Perhaps partly because it seemed to go a bit under the radar (and perhaps even more so because it was all the talk about the impending anti cuts protest that dwarfed it in the headlines at the end of last week) I have been feeling a bit huffy about the announcement that rules for MPs' expenses are being relaxed.
That didn't take long did it? Having been reined in after the 2009 scandal, which saw embarrassingly high numbers of MPs, taking – to put it politely – the biscuit (then submitting a receipt for the biscuit, citing the biscuit as 'sustenance'), we're now seeing those reins being slackened again. It will cost the UK taxpayer "a few million", according to Sir Ian Kennedy, chairman of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa).
Oh, well that's okay then. Just a FEW million is fine. Because we've all got cash coming out of our ears haven't we? Just yesterday I felled one of my money trees because it was obscuring the view of the goldmine at the end of my garden. Back here on Planet Pants though, the day after this news broke, half a million people took to the streets of London to voice their anger over drastic government cuts – some people were marching because they face losing their livelihoods, others because they face losing services that make a positive impact on their lives, others because they just wholeheartedly disagree with the way it is being done.
The issue of MPs' expenses is a House of Commons one rather than a government one. But even so, in the context of what's going on at the moment under this penurious coalition, the disgruntled MPs (who considered the expenses rules too bureaucratic and 'anti-family') getting their own way is a bit irritating.
Under the new rules, MPs will have a £4k per month credit card; an extra 31 MPs living on London's commuter belt will now be able to claim expenses (up to £19,900 a year) for hotels or rent; and those with children under 18 will be able to claim extra money for their families to travel with them. According to Kennedy, it is not in public interest for family life to be disrupted, or for those with young families to be put off becoming an MP.
But across the land there are people who HAVE to make daily sacrifices where their family is concerned in order to provide for them, in both the private and public sectors. Civil servants up and down the UK are getting a pretty bum deal right now. And consider the plight of some invaluable NHS staff: according to StudentMidwife.net (home of the Save Midwifery campaign) some midwives regularly work double their contracted hours for no extra pay. I wonder how many of them have children they see far too little of because their job keeps them away from home.
In the private sector thousands upon thousands have to travel for work (including Londoners on the commuter belt), cutting into time they'd otherwise spend with their kids. Remember Iain Duncan Smith last year telling the people of Merthyr Tydfil that they should "get on a bus" to find employment in Cardiff (20 miles away) if they couldn't find work close to home? It is just life – but what's good for the goose is not good enough for the gander.
I know people who are working all the hours god sends to make a success of a business, and people who feel they have to work overtime without complaint, keeping their heads down because there's a constant threat of unemployment. I could go on indefinitely about how people are muddling through in these times of austerity, but the point is really, how can we expect MPs to represent their constituents when they seem not to live on the same planet?
Of course MPs living far away should have their travel and accommodation paid for when they need to work and stay in London, but Ipsa had actually rejected calls from MPs who wanted to be allowed to again claim for mortgages on second homes, and requests from MPs who thought they should be allowed to travel first class. It's hard not to feel cross about that kind of cheek when normal people are struggling to even keep their heads above water.
Ipsa, which is there to ensure MPs' expenses are transparent, cost-effective and acceptable to the public, has so far cost £6m of our money to set up. By some accounts it is paying for itself – expenses have dropped from £2m to £800,000 per month. So there is hope that you and I are no longer furnishing MPs' houses with Farrow & Ball wallpaper, or garlic peeling and cutting sets.
Nevertheless, when the rest of the UK is so visibly grappling with so many challenges, it seems like an odd time to relax the stringent rules placed upon MPs' expenditure of our cash. The unease in the pit of my stomach tells me Ipsa has some way to go in offering really firm reassurance that MPs – people entrusted by their local communities – are not living a cut above at our expense. And this latest news is just not helping any.
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