Is a toilet brush a legitimate expense claim? MPs must reconsider what they claim for
In this, the era of austerity, the UK public have been accustomed to hearing that we are only ever a few steps away from falling off a metaphoric economic cliff. “We are all in this’ together,” is the message from our politicians. “We have to tighten our belts” and “watch every penny”, they say.
Since the great financial crash of 2008, it’s hard to pick up a newspaper without seeing something about cost cutting and ‘saving every penny”. As such, not living beyond our means has become second nature – even more so in business where those ever important margins have to be protected.
Given this it was ironic to see so many petty claims made by the country’s MPs in IPSA’s latest list of parliamentary expenses, published last week. The seemingly never-ending spreadsheet rows in the organisation’s extensive official document makes for fascinating reading, and document just what our elected officials are spending the public kitty on.
Of course, all of the claims are legitimate – like any employee in the private sector MPs are entitled to claim for anything IPSA deems work related. However, when the government is looking to close a deficit in the billions, there were a number of claims that could cause a wry chuckle.
Michelle Tompson, from Edinburgh West, claimed 40p for a toilet brush for example. It’s an expense most of the British public wouldn’t submit, just to avoid any potential awkwardness, should it ever be questioned by their finance team.
Glasgow South MP Stewart McDonald’s purchase of a £580 table, meanwhile, seems somewhat excessive in the age of flat pack furniture.
Perhaps they should take a leaf out of the business handbook
There is so much talk about how the public sector needs to streamline spending and run itself more like a business, but let me tell you, very few private sector organisations would sanction or sign off many of the claims we’ve seen made by MPs over the last quarter.
Another thing anyone looking through the latest IPSA spreadsheet would notice is that so many of these expenses are vague. Anyone working in the private sector knows they must detail exactly what was bought and the reason for it.
One £113.98 claim made by Mhairi Black was only detailed as having been bought from Amazon. While it was highlighted as a ‘startup’ cost and was most likely for something like stationery, it theoretically could have been for any range of personal goods, given the retail giant’s extensive catalogue.
It certainly isn’t a claim that would have made it through many private sector expense processes, that’s for sure.
While I’m not saying it isn’t right to claim for absolutely everything – the issue with much of this latest expense data is that most of it underscores the perception that MPs are part of an elite group. I don't think many people would charge back an 89p single first-class stamp or a 90p air freshener.
Just because you can claim, doesn't mean that you should. MPs might be abiding by the rules, but at a time when many working members of the public are not only watching their own pockets, but their company’s too – MPs must follow suit.
It's high time the parliamentary expenses process is clarified, simplified and brought into line with modern life and business practice, to ensure MPs are singing to the same tune as the rest of the working British public.