Monday, 30 March 2009

Sense on MP expenses

The latest revelations about MP expenses reinforce the need for a complete shake-up of the whole system. Some good sense on the subject was written yesterday in the Mail on Sunday by Sir Alistair Graham who used to chair the Committee on Standards in Public Life. You can read his article here.

Later today the House of Commons will publish a summary of MPs expense claims for 2007-08 and no doubt there will be another set of adverse headlines. I thought it might be helpful therefore to explain a few things about what the figures mean.

My biggest 'expense' is the cost of employing staff. I employ one full-time member of staff at Westminster and five people in the constituency working different combinations of hours. The office team do an excellent job making sure that constituents get a quality response even when I'm tied up at Westminster or out on constituency visits, and in helping to brief me for my contributions to debates in Parliament. Their salaries are included in my total expenses figure.

The next biggest 'expense' is the cost of living in London around 100 nights a year. I have a one-bedroom flat near the House of Commons and claim for the costs of that flat. In my case there is no doubt that my family home is in the constituency, where my family live and where I spend the majority of nights.

My next expense is the cost of travel between constituency and Parliament (typically one train journey per week) and a limited amount of mileage around the constituency.

The final main expense is the cost of leasing and running a constituency office. I lease an office at Yate on which I pay rent, service charge and business rates. Further costs include things like phone bills, office equipment, stationery etc.

Adding all of these up comes to a significant figure, but I hope that this breakdown helps to explain a bit more of the story behind the figures. I have always voted for greater openness in these matters and for tougher independent audit, and will continue to do so.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Freeing up much-needed cash

Just had a few minutes on the BBC's politics show at lunchtime to float an idea that could make a real difference to households threatened with repossession or in other financial need.
This coming year, it is expected that around 70,000 families could lose their home through repossession.  Many of the same households will have one or more member who has a pension scheme which will eventually pay out a substantial tax-free lump sum on retirement.  But under present rules, that money cannot be touched.   On retirement it can be used for a world cruise, to pay off a mortgage, for home improvements or for anything else you fancy.  But just when you need it - now - it can't be touched.
This seems crazy to me.   We know that most people take up the opportunity to draw up to a quarter of their pension fund as a tax-free lump sum on retirement.   This is money that, in general, doesn't get turned into a pension at all.   So allowing people to access the money early would in general not undermine peoples' future pensions.   What it could do is allow them to stave off repossession or - frankly - spend their money on something else that would boost the economy such as buying a car or putting down a deposit on a house.   At a time when the Governor of the Bank of England is warning that the Government can't afford to borrow yet more money to stimulate the economy, this would be a way to put billions into the hands of households that need it.
There are lots of details that would need to be worked out (and which we will cover in a pamphlet on this theme to be published next month).   For example, you would probably need a cap to make sure this didn't just turn into a big tax avoidance scheme.   You would also need rules about how often this could be done, how the pension funds would be compensated for this increased complexity and hassle and so forth. 
But the more I think about this idea, the more I think it could make a real difference to people, boost the economy now, and all without spending a penny of taxpayers' money - not a bad combination!

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

And now they want to know who your friends are...

In the lastest twist in the attempts by the government to monitor every aspect of our lives, we now learn that they want to force social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace to reveal who peoples' friends are. As well as wanting access to all our e-mails and phone records, the Home Office has indicated it would find it useful to be able to get lists of peoples' contacts on the internet. However, we are 'assured' that the Government would not be interested in monitoring the content of any communications between people (yeah, right!).

Some people would say "if you've nothing to hide, then why not?". But on that basis, let's have a little camera in the corner of every room in our homes, just in case any illegal activity takes place. After all, if you've nothing to hide....

What this increasingly authoritarian government doesn't seem to understand is that there is such a thing as 'private space'. What sounds like a modest request to aid the fight against crime quickly turns into a dirty great loophole which allows all arms of the state to intrude into your private life. Every time the Government asks for new powers of intrusion in our lives they always assure us that its use will be proportionate and restricted. But after the circus moves on we suddenly find that these powers are being used for all sorts of reasons that we were not warned about at the time - witness the eviction of someone who heckled Jack Straw at a Labour conference by means of 'anti-terrorism' powers.

The present government - and its predecessors - are too cavalier with our personal freedoms. Each addition to the powers of the state can seem modest on its own and justified in isolation, but put them all together and you quickly end up with a snooping state and it's time that we said 'enough is enough'.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Disappointment on Fuel Poverty

The strange rules of the House of Commons meant that an attempt by Lib Dem MP David Heath to take forward a Bill to end fuel poverty fell today at the first hurdle.

Many Lib Dem MPs, myself included, had returned to Westminster to be present to support this 'Private Member's Bill' which would have put in place measures to ensure that the Government kept to its stated aim of eliminating fuel poverty by 2015. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Government didn't want something that would put more pressure on them to act. But disappointingly, there were hardly any Tory MPs present for the debate or the vote, and we fell short by just 11 votes of the number needed to get the issue into committee for further consideration. Although the vote to move things forward was won by a margin of more than 80, because there weren't 100 MPs voting it had no effect!

We'll have to find other ways to keep up the pressure over this vitally important issue.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Another outrage from First Bus

It doesn't seem many weeks ago that we had to launch a campaign to stop First Bus scrapping the 'express' bus services that it ran from South Gloucestershire down the M32 into the centre of Bristol.

Hot on the heels of that attempt to undermine local bus services, the company has now announced a new round of cuts with no consultation - simply presented as a fait accompli.

From 10th May the X27 will no longer operate. The X42 will only run at peak times and will be replaced by the (slower) 342 off peak. Incredibly, areas such as Winterbourne High Street, Iron Acton (or actually the by-pass, as the buses had already stopped going through the High Street), and North Yate will be without daytime bus services from First. In addition, the 482 Sunday service between Chipping Sodbury and Cribbs Causeway is to be cancelled.

The company claim that they can't possibly be expected to go on running these services given the economic downturn, despite the millions in profits that FirstGroup made last year.

You do sometimes wonder why First bother to run buses at all - it must be such an inconvenience to them.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Pensioners losing out

As today's Times reveals, yet another Government computer bungle has meant that thousands of pensioners have been short-changed. Shortly before Christmas, Vince Cable revealed that thousands of public sector pensioners had been overpaid because part of their pension had been uprated twice - once by the company that administers their occupational pension and once as part of their state pension. But what was not revealed at the time was that thousands more had been underpaid because of other problems with getting information from one computer to another.

For the people who have been underpaid there has been no Commons statement, no announcement of plans to pay back the arrears - presumably with interest. I will be demanding an urgent response from the Government about when they knew about this and when they were planning to own up to this blunder.

One of the interesting side-issues that arises from all of this is that no-one receiving these pensions noticed either the over- or under-payments and they went on for decades. There could not be clearer evidence of the fact that the pension system is so fiendishly complicated even the people who are paid to administer it do not notice when things are going wrong. The sooner we have a radical simplification, with people getting a decent basic pension on which they can build their own pensions and savings, without the need for mass means-testing, the better.