|Stephen Williams MP||<>||6th August 2010|
MPs' Expenses and Allowances
Details of Stephen Williams MPs' expense claims can be found at:
Stephen Williams MP's Comments on MPs' Expenses
I understand the real anger that everyone feels about the revelations in recent days about MPs' expenses. This comes on top of a series of other political scandals in the last year. I want you to know from the outset that I am not personally implicated at all in any of the revelations. I have always believed in an honest and transparent approach to politics and expect high ethical standards of those who work with me. I stood for Parliament because I wanted to change Bristol and Britain for the better. It is therefore immensely depressing for me to see the trashing of the reputation of Parliament because of the venal, stupid and perhaps criminal behaviour of some MPs.
I have been an advocate of Parliamentary reform for two decades. People used to think that this was a dull subject. Now it is seen as a matter of great urgency. The scandal of abuse of expenses is the most pressing issue. But the House of Commons itself is a rotten institution in dire need of reform. I want the Commons to be at the centre of national life, being seen to be the place where issues of importance are debated, where the government is scrutinised and where real change can be made. Instead the current House gives the impression of being an exclusive private members' club, sneering at the outside world. I want to smash this system apart. To begin with, the current Speaker must be replaced with a reform-minded MP, capable of restoring the reputation of Parliament. The House of Commons needs to be dragged into the first decade of the 21st century from the last decade of the 19th century where many of its procedures originate.
It was for all of the above reasons, not just his obstruction of the reform and transparent reporting of expenses, that I agreed on Sunday 17th May to join with Conservative MP Douglas Carswell (who I know from cross party committee work on education) in tabling a motion of no confidence in the Speaker. On Monday 18th May this motion was tabled, with the support of 15 MPs from all parties. My own party leader, Nick Clegg, also cast aside the cosy political consensus and called for the Speaker to resign. Things came to a head rather faster than I thought with the Speaker's announcement on 19th May that he would leave office on 21st June. I hope that this will be the beginning of much needed political reform.
Turning to the matter of expenses, I agree that there needs to be more accountability and transparency in regard to the expenses of Members of Parliament. However, I am concerned that much reporting in the media regarding MPs' expenses is misleading and sensational. I do however accept that there are areas surrounding MPs' expenses where legitimate concerns exist. I support reforms of the system to improve regulation and transparency and curb excessive spending.
In April 2007 I was among the band of mainly Liberal Democrat MPs who attempted to obstruct the Bill introduced by a former Conservative Chief Whip to exempt MPs from Freedom of Information requests. The Bill was passed with support from senior figures in both the other parties. In the end it fell in the House of Lords. Another Bill was introduced in January 2009 but was eventually withdrawn. Throughout this period the Speaker and other senior MPs have fought a court case in order to block Freedom of Information requests. In the end the courts insisted on publication and all the details from 2004 to 2008 will be released this summer. It is this data that has been obtained by the Daily Telegraph and has led to a succession of press stories.
The Parliamentary authorities have previously consulted MPs on reforms to the expenses system and I have given oral evidence to aid the process. I have also given evidence to independent consultants. This drew on experience gained in my professional career before becoming an MP in May 2005. I was for 17 years a tax and business consultant and often advised on remuneration packages and the disclosure, audit and taxation of job related expenses. In particular, I gave evidence that the ability of MPs to choose whether central London or their Parliamentary seat (or even another location) was their "second home" for official duties was wide open to abuse. But I did not then imagine the scale of the abuse that has since been revealed.
My evidence and that of many other MPs led last year to the publication of Sir John Baker's independent Review of Parliamentary Pay and Allowances. On 3rd July 2008 I voted in favour of the package of proposals, which included public disclosure of amounts claimed. Unfortunately the proposals were rejected by a majority of MPs, with 148 Labour and 21 Conservative MPs voting against. The defeated minority in favour of reform were 54 Conservative, 51 Labour and 36 Liberal Democrat MPs.
Yet another review into expenses has now commenced, this time by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The Committee is an independent body and I will again be providing evidence in support of reform. However, the process was almost derailed by an ill advised intervention by the Prime Minister. In my opinion, Gordon Brown's now infamous grinning broadcast on 'YouTube' demeaned his office and was an attempt to inject partisan points into the review. His headline suggestion of replacing the budget for MPs' London (or constituency) accommodation with a flat rate daily allowance was risible. The substitution of a system where actual expenditure (albeit some of it contentious), backed by receipts, for a flat rate allowance with no evidence of real expenditure was quite clearly flawed. The result was an embarrassing climb down and a withdrawal of the proposal.
On Thursday 30th April 2009 the House of Commons debated several other reforms that can be implemented quite quickly. I voted in favour of the resolutions to prohibit MPs representing London seats from claiming for accommodation, for the receipts threshold of £25 to be reduced to zero and for there to be full disclosure of non-Parliamentary incomes of MPs. Personally, I believe being the MP for Bristol West is a full time (often in a seven day a week sense) job and do not see how other MPs can justify extra-Parliamentary employment as barristers or company directors.
