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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Most hated?

Today's Independent asks 'Is Norman Baker the most hated man in Westminster?' His crime apparently is to win a two-year battle to obtain a detailed breakdown of how much every MP spent on travel by car, taxi, air, train and even bicycle. The outcome has thrown up some interesting facts:

Janet Anderson, the Labour MP for Rossendale and Darwen, will not have been relishing exposure as the most enthusiastic motorist in the Commons, submitting a £16,612 mileage claim last year, the equivalent of covering 60,448 miles.

She was not returning calls yesterday but another Lancashire MP remarked acidly: "Janet has always loved her car."

Tory MP Mike Penning claimed £7,978 for mileage, although his Hemel Hempstead constituency is less than 30 miles from London. And Diane Abbott, the Labour left-winger who represents Hackney North & Stoke Newington, some five miles from Westminster, received £2,235 in car hire and taxi fees.

There might also be a certain froideur in the air when Mr Baker next bumps into Chris Huhne, his successor as the Liberal Democrat environment spokesman. Mr Huhne spent £3,284 on car mileage - but only £176 on train tickets, even though his Hampshire constituency is easily reached by rail.

It is possible that some MPs may well resent his tenacity but in my view he has done the right thing. The biggest drawback of this sort of transparency of course is that many people cannot see beyond the cost, they do not understand that when you represent a sprawling rural constituency like Rossendale and Darwen or Brecon and Radnor, with little or no public transport, then you need to use your car extensively. They do not understand that when you represent Orkney and Shetland then you need to use planes as otherwise the time you spend on a train is lost to your constituents. Many do not appreciate the demands on the time of a full time public representative. Much of the apparently inexplicable expenditure is down to MPs seeking to make best use of their limited time by minimising travel inconvenience.

This is the cost of having a representative democracy. The alternative does not bear thinking about. However, those who are paying also have a right to be able to scrutinise and question how their representatives are spending their money. That is why Norman Baker was right to ask and why I am still awaiting judgement on my own appeal regarding details of MPs postal costs. The Welsh Assembly needs to get in line. It is better to do it voluntarily than be dragged kicking and screaming into compliance.

Update: I have been reminded in another forum about a famous answer given by Jo Grimmond, a former MP for Orkney and Shetland, in a travel questionaire. When he was asked to state his nearest railway station, he answered Bergen. You simply cannot get to this constituency by train.
Surely there is another scandal on its way…

MPs are eligible to claim an “overnight allowance”. This allowance is meant to be used for accommodation purposes in London. As MPs meet relatively late into the night and represent constituencies across Britain (such as Orkney), this seems entirely reasonable to me. MPs often use the allowance to pay the mortgage on a second home.

However, what isn’t so well known is that AMs can also claim an “overnight allowance” for accomodation in Cardiff(This is in addition to travel costs, mileage allowances etc which can also be claimed).

According to figures from 2003, AMs from an “Inner area” (e.g. Cardiff, Newport, Caerffili and Pontypridd) were able to claim up to £3,200 per year as an “overnight allowance”. (This works out at about £100 a week for every week the Assembly was in session).

If you were an AM from an “Outer Area” (e.g. Merthyr, Swansea, Bridgend or Cynon Valley) you could claim up to £10,500 a year. (Approx £320 a week for every week the Assembly was in session). This allowance could be used to pay a mortgage on a second home.

Do you truly believe that this is the cost of a “representative democracy?”

I wonder what Welsh constituents who commute to Cardiff on a daily basis would have to say about these figures?


It’s interesting that you are trying to find out about MPs’ postal expenses.

Perhaps you could enlighten us about the steps you have taken to secure the publication of AMs’ expenses?
I’m surprised that the Welsh media have never picked up on this, to be honest.

A recent FOI request showed that Huw Lewis AM and Lynne Neagle AM (who are married) were claiming around £18k per year between them in “stay away” allowance.

Their constituencies – Merthyr Tyfil and Rhymney (Huw) and Torfaen (Lynne).

According to the AA, Merthyr is less than 30 miles from Cardiff Bay.
Well for starters AMs do not have the same latitude with postal expenses as MPs do and I have actively worked to ensure that this remains the case, i.e. that we cannot use public money to garner votes.

Secondly, I have argued strongly for the publication of AMs expenses and have largely won that battle. You can now get information on how much we have spent from the Assembly. In fact I even published my expenses before we were required to do so.
Baker should transmutate into a rat and hang out on the Labour Front Bench - no one would spot him there.
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