The John Lewis List

4 Jul 2008

100 years ago members of Parliament were, invariably, the 'great and the good', the very wealthy and generally living in London, visiting their constituencies only once in a blue moon. Less well-off MPs had to be financially supported by, and therefore beholden to, some organisation or other, sometimes trade unions, in order to be able to afford to do the job.

The reason MPs eventually got salaries and expenses was to get away from all that and to ensure that any citizen could stand for election and if elected could do the job regardless of their own personal circumstances and free from influence other than from electors. In recent years even sponsorship by unions has been ended - unions can no longer sponsor individual MPs - although they can, like business, support political parties.

That system is central to our democracy and those who are trying to make life more difficult for MPs to be able to have somewhere to stay in London are undermining that principle.

That is not to say there should be no limit to expenses or that MPs should 'have a free hand to spend what they like'. But, to listen to the wave of hysteria we get every time these issues are raised, it seems that there are those who would like to put our democracy back 100 years.

The cost of staying in a fairly modest hotel in Central London varies but is estimated to be around £150 per night. Multiply that by the 150 sitting days in the House of Commons and you get £22,500 per year. Add a few nights when members are in London on business outside sitting days, and you get a figure not dissimilar from the current Additional Costs Allowance (ACA) that members decided to maintain at the current level in the votes last week. So, despite what is being said it is not an overgenerous allowance to maintain our democratic principles.

Now, some members - myself included - prefer not to live out of hotel rooms, carrying bags back and forth every week, so we rent or buy a flat near the House. That is not cheap in Central London but the maximum allowance is fixed and they must work within that amount. If I lived in a hotel room it would have a bed, furniture a TV etc. If I lived in a rented furnished flat it would be the same. Therefore, if I am living in a flat I am buying, it follows that I will need furniture, TV, bedroom furniture etc. - all of which I already have at home and would not need a second set of were I not an MP living in London 4 or 5 days a week. So why people are so outraged that this should be allowed for within the maximum allowance can only be explained by the negative way the press and media portray this.

Of course, there has to be proper accounting for all this, and there is. First of all members cannot 'buy' property out of the allowance. But because they can rent, or pay for hotel accommodation, it is deemed reasonable that the public purse can meet interest charges on mortgages but not the capital - that, quite rightly, has to be paid by the members themselves out of their own salaries.

Similarly there are curbs on what members can spend on furnishings etc.. This is where the so-called 'John Lewis List' comes in. Incidentally neither I nor any other MP that I am aware of had ever heard of the list until it was referred to by the Director of Finance and Administration in the House recently. But, and ironically given the furore about this, the very existence of the list proves the point that MPs cannot just willy-nilly buy what they like from the ACA. The officers of the House have a duty to ensure that claims by members are reasonable - and needed something to measure what is reasonable against - so THEY and not MPs invented the John Lewis list for their own guidance. They could have picked some other store, but I suppose that given John Lewis' mantra 'never knowingly undersold' they calculated that that was a reasonable store to measure by. That does not mean that MPs have to buy from John Lewis, it only means that anything they do claim for their London accommodation will be matched against prices there to measure if it is reasonable.

If you believed the popular press MPs flats will be bristling with plasma screen TVs, expensive knick-knacks etc. But basic stuff is bought once, and then perhaps renewed if a member remains elected for a number of years. And the House authorities will not authorise regular purchases of expensive items. And remember, this is a 'maximum' allowance. Annual claims will be at varying levels below the maximum - they cannot exceed it.

The suggestion by the Members Estimates Committee last week to change the ACA so that it paid £30 per day expenses (£4,500 per year) - with no receipt required - plus an allowance of £19,600 living in London costs, was rejected by MPs in favour of retaining the present scheme which - although unpopular because of the way it is portrayed - is perfectly logical and understandable; and reasonable given the checks and auditing it is subject to.

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Promoted by Ken Childs on behalf of David Clelland, both of 19 Ravensworth Road, Dunston, Gateshead. NE11 9AB