Please be assured that I will continue to support moves to make MPs' expenses more open to public scrutiny. When the Committee on Standards in Public Life reports its findings I will let you know my views.
Full disclosure of my own expenses since the general election of May 2005 will be published in mid June 2009 by the House of Commons, along with those of all other MPs. I recognise that there is much concern at the moment about expenses so am quite happy to disclose to you the details of my personal expense claims.
Being an MP obviously involves a split of my time between my Bristol home in Kingsdown and Westminster. My typical pattern of work when Parliament is sitting is to leave Bristol by late morning on Monday and travel by train to Paddington and take the Tube to Westminster. Unlike all other Bristol and West Country MPs I have never claimed for car mileage to London. I then stay in London until usually Thursday afternoon. I am frequently at Bristol events on Thursday evening, all day Friday and on most weekends. Occasionally I return to London on Sundays and have also stayed in London through to Fridays, when necessary, to support Private Member's Bills.
Since May 2005 I have rented a one bedroom flat in John Islip Street in central London, which is about a 15 minute walk from my office in Parliament. The rent at that time was £1,200 a month. This is indeed a lot but accommodation in central London is among the most expensive in the world. This is precisely why an annual budget is given to each MP to cover accommodation costs. Obviously the same amount of money (in 2005/2006 the budget was £21, 634) goes an awful lot further if spent in the constituency home. This is how the outrageous claims for moats, gardening, duck islands, chandeliers and the like were able to be claimed by extravagant MPs for their country homes.
In my first year as an MP I claimed a total of £17,801. In the second year (2006/2007) I claimed £18,810 and in the year to 31st March 2008 I claimed £20,721. It is the detail for each of these years that will be published in mid June. The financial year to 31 March 2009 details will be published in the Autumn but the total for this year was £23,301. In all four years I did not claim the full amount of the budget available, leaving a total of £10,200 unclaimed. A budget is just that - it is not a target!
The reason for the increase in claims in the last two years was due to two rent increases and the rent now stands at £1,550 per month. While rent (which includes building service charges and heating) comprises the vast bulk of the amounts claimed there are also utility bills for BT, EDF Energy, Thames Water and the TV licence.
Over the four years I have claimed for some household appliances. There is nothing abnormal in these claims which total £906, which is an average of £226 for each of the four years that I have been Bristol West's MP. The claims were for a TV, radio, microwave, bathroom accessories, toaster, saucepans, frying pan and a set of cutlery. I trust that you will agree that there is nothing here that could remotely be described as extravagant! Other items to make the second home more pleasant such as pictures and books I have paid for myself. I have also not claimed for extra bedding or for crockery as I have either just transferred them from my Bristol home or bought them at my own expense. Perhaps you will understand my anger when I discovered at the same time as you that a minority of MPs had claimed for designer furniture, rugs, chandeliers, gardening and other items that I personally could not see how they could justify as a business expense.
Somewhat bizarrely in these four years MPs were required to charge subsistence claims to the accommodation budget, rather than account for them separately as would be normal business practice. In each of these years the monthly flat rate allowance was £400 or £4,800 a year. Many MPs claim this amount in full. I have never claimed the full amount and have based my claims on typical business and civil service daily rates of £20 and have only claimed for days when I was in Westminster. Since 1st April 2009 the rules have changed to a £25 per night subsistence flat rate and that is what I have claimed so far in the current 2009/2010 financial year.
The above is a comprehensive disclosure of my London accommodation claims. These are the only amounts that are essentially personal claims arising from my work as a Member of Parliament. All of the other amounts described in the media as "expenses" are actually the costs of running my Westminster and Bristol offices.
The total office costs budget for the last financial year to 31 March 2009 was £132,800. The vast majority of this is spent on staff salaries. None of my 5 current staff are related to me and neither were any of the other staff who have worked for me since May 2005. The rest of the budget is allocated to office rent, paper, communications, computer equipment and all the other normal office running costs. Taxi fares and office petty cash (milk, coffee, tea, parking, newspapers etc expenditure) are also met from this budget. Postage is charged separately - I am one of the most written to MPs in Parliament, such is the discerning nature of Bristol West residents. Travel is also accounted for separately, with rail tickets for travel between Bristol and London being purchased with a House of Commons travel card. No cash changes hands. All of this is akin to running a small business, except that I assure you there is no profit for anyone!
This is a long statement but I hope it addresses your concerns and I have given you sufficient assurance that you are represented by an MP who has worked for Parliamentary reform and transparency. I hope you will also agree that I have attempted to not just obey the letter of the expenses rules as they stand but also the spirit of them. This has been a terrible period for Parliament but I am determined to continue to press for change at Westminster. Please let me know your own thoughts on how the House of Commons can be more relevant, effective and transparent. If you have any other queries then please do not hesitate to contact me.Printed and hosted by Prater Raines Ltd, 98 Sandgate High Street, Folkestone CT20 3BY.
Published and promoted by Joe Leach on behalf of Stephen Williams and the Liberal Democrats, both at Unit 7, Fenton Court, Fenton Road, Bishopston, Bristol, BS7 8ND.
The views expressed are those of the party, not of the service provider.