Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The House of many homes

FOLLOWING my naieve comments, here and in the Labour Left Briefing readers list, about Labour MP and Northern Ireland Minister Shaun Woodward and his claims on the public purse, people have pointed out that though the St.Helens South MP may have an unusual background, he is far from unique in his claims.

"There are cabinet ministers with a constituency home, a London home
they are renting out and free government accommodation that still claim this twenty grand," said Ian Malcolm-Walker. That's the £20,092 top whack housing allowance which Woodward, consort of a Sainsbury supermarkets heiress, collects to help towards his London flat, stately home in Oxfordshire, holiday home in the Hamptons on Long Island NY, and terraced house in his constituency.

"Just bear in mind that a cabinet minister might have a salary of 133k, staff salaries of £90k, of which say £50k may go to the husband or wife, a whole load of travel and mileage allowances, a constituency home that is paid for fully i.e. no mortgage, a London home from when they where in opposition being rented out for I don't know a thousand a week, and a free gaffe".

Ian is active in the public service union Unison, and a disabled rights campaigner, so I expect he is used to representing workers with somewhat lower incomes than MPs, never mind ministers, and people who face considerably greater difficulty and scrutiny when claiming their modest benefits.

Woodward is "New Labour" in a special sense - he was elected as Tory MP for Witney in Oxfordshire in 1997, then crossed the floor to Labour two years later. But as this article cited by Ian Malcolm-Walker shows, some of Labour's other claimants have longer pedigrees.

"John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, Geoff Hoon, Leader of the House, and Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary, all live in grace-and-favour apartments. Despite this they have claimed more than £60,000 of public money over four years to furnish and pay interest on constituency homes. "

The Times April 08, 2006
MPs claim £17,000 in expenses for their extra home
By Rajeev Syal, Antonia Senior and Patrick Foster

BRITAIN'S MPs are claiming twice as much in expenses for their second homes as most families spend on their only home, The Times has found. Last year MPs from outside London claimed an average of £17,852 for mortgage repayments, domestic appliances, utility bills and security on their second homes. Official figures collected by The Times show that average annual expenditure on the items
is £8,530. Last night the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life called for a re-examination of the system that allows MPs to claim up to £250 a time on expenses for which they do not need to provide a receipt.

Sir Alistair Graham said: 'MPs, like any public servants, need to ensure that their expenses arrangements are in line with what the general public maintain is reasonable. It is good practice to have regular surveys to ensure that any expenses arrangements are in line with the rest of the country.'

The average claimed by MPs on second homes has been calculated from figures for their Additional Costs Allowance, meant to reimburse them for extra
expenditure. They can claim back interest payments on second-home mortgages intended to let them divide their time between Westminster and their constituency. Expenditure on inexpensive furniture, appliances, utilities and security, as well as essential repairs and redecoration, is also reimbursed. MPs cannot claim for house extensions, antique or luxury items and repayments of the
capital on their mortgages. Some 610 out of 659 MPs claimed the Additional Costs Allowance in 2004-05, and the average claim was £17,852. Nearly 200 MPs claimed
the maximum — £20,902.

Receipts are required only if the claim is more than £250 or if it is for food or an hotel bill. Some MPs are believed to be using the mortgage allowance to buy a third or fourth property — it is meant to help them to pay for a home
in their constituency. Concerns have emerged after claims that senior Labour figures have failed to explain large expenses claims on their mortgages. David Blunkett, the former Work and Pensions Secretary, claimed £75,363 for his second home in Sheffield, nearly the maximum available over the period from 2001 to 2005. Interest payments on his £10,000 mortgage, taken out in March 1988, were
£650 a year. His band B property would be charged £988 in council tax; gas, water and electricity bills would average at about £1,100. The modest outgoings suggest a "black hole" of £64,327, it has been claimed. Mr Blunkett's spokesman
says that he has acted within the rules.

Seven ministers have been asked to explain apparent discrepancies between what they claim and what they spend on their mortgages. Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, has been accused of claiming £72,000 to cover utility bills
and interest payments that she makes on her mortgage for her constituency home near Bolton. John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, Geoff Hoon, Leader of the
House, and Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary, all live in grace-and-favour apartments.

Despite this they have claimed more than £60,000 of public money over four years to furnish and pay interest on constituency homes. Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, has written to the Senior Salaries Advisory Body demanding that it stop ministers from claiming mortgage payments if they live in free accommodation and that it halt payments to any MP who has three or more
properties. The Times calculated the average household costs on the items quoted using figures from the Office of National Statistics and Ofgem.-"

Do MPs who have got used to voting themselves bigger salaries and pension increases, and claiming these generous allowances, keep in touch with the realities of life for those they are supposed to represent? Do these members of the government feel comfortable ordering say, tighter rules so they can cut disability benefits?

Do they know about people forced to sleep rough or doss on friends' floors, or waiting for means-tested benefits? More to the point, do they care?

'Militant' MPs like Terry Fields and Dave Nellist kept a pledge to only take the average wage of a skilled worker in their constituency, donating the rest to the movement. Scottish Socialist MSPs have adopted the same position. So did Socialist Alliance candidates. At least it stops people saying "You're all the same". It may not convince people of your arguments, but they do start listening.

When the Alliance's dominant Socialist Workers Party faction decided to throw everything behind George Galloway, its leaders threw the "average wage" idea out with other principles. To hear some it seemed the very suggestion was a provocation against their celeb MP. There went the "Respect" they might have earned instead of just choosing as a trendy name for their party.

You can check out details of MPs expence claims at



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