One of my photos

Dramatic u-turn on expenses

January 21st, 2009 · Posted by Skuds in Politics · 2 Comments · Politics

I was caught on the hop by the first u-turn today (Gordon’s) but subsequent to that I was totally unprepared for the second one (mine).Over the last few weeks I have been paying less attention to the detail of the news, due to a combination of the headaches that reading has been giving me, not getting as much time to read a paper, and the shop at work either selling out of the Guardian before I get there or not stocking it any more.   The bottom line is that I have been getting my news the way that normal people do – through headlines and brief skims of stories.

As a result I was dead against the government’s intention to hold a whipped vote on witholding details of MPs’ expenses.  The way I see it, some MPs have been taking the mickey with expenses, getting them all tarred with the same brush, and the only way to restore some semblance of public trust is to make them public in the hope that it will deter them from even making extravagant claims.

I still believe that, but this evening I looked into the detail a bit more and found that what the government was actually proposing was not the step backwards that the headlines were suggesting: just the normal disappointing step forward that is far too small.

Expenses are already published, broken down into 9 categories.  Expanding that to 26 is an improvement, depending on the categories.  Breaking down the notorious second home allowance to separate rent/mortgage/council tax/utilities and other essentials on a second home and furnishings would be a huge improvement.  It would make it very clear if somebody already owned a home outright and was claiming £20,000 a year on unessential improvements and furnishings.  ((A great pity MPs already rejected moves to restrict such things to 10% of the allowance))

What would be even better would be an itemised list.  It need not be difficult to collect the data and publish it – having some sort of online expenses system where claimants (or their staff) type in the details of claims would mean the data would be there to be harvested.

That is something I would be 100% behind, but I think that everybody is getting hung up over the issue receipts.  My initial thoughts were that not publishing receipts was tantamount to trying to hide something, a view promoted by the press and intense lobbying by theyworkforyou amongst others.  Having stopped to think about it this evening I can now see Harriet Harman’s point of view.

I have had some involvement in document management before.  It is hard enough when you are dealing with A4 documents you can put into a hopper by the hundred, but mixed sized, going right down to till receipts, including crumpled paper that has been shoved in wallets and with the ever-present chance of staples being involved…  would be a nightmare.  And then editing them to obscure details?  Sounded like a niggle, but I just looked at my latest receipt from Comet: sure enough it has my address and phone number on it.

Having thought about it I came to the conclusion that the receipt thing is a big red herring.  By all means demand that MPs have to supply recipts to the accounting department to back up claims, but if there is an itemised list, why would we, as members of the public, want to see the receipt in 99.9% of cases?

If publishes expenses are properly itemised and show shop/supplier, goods, and price I reckon I would be happy.  The figure given is that there are 1.3 million receipts involved.  Many of them will be for small amounts and for totally uncontroversial items.  It might be that only a few would be of interest  so why spend a small fortune scanning and photoshopping more than a million receipts that will never be looked at?

My suggestion would be to publish a complete list, and make individual receipts available on demand for a small charge to cover the costs of administration and any necessary obscuring of personal details.  The actual documents themselves will already be held centrally, having been supplied with the claims.

For that reason I would now also support the notion of not automatically publishing all receipts – but I would expect a bit more detail than a mere 26 categories, much as that is an improvement on what we get now.


I think we  – or the media on our behalf – aer also hung up on plasma TVs.  Examples of profligate spending always include the buying of plasma TVs as if that is excessive.  I think some people are living in the past.

A few years ago plasma TVs were that much bigger and a thousand pounds more expensive than ‘normal’ TVs.  Buying one then was a luxury rather than essential.  Anyone who has ventured into Currys or Comet recently will have noticed that plasma and LCD televisions are now the norm.  In fact a plasma can now be the cheap option compared to an LCD set.

If you consider a TV as essential – which it may be for somebody who has to keep on top of the news – then having a plasma is not unreasonable.   The fact that everyone treats plasma as a catch-all term for thin TVs, including LCDs is less serious but does wind up the pedant in me.

Pointing to plasma TVs as an example of conspicuous consumption is as behind-the-times as criticising somebody for having an eleectric kettle when there is a perfectly good hob to put their kettle on without having to indulge in such new-fangled gadgets.


2 Comments so far ↓

  • skud's sister

    The small point is that a plasma tv will use much more energy (particularly a large one) than a lcd tv. I’d have MPs setting a good example on CO2 reduction if I had my way…

  • David Flint (Dinalt)

    Seems the Euro brigade are already trying to get plasma screens banned.
    Glad i just got my new screen – LCDs may be ok for PCs or playing games on but image quality wise they’re not in the same league as a (good) plasma. OLED when it makes the breakthrough into commercial screens may well be the next wave but atm Plasma is the way to go (or if you live in a cave front projection).