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John Rentoul

John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday, and visiting fellow at Queen Mary, University of London, where he teaches contemporary history. Previously he was chief leader writer for The Independent. He has written a biography of Tony Blair, whom he admired more at the end of his time in office than he did at the beginning.

"The Independent's must-read man" - Daniel Finkelstein

You can contact John in the comments area or email him at j.rentoul@independent.co.uk

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A bumper day for questions to which the answer is No. Gordon Brown has just announced precisely all the reforms of MPs' costs and expenses for which the commentariat have been clamouring. Abolish second homes allowance and replace with a daily allowance based on actual attendance. Nothing for ministers with grace and favour homes. "London weighting" for outer London MPs. The House of Commons to employ directly all MPs' staff. Check, check, check, check. So, he will get the credit for it, won't he?

Then there was Daniel Finkelstein, by now a frequent if involuntary contributor to my list, who asked yesterday (no 101), "Does Charlie Whelan have a pass to No 10?" only to give the inevitable answer today.

Finally, no 102 from my good colleague Steve Richards in this morning's Independent: "Is Darling about to offer a third way?" Well, what do you think?

Update, moments later: My headline question has been answered, by Iain Martin on his Telegraph blog.

Update, the next day: Peter Oborne, as reliable as clockwork, in the Daily Mail: "A cynical scheme to hoodwink the voters." He wants MPs to vote against Brown's plans on the grounds that they are (a) "cynical" and (b) "come much too late". Right, in other words.

Comments

mattwardman wrote:
Saturday, 25 April 2009 at 09:41 am (UTC)
John

>precisely all the reforms of MPs' costs and expenses for which the commentariat have been clamouring.

er ... who has been calling for flat rate allowances, exactly? Could you list 10 commentators.

I've been covering this story for over a year, and I can't recall anyone serious suggesting it.

Matt Wardman
Matt, I am sure you're right
j_rentoul wrote:
Monday, 27 April 2009 at 06:57 pm (UTC)
I meant the reforms apart from the flat rate allowances - although I thought that even that had been proposed by someone credible. Even David Cameron welcomed the whole package as a move in his direction, but said that there might be a problem with the flat rate allowances. My point is that if GB had proposed the perfect system - you will know what that is - he would have been hailed as a cross between Imelda Marcos and Louis XVI.
mattwardman wrote:
Tuesday, 28 April 2009 at 06:29 am (UTC)
John

Thanks for your reply. I see your point.

As far as I can see, at the moment the perfect solution would be close to the Norwegian system. See:

http://www.mattwardman.com/blog/2009/04/06/what-would-a-bicycling-parliament-look-like-in-the-uk-mp-expenses/

I'm trying to talk-up the concept of a "bicycling Parliament", which is quite a good summary of a simple, straightforward, setup.

If we provided 550 flats, it could be comfortable funded out of 25year fixed rate RETAIL mortgages using only about 75% of the existing allowances, and the market climate is idea.

At the risk of beign anoraky, I did rough calculations on this point 3 weeks ago over on Paul Flynn MP's blog:

Can I answer your previous question about a special block of flats for MPs not being affordable here?

I think that it would work but no one has done the numbers rigorously. I don't think that this will be a hard argument to win, except that it will damage the amount of money some MPs can make (we actually need it to be a moral imperative for everyone to put a "clean hands" policy in their manifesto).

The Norwegian Parliament has 140 flats for 169 members. We would need up to 646-74 (exclude the Greater London MPs) = 572 or fewer if we remember that places like Watford are perfectly commutable. Call it 550 or a bit less if the Tories reduce the number of MPs.

A 2 bed flat in Pimlico or Westminster costs say £400k (that is Churchill Gardens + 10-15%).

The total outright purchase budget would be £200-£220m or so. MPs are currently perfectly happy living in their own flats in Pimlico by the dozen (e.g., Cambridge Street) so I don't see why we need this "specially built flats for MPs" nonsense.

The budgeted second homes allowance is 23,000 (?) x 646 which comes to £15m a year on its own. At current rates £15m would pay for a £300m 25 year fixed rate repayment mortgage at RETAIL rates, never mind bulk wholesale backed by the UK Government.

Even if we only use 70% of the additional costs allowance (the Mail's estimate) for the Mortgage Part, the numbers still work.

Job done. Or at least job doable.

And that is without any of the other things that need to be done. My argument since I started writing about this in December 2007 has been that MPs should be treated just the same as the Inland Revenue treat the rest of us (which would work wonders for Inland Revenue efficiency too since MPs would be faced with it!). We need to do things such as:

* recovering Mr Hoon's "creatively accounted for" 100k (or whatever it was) plus interest and profits made off the back of it, and ditto for e.g., the Wintertons (to be non-partisan).
* look seriously at backdating a rigorous system for 6-7 years as the Inland Revenue are entitled to do when the rest of us "misinterpret" our finances.

I'd also argue for Member's Resettlement Grant to be replaced completely by a scheme identical to the Civil Service Redundancy Scheme - after all, that is what an Electorate does when a sitting representative is defeated.

And there's a lot more, but we need to move on from the Daily Mail screaming to serious proposals.

This is only going to be nailed by universal public opinion at the next Election.

Matt Wardman, @mattwardman
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