Why our MPs’ expenses are important

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Gordon Brown revealed last week that the government will not be going ahead with plans allowing MPs to conceal their expenses. It is a significant U-turn for the Prime Minister, but what happened and what does it mean? More importantly, why should we care?

Under parliamentary regulations, our MPs earn a basic salary of approximately £60,000; ministers, whips and others receive larger salaries. On top of this, they can claim an array of expenses: up to £22,110 each year for the cost of staying away from home while on parliamentary business; up to £20,440 for office supplies; up to £87,276 for office staff; yet more on car and train travel, stationary, postage costs and computers.

MPs need money in order to run their offices, of course, but what has some people concerned is the apparent lack of transparency under the current system. While the total amount of money that MPs spend in each category is currently revealed, members of the public cannot find out exactly what their MPs are spending it on. In May 2008, however, this changed: the High Court ruled that MPs were in fact obliged to reveal their expenses under the Freedom of Information Act, a decision which sparked the current debate.

MPs bristled at the idea of exposing their receipts to the taxpaying public, and Labour and Conservative MPs uniting in an effort to vote through an amendment to the Freedom of Information Act that exempts them from having to reveal exactly what they spend their money on. It was support for this amendment which collapsed last week.

You might wonder what all the fuss is about, but the amounts involved are not to be sniffed at; in all, MPs cost the taxpayer £87.6m in 2006-7, the last year that full figures were available. The sheer amount of money involved has groups such as mySociety, who run the acclaimed website TheyWorkForYou.com, concerned about transparency and accountability.

Shahid Malik, Labour MP for Dewsbury in West Yorkshire, has been touted as Britain’s most expensive MP, claiming £185,421 in expenses; however, it is currently almost impossible to ascertain whether or not this presents good value, since we have no idea just what that money was spent on. Under the new regulations, however, we’ll be able to find out—and see just whether Malik and other MPs are giving their constituents value for money.

Pressure group mySociety spearheaded the campaign against the proposed amendment; 8,000 people joined their Facebook group, and celebrities such as Stephen Fry weighed in on the need for transparecy. Reacting to the upsurge in public opinion, Conservative whips announced that they would be requiring all their MPs to vote against the measure, destroying the deal between Labour and Conservative backbenchers and ensuring that the measure would not pass.

It might seem like some stuffy political issue, about which the average Joe could not care less, but it’s a vital part of our society and of our democracy. We pay for our MPs to represent us, and our interests, in parliament: without knowing what they spend our money on, how can we possibly evaluate whether or not they are performing adequately? Without evaluating whether or not they are performing adequately, how can we possibly make an informed decision at the ballot box? Unless the average Joe takes an interest in what their MPs do at Westminster and how they spend public money, we can never have true accountability: do democracy a favour, and use your new rights to find out just how your MP is really spending your money.

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