Political editor WALTER CRONXITE reports on the perfectly reasonable suggestion that ‘if MPs can’t deal with this rather narrow sphere of finances, why should we trust them in dealing with the nation’s finances?’
An already bleak week for Gavin Barwell has become even worse today, as the Daily Torygraph, in a 10th anniversary trawl through Westminster expenses claims, has revealed that the former MP for Croydon Central had his parliamentary credit card suspended three times between the 2015 General Election and 2017, when he lost his Commons seat.
Barwell now works as the £150,000 per year Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister, Theresa Mayhem.
This followed the disastrous showing for the Conservative Party in last week’s local elections, when more than 1,200 Tory councillors lost their council seats, and therefore access to their allowances.
It is 10 years since some decent digging by journalists on the Conservative Party’s in-house newspaper, the Torygraph, unearthed all kinds of abuses by MPs of the expenses system.
One of the worst offenders was possibly the then Tory MP for Croydon South, Richard “Tricky Dicky” Ottaway.
Ottaway made claims for a second home, his Bletchingley country pile, nine miles south of his London constituency in the Surrey stockbroker belt. Ottaway also had a (publicly subsidised) flat close to Westminster, probably because the 30-minute daily commute on the train to Victoria, alongside so many of his own constituents, was clearly beneath Tricky Dicky.
Ottaway thought nothing of submitting expenses claims to get the public to pay £59.99 on light bulbs, £50 for repairing a tractor tyre and £48 for modifying a scarifier. His country house and garden in Surrey clearly required a lot of maintenance at our expense. He even claimed for the hiring of a chimney sweep.
The purchase of a bed from Harrod’s was also charged to the tax-payer, though eventually, following the storm of public complaints prompted by the Torygraph’s investigations, Ottaway was forced to pay back nearly £3,500 on the bed and various homeware and electrical goods. Ottaway jumped off the Westminster gravy train in 2015.
Barwell was not elected to parliament until 2010, in the aftermath of the expenses scandal, so began with a clean slate, though the damage caused to the bond of trust between the public and their MPs has never really been repaired.
The latest Torygraph investigation underlines that such mistrust is well-placed, since IPSA, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority which was established in the aftermath of the MPs expenses scandal, this time round tried to prevent the newspaper reporting that Barwell and 376 others, including nine Cabinet ministers and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, have had their official credit cards suspended for breaking the rules on expenses.
As the Torygraph reports today: “Exactly 10 years after The Telegraph’s original investigation into MPs’ expenses, the body set up to ensure greater transparency in the wake of the scandal has been accused of trying to prevent openness, rather than ensuring it.”
IPSA wanted to withhold the news about the suspended credit cards “on the grounds it would have a ‘chilling effect’ on its relationship with MPs and reduce public confidence in the regulatory system”. It took a former High Court judge to reverse IPSA’s decision, saying that the risk of ‘embarrassing’ MPs was no reason to keep the information secret.
The 377 MPs affected had their parliamentary credit cards suspended on a total of 1,114 occasions. One, Tory James “Not So” Cleverly, had his credit card suspended 13 times between June 2015 and September 2018.
The newspaper report this morning, in citing examples of parliamentarians having their credit cards suspended for spending on non-parliamentary expenses, does not mention Croydon’s three current MPs – Labour’s Steve Reed OBE (Croydon North), Chris Philp, the Conservative MP for Croydon South, nor Barwell’s successor in Croydon Central, Sarah Jones (Labour). This suggests that they have acted more carefully in their use of the new system which was introduced following the 2009 expenses scandal.
Parliamentary credit cards were introduced to ensure that MPs’ spending could be closely monitored and accounted for to the penny. In the past, MPs spent their own money and then claimed it back from the authorities, but they did not have to provide receipts for certain claims under £250, leaving the system open to abuse.
Today, the Torygraph quotes Sir Alistair Graham, the former chairman of the committee on standards in public life, as saying of the credit card suspensions: “It shows there is either something fundamentally wrong with the system, or we’ve got a bunch of highly incompetent slovenly MPs who can’t keep to the rules.
“The rest of the nation would only expect to have to comply in similar circumstances.”
MPs questioned by the paper over their credit card suspensions tended to blame the pressure of other work, or their parliamentary staffers.
The newspaper does not detail what errors in accounting for his spending were made by Barwell, though he is not known as “gaffe-prone Gav” without good reason. The newspaper does say that he “had his card suspended three times. On one occasion in January 2017 he had to repay incorrectly claimed expenses”.
And it quoted Graham again, saying, “If MPs can’t deal with this rather narrow sphere of finances, why should we trust them in dealing with the nation’s finances?”
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