Do MPs in Suffolk and Essex offer good value for money?
PUBLISHED: 12:31 21 September 2015 | UPDATED: 15:56 22 September 2015
Expense claims made by three of the region’s MPs have risen by more than 20% over the past four years, despite a reduction in overall spend for the latest financial year.
Day one of our investigation into the cost of democracy has found the 12 parliamentary representatives for Suffolk and north Essex claimed £7.98m from the taxpayer between the general elections of 2010 and 2015.
The latest figures for 2014/15, as published by the Independent Parliamentary Services Authority (IPSA), show the total spend for MPs in the region was more than 10% higher than it had been four years ago – despite falling slightly from 1.96m to 1.93m in the final year.
The joint steepest rise in the amount claimed over the four years (28%) was recorded by Ipswich MP Ben Gummer and Suffolk Coastal MP Therese Coffey.
Meanwhile, one of the smallest claims was made by Harwich and North Essex MP Bernard Jenkin and came to 9p to cover a 0.2 mile car journey.
Mr Jenkin, who actually claimed the least of the 12 MPs covered by the investigation, described it as a “quirk of the system”. “For transparency, I tell IPSA each journey I make, even though I have no need to do so,” he added.
Mr Gummer, who also recorded the region’s highest overall claim, explained his rise by saying urban areas “demand more resources than an affluent rural constituency”.
“In Ipswich, the need for significant project management for the campaign to improve railway spending, rejuvenate the town centre and build new roads brings additional cost,” he added. “The key for me is the return I produce for my constituents and I’m proud of the several hundred million pounds that I have brought the town, a figure I hope to improve considerably over the next five years.”
Dr Coffey added: “My expenses are publicly available on the IPSA website. Transparency is key and constituents can contact me directly if they have any queries.”
Clacton MP Douglas Carswell’s expenses claim rose by 23%, part of which may be accounted for by the £19,000 “winding-down” costs associated with his defection from the Conservatives to UKIP in 2014.
Witham MP Priti Patel, whose annual claims were the region’s second lowest overall, despite rising by 19% since 2011/12, said: “My claims are made in accordance with the IPSA scheme so that I can help and support thousands of constituents each year.”
All MPs, who received a basic salary of £65,738, which has now risen to £74,000, are entitled to claim expenses to aid their parliamentary work.
However the scheme was brought into disrepute in 2009 when it was revealed that a minority, none local, had been claiming for items such as decorative ornaments, entertainment equipment and – perhaps most notably – a duck house.
Our investigation found no evidence among our local MPs of the sorts of claims that sparked scandal six years ago. There were, however, significant variations in the totals claimed.
Mr Gummer’s largest overall claim of almost £728,000 was around 25% more than the region’s lowest: Mr Jenkin, who spent about £547,000 over the same period.
Several other MPs submitted claims of less than £1 for items such as stationery and food; however when questioned said these were part of “bulk ordering” rather than one-off submissions.
The most significant area of spending among all MPs, both nationally and locally, was on staffing. A total of £5.9m was claimed under this heading over the five years, accounting for nearly 75% of the overall spend.
Staffing claims rose considerably after the first year, when payroll was included and continued to increase for most MPs, though more gradually. Former Colchester MP Sir Bob Russell had the highest staffing spend at almost £537,000, nearly £100,000 more than Suffolk Coastal MP Therese Coffey, who spent least.
West Suffolk MP Matthew Hancock, who is also minister for Cabinet Office, saw his spend on staffing rise by almost a third from £102,000 in 2011/12 to nearly £136,000 last year. A spokesman for Mr Hancock said: “All of Matthew’s expenses have been declared in the right and proper manner.”
Some of the most significant variations can be found in accommodation expenses. MPs outside London are entitled to claim for second homes so they can perform their work in Westminster and their constituencies. But whereas some spent very little on accommodation, such as Sir Bob who claimed nothing over the five years, Dr Coffey spent nearly £96,000 – the highest in the region.
The variations are likely to reflect MPs’ differing personal circumstances; while some own property in London, their constituencies or both, those without multiple residences are likely to seek expenses to rent a second home.
Mr Jenkin, whose accommodation claims were third lowest, said he owned property in the capital and Essex so claimed the London allowance rather than expenses, “which would cost the taxpayer much more”.
