Expenses paid to politicians have understandably made the headlines again. There is rightly a public expectation that expenses should just be a reasonable reimbursement of costs incurred by their elected representatives. Somehow it appears through media examples that this principle is being exceeded all too often. The issue transcends party politics with cases being highlighted across the political spectrum.
Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have often received a bad press with allegations of funds being channelled into companies, political parties and the accounts of staff at a higher level than they were actually being paid. There is persistent concern about the way expenses are calculated particularly with flights to Europe where reimbursement has been available for a full economy class fare even if a “no frills” airline has been used. Questions have been asked about how rigorous the checks are on MEP expense claims at the basic level of ensuring that all spending is accompanied by a receipt.
In our own Parliament, there is the reporting of MPs’ second home allowances. We have seen some cases where it is difficult to understand the reasoning behind an MP’s declaration of their primary residence as compared to their second home. The prime minister’s suggestion for the scrapping of the second home payment may yet prove to be the outcome of this controversy. In these difficult economic times, it is essential that the payment of expenses is transparent and not over-generous.
At our own local level, councillors submit full expense claims for costs incurred in conducting local authority business. The Crawley Council website includes an annual tally of the amount of expenses paid to each councillor. Realistically these amounts are much lower than those paid to MPs and MEPs but checks and controls are properly in place. This is as it should be.
There is something ironic about the whole expenses issue. Thinking of MEPs, MPs and councillors, I sense that the controls and transparency in place are inversely proportional to the powers and potential costs at these three levels. It seems incredible that we are still being surprised by expenses issues with MEPs and MPs, with large sums of money involved whereas, stronger controls are in place at local government level where political power is less and costs lower.
This is not an argument for abandoning controls in local government. Rather it is making the case for a consistent system of openness and transparency for all of our politicians at all levels. The alternative is an extension of the mistrust that already exists for politicians and ultimately nobody benefits from that.
Councillor Bob Lanzer, Leader of Crawley Borough Council
1st April 2009