Confessions of a Political Animal

May 27, 2009

No expenses spared

banknotesStudy leave, exams and recuperation now over, the Animal is given to understand that there has been something of a hullabaloo going on in the febrile world of British politics. Before going on to my substantive point, therefore, four quick observations on the whole ‘Troughgate’ merriment.

1) A number of the claims are beyond the pale. There are some MPs from all parties, including my own, who need to go, go now, and go, like, yesterday.

2) We are getting dangerously close to a situation where certain sections of the media and population will denounce any MP with an expenses claim greater than, say, £0.00 as having their snout in the proverbial trough. Yes, there is a collective failure of non-whistle blowing; there is very limited evidence of a collective malaise of greed.

3) If at the conclusion of this mess, we end up with a situation whereby the only people who can afford to be an MP for a non-London seat are those who can privately afford to rent, furnish and run a second property, then democracy in this country will be in a far worse state than it is currently.

4) <Selfish mode> As a former employee of an MP, I am so glad that the feudal, tax-exiled Lords of Brecqhou have probably got my bank account details.</selfish mode>

One of the key strands lacking from much of the media’s reaction to the expenses revelations has been any realisation or acceptance that politics does not operate in a vacuum from the rest of the world. How the non-political sectors act influences the political sphere, and vice versa. Most visitors will now instantly stop reading, exclaiming something like  “Oh Lord, not another embittered political hack claiming that the rest of us are just as bad and we should let the MPs off scot-free”.

Well, I do intend to be a bit more nuanced than that. Many of us are as bad (although I’m hoping that that full disclosure of my own expenses at the foot of this post will enable me to retain membership of the human race), but – like with MPs – only a handful at most enter the grey area that borders on criminality. And such individuals should be punished – professionally and, if necessary, criminally.

But the culture of expenses is not unique to, and probably did not originate in, Westminster. It is as rife in sections of the private and non-parliamentary public sectors. To which the obvious response is (at least in respect to the private sector) ‘well, at least it isn’t our money they’re snaffling’. In a way, no it isn’t. But in many ways, yes it is.

It is, quite simply, the expense account, that has contributed more to a selective form of inflation that has priced many average and below-average income individuals out of certain sections of life. There’s a reason why, should you wish to travel from Manchester to London and back tomorrow, arriving in the capital before 10am and having a choice of return travel times it will cost you £247 (standard class). Well, actually there are two reasons, but one informs the other. Simply put, there are entities that will pay that sort of money. I say entities, because very few individual human beings will stump up. But there are plenty of businesses (and probably some public or third sector organisations) that will, through expense accounts. The second reason is that the government isn’t prepared to regulate most of the UK’s rail fares, but you try convincing the Treasury to do so when the private operators can fill their increasing funding gaps through that sort of fare.

Of course, similar points arise in regards to air travel just as much as to the trains – the expense account factor prices most individuals out of flexibility, convenience and comfort. That is, to large extent, why the plebians get Ryanair, with their, ahem, interesting approach to the concept of customer service. But is isn’t just travel – hotel and restaurant prices, especially in London, are inflated by the power of the expense account. And as hotel costs rise, there is an increased temptation for major companies to purchase pied-a-terre flats for their employees as a cheaper alternative to four or five star hotels – thus helping to push property prices and rental rates in some areas out of the reach of mere mortals.

Of course, many of these issues are relatively niche – it doesn’t worry me that I can’t afford to stay in a five star hotel in my own city, and I wouldn’t cry too much if no one else could, either. But in areas such as travel and property, the expense account has a very real effect of re-enforcing divisions between not just the haves and have nots, with the definition of have nots seemingly growing exponentially. The recession is certainly doing its bit to curb the expense account culture – for British Airways, it is patently no longer the goose that laid the golden egg. But if and when prosperity returns, whether for the many or the few, serious thought needs to be given as to how to curb the culture and its effects.

By all means man the barricade against the relatively small number of genuinely corrupt, greedy or financially incompetent MPs. But don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. I’m afraid it isn’t the relatively limited expense budgets of 646 men and women in Westminster that have priced you off that train, flight, taxi, hotel or home. Yes, the time has come for politicians to set an example (and many are likely to have no choice), but the example needs to be followed more widely. Now would be a good time to have a debate on this issue – not to distract from the issue of MP’s expenses, but because the two are inextricably linked.

Full disclosure

Political Animal’s expense claims against the taxpayer 2000-2009:

2000: 3x London Underground return tickets Zone 1 – Zone 4 whilst undertaking voluntary work for an MP – £10.80

2007: Reimbursement for 1x cappuccino purchased for Home Secretary during meeting at City Hall – £1.20

2007: 1x London Underground single ticket Westminster – London Bridge – £1.50

Total: £13.50

1 Comment »

  1. A very interesting post – you have hit the nail on the head – expense accounts are the reason why Virgin gets away with the £247 return, and why Heathrow Express charges £15 (when most wiser Londoners would use the Piccadilly for a few quid).

    However I think firms are quicker to rein this in when times are tough, particularly under shareholder demands for action. Plenty of firms have taken action including mandating standard class on trains, economy on short haul flights, requiring at least one leg of a train journey to be a non-flexible ticket, and flights / hotels to be booked further in advance – which does actually cut costs surprisingly effectively. Virgin and NXEC have both negotiated discounted first class tickets with some firms to try and stave off revisions to travel policy, and many firms have also been able to slash the negotiated rates with hotels.

    Do the government have an effective travel procurement department? I have heard stories of paying £10 booking fees for train tickets through mandated government travel agents, for the privilege of central charging; fees that are 1/3 of this in the private sector. Expense costs, certainly for travel, could be slashed with some more effective negotiation and travel management.

    Centralise all government travel procurement, to give them better negotiating powers; give every MP and person who travels on government business a corporate credit card, for which they are personally liable. (i.e. the bills are settled by the individual, and not the government department). The individual then gets 45 days in which to reclaim any permitted expenses before the bill is due. The corporate credit card will then give the travel team decent metrics around spend, and allow them to use the data on their spend volumes to better negotiate discounts.

    It’s really not rocket science, every big private sector company does this already.

    Comment by Anon — May 28, 2009 @ 6:09 pm | Reply


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