Mr Yeo made regular claims of more than £2,000 to cover a “service charge on flat”, while also claiming £1,250 for “mortgage interest”, prior to it being disallowed.
Mr Gummer claimed £862 for a “change of lock on MP’s flat” in 2012/13, which he explained as necessary to keep Government papers secure.
Travel expenses, which can include journeys to Westminster, constituency visits or official business, further afield, also vary markedly.
Central Suffolk and North Ipswich MP Dan Poulter claimed the most for travel, at just over £49,000. He said expenses were common in many jobs. “As a very active and dedicated local MP, with the largest and most rural constituency in our area of over 200 square miles, it is understandable that my travel costs are higher than those of MPs with smaller more urban constituencies,” he added.
Waveney MP Peter Aldous, whose £1,209 travel claim was the region’s lowest, explained he did not claim for his travel to Westminster or around his constituency; only for his staff attending training. His overall claims, however, were the third largest, with comparatively high spending on accommodation (£83,286) and staffing (£517,670).
Mr Aldous said he employed staff “to try to do the best possible job for my constituents” and rented a flat near Westminster “to work early and work late”. He said he gave up the flat in July 2014 and now stays in hotels “to save money”. He is donating his salary increase to charities.
Office expenses cover a range of costs including hire of constituency offices, stationery and advertising. Many MPs spent hundreds of pounds on stamps and business cards, alongside more expensive items such as tablets and laptops.
Two thirds of the region’s MPs had claims rejected at least once over the five years for failing to comply with the rules by submitting too late or with insufficient evidence or for items not covered by the scheme.
The latest register of members’ interests, an official document holding records of information that could be thought to influence MPs’ actions in Parliament, shows that many of the region’s MPs received tens of thousands of pounds in donations.
Half of the region’s MPs over the previous parliament stated that they employed a family member; three received rental income from lodgers or tenants at properties they owned.
Visit our website to explore the full five year figures for each MP and have your say on MPs, Lords, MEPs and councillors.
Tomorrow: We put the spotlight on MEPs.
Follow this link to see the full breakdown of the MPs’ expenses.
What can be claimed?
Gone are the duck houses, moats, new kitchens and mortgage payments.
The expenses scandal put an end to that and an independent body was set up to tighten up the rules, scrutinise and shine a light on what MPs were claiming.
It also put an end to the situation whereby MPs decided their own pay and pension arrangements.
The majority of MPs have to live and work in two places with parliament largely sitting from Monday to Thursday, and occasionally on a Friday. They also have duties in their constituencies when parliament is in recess, on non-sitting days and at weekends. MPs can claim for rent for a second home and its associated costs (depending on where their constituency is, but up to £22,750 each year for most of our MPs). Some opt to claim £150 a night for a London hotel. Those who have children under 21 who are studying are also able to claim a supplement of up to £2,425 for each one.
Up to 30 single journeys for family members between the constituency and Westminster can also be claimed. MPs outside London can claim up to £23,250 for their constituency office and up to £138,600 to employ staff. They can also claim for travel between their constituency and London, for journeys within the constituency boundaries and 20 miles beyond if it is for their parliamentary work. Taxis costing up to £80 are allowed if the House of Commons is sitting late or there is no other reasonable method of transport available, or it is not practical.
There is also a budget of £25 per night for food and non-alcoholic drinks when travelling outside London or their constituency for parliamentary work.
Investigations editor David Powles on why we are running The Price of Democracy
The 2009 expenses scandal thrust into the limelight some of the unacceptable ways some, but certainly not all, MPs were manipulating the expenses available to them for their own good.
Revelations of abuse by some MPs, including fraud, fake receipts, claims for ornamental duck houses and moat cleaning, did so much to damage the reputation of all those who served the public in such a way, not just those in the wrong.
Six years on, our Westminster representatives have, thankfully, worked hard to clean up their act.
But that doesn’t make it any less important for the expenses and allowances received by our public servants to be placed under scrutiny.
And that’s exactly what this week’s The Price of Democracy series intends to do.
We will put the focus on MPs, the Lords, Euro MPs and local councillors so that you can make informed judgments on whether they provide good value for the public purse. And we’d love to receive your views on our findings, which you can do by logging on to our website and taking part in our week-long reader survey, the results of which will be published in this paper next week.