruction.

    I am sure it is true that some MPs have a lot of casework in difficult areas, such as asylum and housing. In which case we have to ask ourselves as society why our elected politicians are taking up the slack.

    Ultimately at some point you have to stop for your own sanity. There are always more people that could have been helped, but you can only do your best within the limits of your mental health. Given the payments some politicians seem to have claimed for swimming pools and chandeliers, I think it might be legitimate to ask why this money is not spent on additional staff to help with the workload.

  33. Tom on Tue, 12th May 2009 5:41 pm
  34. I’m a serving civil servant. You describe ministers as working 15-hour days, 6 and a half days a week. I’ve worked a good deal with ministers in the last three years. There may be ministers who work as little as that, but I haven’t met them.

  35. Rob on Tue, 12th May 2009 8:15 pm
  36. I appreciate that many MPs work ridiculously hard, and it is certainly not a job I would want myself. But you cannot but ask, who are they working so hard for? Despite all talk of expectations, systems, cultures and norms the fact is that every MP knew that this money was coming from taxpayers. They knew that every penny they claimed had to be matched by a penny taken from people… A pensioner paying council tax. Someone earning little over 6000 pounds paying income tax. And so on. Forget the outrageous claims, I am shocked by MPs who have claimed for weeks living in hotel rooms. It is literally as though a collection of impoverished pensioners are putting a fairly well-off person up in a hotel. Isn’t that madness? I really do want to be confident in the good intentions of MPs, and I am sure the picture you paint is accurate. I want to believe that MPs are truly committed to serving taxpayers. But, quite simply, how can this be reconciled with the knowledge that MPs willingly and knowingly took advantage of taxpayers? That is why this is an important issue, not just media tittle-tattle. It seems to provide an insight into the minds of MPs. The image presented is simply incompatible with the idea of public service. Apologies for ranting. But you are all too right that the good work of MPs needs to be better publicised.

  37. matthewtaylor on Wed, 13th May 2009 7:37 am
  38. Thanks Rob. I think this is exactly the issue; how did the professional culture of MPs allow these unacceptable norms to emerge. A problem with the understandable outrage is that it can make it harder to get these more subtle questions about norms and culture.

  39. matthewtaylor on Wed, 13th May 2009 7:38 am
  40. Thanks Tom. But is it healthy for any managers or decision makers to work that hard?

  41. matthewtaylor on Wed, 13th May 2009 7:53 am
  42. The best MPs spend every penny they can on their staff and on communicating with their constituents. The fact is – and everyday’s headlnes show this – is that MPs range from the deeply dedicated, hard working and public spirited (like my friend) to the lazy, complacent, greedy and self interested. I guess all professons are different and this is why professonal self regulation is rarely a good idea

  43. JOHN on Wed, 13th May 2009 10:33 pm
  44. Matthew,

    I echo many other comments that a lot of ordinary folk work hard for as many hours a week with a lot less variety as your MP friend for a lot less money and don’t fiddle expenses. They are paid £65,000 a year, have a lot of perks and freebies. They have pension rights second to none and a very generous redundancy pay system. They build up a network of contacts so even if they lose their job, they are well placed for the next one. As for the risk of being voted out, some people would love to have a five year contract. Even when held in contempt, they are important people, they have status and power. They never have a dull day, there is tremendous variety in their work and they get to meet the world and his aunt, even if they are sometimes a complete pain. Moreover, they get to shape the society they live in and make the rules and could have even more power if they did not let themselves be led by the nose by the whips.

    As for workload: MPs are failing to do their real job: to represent our interests in parliament and hold the executive to account; whereas their time seems to be increasingly taken up as fairy godmother to their constituents who need someone powerful on their side when trying to get justice. In effect sticking plasters and reactive measures. If more public services such as housing, education, welfare, health etc., and businesses and employers too, gave people a better deal, perhaps MPs wouldn’t have to do all this social work that’s beyond their job description. Perhaps we could set up some kind of local tribunes of the people who could take on this caseload. MPs could then tackle the causes not the symptoms.

    On a lighter note, as for their amateur journalism, my local MP’s articles in the local newspaper are so obviously biased and spoon fed from party HQ, i treat them like party political broadcasts ie i no longer bother to read them. He could save some time by not bothering and have a well deserved forty winks.

  45. matthewtaylor on Fri, 15th May 2009 7:25 am
  46. Thanks John. Fair points. The reality is that it depends on the type of constituency you represent and the ambition you have for the job. My friend has one of the most demanding constituencies – hundreds of asylum seekers and on documented people, long housing waiting list etc. For these people, whether we like t or not, having your MP on your side is vital.

  47. Bernard Mason on Fri, 15th May 2009 9:45 am
  48. Matthew
    I found your blog after the Channel 4 discussion last night. I would like to thank you for expressing opinions which I would express if I had a platform.

    I found the discussion frightening. I am concerned about the facts of the expenses scandal but wonder whether it is in the public interest to damage parliamentary government in a wave of media led hysteria. There seemed to be contributors lurking in the wings of the discussion who might be happy to see it replaced.

    As a retired paediatrician, I have a sense of déjà-vu. I watched the media hysteria about the mistakes of paediatricians destroy the standing of paediatrics and recruitment to paediatric posts carrying responsibility for child protection – with the inevitable tragic results for children of which they are now complaining.

    I agree with your earlier blog that this issue is only one manifestation of a trend which has affected all areas of areas of public life including the media.
    Bernard Mason

  49. Niall Smith on Fri, 15th May 2009 8:16 pm
  50. Having worked for an MP myself a lot of the postings on this blog are really interesting.

    One point, i think needs coming back on here for me. My old boss – similar in so many ways to your friend – used to work all the hours god sent on constituents. Phone calls to council officials, adjournment debates on issues, PMQs – we did the whole shebang.

    In the comments, some question whether this was the most effective use of time. Fair enough as success was rarely guaranteed when dealing with all sorts of long standing issues – both in terms of public service and familial failure.

    The thing is though that so many constituents really respected my boss for so obviously putting the complaints of constituents first. The most unlikely people would look on you fondly when you told them who you worked for. Some of them wouldn’t have voted for my boss ever but that’s not the point. Young and a bit green at the time it was inspirational. It still is.

    You can argue whether it was effective (or, i think unfairly, how much skill it takes to do) but it was a dedication to basic public service that is fundamentally what so many seem to think the expenses scandal has shown us to have lost which is a terrible shame.

  51. matthewtaylor on Sat, 16th May 2009 10:48 am
  52. Thanks Niall. It ‘s good to know I’m not the only one defending hard working constituency MPs. And, as you say, for them the issue isn’t whether their case work is effective they simply see it as their duty to do what they can

  53. matthewtaylor on Sat, 16th May 2009 11:18 am
  54. Thank you Bernard, a kind and thoughtful comment. You are right this is part of a broader set of issues about trust and accountability in a post deferential age. Let’s hope we get a let up in the revelations so a proper debate can begin

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