One of my photos

MPs’ expenses

December 2nd, 2007 · Posted by Skuds in Politics · 6 Comments · Politics

Newspapers at a local and national level recently had their annual frenzy of reporting on MPs’ expenses. In the case of Crawley the press have been colluding with Henry Smith and Francis Maude to imply that our own MP is too expensive.

Laura has defended her record in reply, but I think she is unable because of her position to say what she really thinks. She certainly couldn’t say what I really think!

For starters, there is an insidious implication that expenses are a sort of extra income, which is bollocks. If I have to go to London to attend a training course, I will buy a railway ticket out of my own pocket and then claim it back as expenses. When my company reimburse me for that cost it is not a little bonus or topping up of my wages it is what it says – a payment for expenses incurred in carrying out my job. Its just that an MP’s job involves rather more expenses than most.

The reason is that they do not have facilities provided directly by their employer. That could be fixed by having the government provide a constituency office along with all its facilities and staff – just like most of us have our workspace, furniture, computers and other equipment provided by our employers. I’m sure that would be a disaster, with every MP getting a one-size-fits-all office.

I don’t know how much it costs my company to provide me with a desk, enough space to put it in, electricity, and so, but I’m glad I don’t have to pay for it up-front and then claim it back later.

I don’t know the ins and outs, but I would be surprised if MPs saw most of the money that is listed as expenditure anyway. With computers and official stationery it is possibly taken from a central store and the notional cost added to the MP’s account. Salaries for staff may be paid directly to the staff rather than going through the MP. I don’t know whether bills for rent and utilities are paid by an MP and claimed back or just sent to a central place to be settled for them, but its possible.

I think that those who like to suggest that MPs are on the take are relying on newspaper readers fiddling and exaggerating their own expenses and assuming MPs do it to the same extent! Someone who is claiming mileage at 40p a mile and routinely rounds up their journey lengths might get a few hundred pounds a year and work out that they only spent half of that. They might then see a headline figure of £120,000 expenses for an MP and just assume they are making a similar ‘profit’.

The reality, of course, is that very little of the MP expenses is even able to be fiddled, even if they wanted to. The most common way to do it is to employ family members as staff in the office and pay them over the odds.

I looked into the level of expenses for Crawley and the nearest 3 constituencies and found out a few interesting things.

First of all I looked at theyworkforyou to get some information. Now I do not have the time and resources that a journalist has – nor the expertise I dare say – so I could only go on information found by such public sources of information.

I looked at the voting records of the MPs. This was partly as a rough indication of how often they turn up to work – assuming they would be unlikely to turn up for a debate and then not vote at the end. I know that voting is not all they do, but its one of the things we pay them for. I took the voting figures from Theyworkforyou and Publicwhip and compared them to expenses.

Anyone familiar with the sources will spot that the figures do not necessarily all come from the same timeframes. The expenses are for a financial year, but the voting figures are for the whole of a parliament. However, the figures for each MP come from the same timeframe as each other so it is possible to get a comparison. If you divide expenses for last year to votes across that period plus some time before and afterwards it will not be a real cost per vote, but its more like an index.

Anyway I took out office costs as they are a fixed overhead, leaving those expenses you would expect to vary along with visits to Parliament – travel and accommodation.

This showed that it the MP with the highest expenditure on going to London was also the one who voted most. No surprise there.

Constituency Expenses Votes Cost per vote
Crawley 93,765 509 (89%) 184.21
Reigate 86,080 401 (70%) 214.66
Mid-Sussex 75,373 276 (46%) 273.09
Horsham 72,111 195 (34%) 369.80

All this shows is that the MPs who go along to take part in debates and cast votes more often incur more costs. And it shows that the cost per vote cast in Parliament works out lower for those who vote more. When the Crawley MP is voting more often than the MPs for Horsham and Mid-Sussex combined, it does not seem so unreasonable that she would have to travel more often or stay up in London more often.

Am I the only one who thinks that an MP who only votes one third of the time is not doing one large part of the job they are being paid for?

Of course voting is not the only thing MPs do. They will have meetings with ministers or civil servants or colleagues, they will meet constituents and do all sorts of other stuff. And they might have other jobs… an interesting co-relation which a trawl through Theyworkforyou threw up was between voting records and extra jobs. Unsurprisingly the MP with most extra jobs turned up at Parliament fewer times.

