What did Theresa say? 2. Expenses

Bankers Expenses Savers Spending Referendum
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At Mrs May's prompting, we are pleased to provide clarification and detail, below the poster, on why we believe she could and should have publicly pushed earlier for better tightening of the rules on MPs' expenses.
Poster - What did Theresa say about expenses?

Mrs May points out that she actively promoted reform of the MPs' allowances system from 2008. She points to speeches she made in July 2008. We are happy to acknowledge that.

But our point is that the time for action was 2006 and 2007, before the scandal blew up. The scandal was building from 2005, and became unavoidable in June 2007. It became hotter (because of the Derek Conway affair) and more broadly threatening (because of the Information Tribunal's decision) in February 2008. From that point, MPs were scrambling to look pro-active after the fact, a difficult task to pull off. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2008/may/07/houseofcommons1 and http://www.metro.co.uk/news/93053-scrutiny-pledge-over-mps-expenses)

The question is, what did she say and do in 2006 and 2007, when she was already on the Members Estimate Committee and Chair of the Members Estimate Audit Committee? (http://www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/mec/mecfmsession0506.cfm
and http://www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/meac.cfm, see minutes from 23 Jan 2006 onwards)

Once again, she has demonstrated her expertise at shutting the stable door, and then claiming credit for it.

To avoid the damage to the reputation of parliament, the rules needed to be tightened properly before the scandal broke, rather than waiting until after it broke and then joining the chorus of mutual flagellation. But, if the committees discussed this issue, they made little mention of it in the minutes and annual reports before 2008, which are spectacularly bland and uninformative. And whatever was said and not recorded behind closed doors, we have not been able to find much evidence of these committees publicly proposing and promoting the fundamental change of which they all rapidly became advocates from Spring 2008.

There is a paper dated December 2007, which was attached to the 3rd Annual Report of the MEC, released in June 2008. (http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/cm200708/cmselect/cmmemest/578/57815.htm) They may well have been privately discussing more radical action in Dec 2007 after it became inevitable that something would emerge after the Information Commissioner's decision in June 2007, but their concerns were not revealed to the public until after the scandal had broken in 2008. Then it was too late to minimise the reputational damage.

It is very important to make clear that we are not suggesting that she was privy to the details of how individual MPs were manipulating their expenses. We phrased the advert carefully to avoid that implication. But she was responsible for monitoring and auditing the system, and should have been aware of the systemic weaknesses, and spoken out against them before 2008. For instance, someone with more courage would have made the argument that too much reliance was being placed on expenses as a substitute for adequate pay increases. The following chart, comparing MPs' and GPs' salaries, makes the point as strongly regarding the inadequacy of MPs' pay-rises as it does for the more obvious target of the excessive nature of GPs' pay-rises.

Comparative chart of GPs' and MPs' pay

(from an excellent article by Nadeem Walayat on "UK Public Spending Deficit Debt that Risks Bankrupting Britain")

The MEC's only report in 2007 considered and supported a modification and extension to the allowable expenses: the Communications Allowance, which was essentially put in place so that taxpayers could pay for the cost of MPs telling us how wonderful they are. She initially (Nov 2006) supported the concept but not the detail:

"My view on the communications allowance is simple. My preference would be for a single sum with an overall limit that hon. Members would have as their budget. They could then choose how to spend the sum, albeit within certain appropriate rules, such as not allowing commercial or party political correspondence to be funded from taxpayers' money."

But by March 2007, she had come out against it:

"I think that there is a reason for changing the rules, but I do not think that there is a reason for introducing a new communications allowance, which will enhance the role of incumbents."

Her leader also came out strongly against it (http://iaindale.blogspot.com/2007/10/mps-communications-allowance-trouble.html and http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/may/13/david-cameron-mps-communications-allowance).

But that didn't stop her from taking advantage of it, to the tune of (roughly) £4,200 in July 2009, another £1,780 in October 2009, and another £4,200 in November 2009, and for the purposes of the sort of bulk distribution (32,385 recipients) rather than correspondence on specific constituency issues, about which she had warned.

It was an honourable thing to do, to oppose a further enhancement in the advantage enjoyed by incumbent MPs. But it was more pragmatic subsequently to make full use of the system that was put in place despite her objections.