Letter from Westminster 15.05.09

It is possible that there has been a worse week for the House of Commons, but even allowing for the burning down of the palace in 1832 and the bombing of the chamber by the Luftwaffe during the blitz I can’t think when that would have been.

The fire and the bombing only damaged the fabric of the building; the disclosures in The Daily Telegraph have damaged the reputation of the place and that is rather more difficult to repair.

That the system was open to abuse is something that was known by anyone who looked at it – from the inside or the outside. Even on the inside, however, few realised the extent that it actually was being abused by some.

I had always known, for example, that the process now known as “flipping” was, in theory, possible. This involves the changing of the designation of where your second home is and claiming allowances for work or furniture or fittings for more than one property as a result.

What astonished me, however, was the revelation that not only was it possible in theory but that it was being done in practice – sometimes several times by the one person and for substantial gain.

Likewise, the range of things that could be claimed for always seemed pretty wide. The revelation that claims had been made for everything from chandeliers to horse manure to swimming pool maintenance risked turning a scandal into a farce.

So how did we get to this point? It is difficult to say with any certainty but it is almost certainly a system that has evolved over a period of time and years ago there was a tacit understanding that MPs’ pay rises would not be taken for whatever reason but that extra money would be put in to expenses. I offer that more by way of explanation rather than excuse.

Nobody in politics is immune from the damage that these disclosures have done.

My own expenses do not appear to have been considered worthy of comment by The Daily Telegraph but I do not kid myself that when they are published along with everybody else’s in July there will be some questions that people will want to ask. I own a small flat in Lambeth about a 25-minute walk from the House of Commons. I claim the interest (not the capital) on the mortgage payments on that flat. I claimed some of the purchase expenses for it and also for some of the furniture and fittings in it.

Everything I have bought has been at the “value” end of the market (mostly from Argos) and I have never “flipped”. Being on the third floor of a building it does not have a moat to clean and the bath could never be described as a swimming pool.

The details of all this will soon be published and people can see for themselves what I have spent. I would add in passing that the interest claimed on my mortgage is less (currently massively less) than would be claimed if I were paying rent.

Alistair Carmichael MP


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