Constituency Votes Other jobs
Crawley 509 (89%) 0
Reigate 401 (70%) 1
Mid-Sussex 276 (46%) 5
Horsham 195 (34%) 8

Plenty there to think about, and I am not qualified to do the analysis, but a few questions spring to mind, comparing the two MPs at the extremes of the tables:

  • Does it really take one person twice as much to travel to London as another who only lives about 8 miles closer?
  • Or are some of the trips from Horsham to London really connected to some of the other 8 jobs held by that MP?
  • Is it a pure co-incidence that the more extra jobs (with the subsequent extra income) an MP has, the less they are able to vote in the house?

The other bone of contention on expenses, and the area where the Crawley MP gets the most criticism is on postage and official stationery expenses. Using the results of the last general election to get a rough idea of the size of the electorate you can see how much each MP spends communicating with their constituents.

In this table, Cost per voter is how much an MP is spending per constituent on communicating with them, No. of Letters is how many letters would be sent if it cost 25p per letter, and the last column is what proportion of the electorate that equates to. I don’t know how much it costs to send a letter, so those values are not accurate but they do show the relative positions.

No. of voters Mailing costs Cost per voter No. of letters Reach
Crawley 71,871 11,833 0.16 47,332 66%
Horsham 80,973 1,664 0.02 6,656 8%
Mid Sussex 72,149 2,664 0.04 10,656 15%
Reigate 65,748 2,271 0.03 9,084 14%

Mail from MPs can be replies to specific letters received, they can be general updates on specific issues addressed to anyone who has previously shown an interest in that issue, or they can be general updates on activity to all voters. It does not look like anyone sends a general annual report to all voters. Would it be a good idea if they did?

What it does show is that my MP spent 16p communicating with me last year. It does not sounds like much, but my near neighbours had their MP spending tuppence communicating with them. It shows that if it cost 25p for a letter and she didn’t write to anyone more than once, she would have reached 66% of the voting population. That sounds like a terribly low figure – but it turns out to be good. We have, at best a 2/3 chance of hearing from our MP on what she is up to. Our neighours have, at best, a 1-in-12.5 chance of knowing what their MP is doing.

(Of course its quite possible that a large part of the time what he is doing is none of their business as eight ninths of his jobs are external consultancies and directorship.)

There is no law to stop my MP taking her salary, travelling up to London during the week, voting on my behalf once in a blue moon and never telling me what she is doing in my name, but I actually prefer it that, as I show an interest, she keeps me informed.

There used to be a sort of patrician attitude from MPs that their constituents have no business knowing what they get up to or having anything to do with them except to turn out and vote every four years or so, but this is the twenty-first century, not the nineteenth. Are the Tories afraid that increased expectation from the electorate to know what they are doing would not be a good thing for them?

I don’t think our MP would care if her every activity was known. Would the Tory MPs who surround us be able to say the same thing? If their activities were subject to the same amount of scrutiny as expenses have been the people they represent might start expecting a bit more from them, and certainly would expect them to spend their time doing what they were elected for and not scrabbling around in the trough for other jobs!

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6 Comments so far ↓

  • Ash

    Hmm, so Skuds measure of a good MP is how many letters they send out…

    The last time I wrote to Ms Moffatt I got the same standard reply as many others – it didn’t even address the question I asked.

    So if a measure of a good MP is how much junk mail they produce then I suppose Ms Moffatt is a star.

  • rob

    just thought you might like to know i got here from a link from redwatch (dont worry i am not a fascist) it seems they dont like you…

    well done!

  • skud's sister

    Ash, I know that was one of Skud’s longer posts but you really should be concentrating on more than the last couple of paragraphs…It seems he is suggesting that there are many ways to judge how good an M.P. is and only some of them are financial. You may also be confusing total cost with value for money?

  • Skuds

    Rob – thanks. The feeling is mutual, although I have not taken to stalking nazis with my camera yet. I prefer the subjects of my photographs to have more intelligence.

    I take a lot of pictures of abandoned shopping trolleys… 😉

  • Skuds

    I imagine that being an MP is a pretty thankless task. I discovered that as a councillor – you could spend hours weighing things up to decide what is the best thing to do and agonising over decisions without anyone knowing or caring.

    They are in a position where if they don’t communicate they appear distant, if they communicate in detail they will be accused of trying to obscure the facts, if they communicate in summary they appear superficial and by communicating at all they stand accused of propaganda or junk mail.

    In practical terms, I think they are foolish if they do not do everything they can to tell their constituents what they are up to, after all they are the boss, so its a bit like having an appraisal at work.

    There is no point in working hard, solving problems and meeting targets at work if you don’t make sure the boss is aware of it.

  • Drew Mcpherson

    The MP spending data is already available online at