Letter from Westminster 16.10.09
The Sunday papers this week were predicting a series of embarrassing exposures for MPs as they returned to Westminster on Monday. They were right. My own embarrassing exposure nearly came sooner than everyone else’s as I went through security at Edinburgh Airport on Monday morning. It is now fairly well known that I have been making an effort to lose some weight recently. This effort has been successful to the extent that the belt around my trousers is needed in a way that has not been the case for some years now. Having removed it to go through the metal detector I then found myself being asked to undergo a body search. The instruction to hold my arms out by my sides very nearly resulted in me losing my trousers in the manner of a Brian Rix farce. Eventually we compromised on one arm at a time while the hand on the other one clutched the waist band of my breeks. In this way modesty was preserved.
The Sunday paper predictions had, of course, been speaking of the expected delivery of letters from Sir Thomas Legg who has been auditing the claims paid to MPs for their second home allowance. The first headlines came from the news that the Prime Minister was being required to pay back over £12,000 for cleaning and gardening. That set a few pulses racing, I can tell you. I understand that the bills for quite a few MPs do run to figures of that sort. In my case Sir Thomas has identified a few bills where he thinks that claims have been duplicated and a couple where (as previously reported) penalties for late payment have been included in the claim. I am in the process of checking these claims for myself. If they are correct I shall repay the money. As far as my claims are concerned Sir Thomas has not suggested re-payment of any money on the grounds that the claim with hindsight was excessive or lavish. He has done this in many cases and has set himself limits on what ought to be paid for things such as cleaning and gardening. This has caused some controversy and some MPs are feeling pretty peeved at having to repay money which they had claimed, sometimes after checking with the fees office first. You can see where they are coming from but my advice would be grin and bear it. There may be elements of individual unfairness but there are bigger issues at stake here. Firstly, it is difficult to defend that the system paid things like gardening in the first place. Secondly, there is a real need for parliament to draw a line under this. When this issue first hit the headlines in May I was one of those who said we should have a general election. This was not a widely supported view but listening to Andrew Marr on the BBC yesterday I was struck with the thought that I had been right about this. Marr said that this parliament had become inward looking. He is right about that. A June election would not have been easy but it would have been in the national interest.
Alistair Carmichael MP