Friday, May 22, 2009

The Flaws of the Fees Office

There has been much comment about the role of the House of Fees Office in the last few weeks. It has been alleged that they have helped MPs take full advantage of the system, along with the party whips. This would seem to be borne out by this entry from 7 May 1992 from the excellent Gyles Brandreth's diaries...

Michele came with me to meet Mr Fletcher in the Fees' Office. he was friendly and helpful and advised that we should register London as our main residence (which it is anyway), because that'll work to our advantage with the mileage allowance...My salary is going to be just £30,854 which is a nightmare. Michele is not amused. 'You didn't think about the money did you? You were so desperate to find yourself a seat you rushed in regardless.'
OK, the system has changed a lot since 1992, but the culture of the Fees Office has not. It was they who advised Labour MP Ben Chapman on his mortgage arrangements. Apparently they have privately apologised to him. Meanwhile, he's been forced out of politics. Yes, politicians are ultimately responsible for their own actions, but let's not lose sight of the fact that the Fees Office system of audit and advice is not fit for purpose.

59 comments:

Anonymous said...

Finally, some focus on the fees office. Let's face it, it's staffed by overpaid morons who approve all kinds of stuff and then see fit to moan about it in correspondence.

Fausty said...

MPs in HoC sessions have been falling over themselves to say that we should not blame the Fees Office.

Methinks it is because they butter the MPs' bread and know where other (as yet undiscovered) bodies are buried. One can imagine the verbal conversations that took place between the Fees Office and the troughers.

The symbiotic relationship between them needs to be severed and proper accounting and auditing instituted.

Anonymous said...

Blimey, you've changed your tune. Are some of your mates in trouble? Are the tories not benefitting as you'd hoped?

Indignant of tunbridge said...

Poor lamb, only £32k in 1992. No wonder they claim to be underpaid, I'm suprised they can manage at all.

I think you'll find that that wage is more than the median wage 17 years later !

Anonymous said...

MPs were getting paid £30k in 1992 and they're paid £60k now. Is that inflationary does anyone know?

Anonymous said...

But it was the POLITICIANS who dumped on civil servants at any given opportunity to tidy the system up. Elizabeth Filkin was just one victim, but the message would have gone out, loud and clear.

Anonymous said...

Ah, diddums, is Daley Waley worried that the howwible bully Cameron is being nasty to his ickle fwiend Nadine..

Ah, bless...

Mirtha Tidville said...

Correct me if I`m wrong but the fees office is not some autonomous wages office..it is controlled by the government of the day, usually in a manner that back benchers approve of (so it keeps them happy) and gets its wonga direct from the Treasury....

Its just the end of the pipeline that feeds the trolls...

Iain Dale said...

Anonymous 3.13. How have I changed my tune? I have consistently criticised the Fees Office throughout this.

Anonymous said...

where you have ... in the quote, is that where Brandreth says, "but Mr Fletcher it is the advantage of the tax payer which should always be uppermost in our minds"?

Anonymous said...

Fair enough, I'll take your word for it, you've always criticised the fees office, but you do believe anyone who has lied about their living arrangements in order to rip off the taxpayer should be out the door, yes?

msj said...

While there may be some truth to this blog, I think you'll find the average member of the public doesn't care. Dorries on Radio4 tried to blame the system. So have many other MPs.

The public will just see this as spreading the muck around. The smartest MPs will say very little about expanses and will get on with doing something useful, like sorting out our liberty, as in your previous blog.

Anonymous said...

But Iain,if a passably intelligent, relatively popular and politically marinaded bloke like you cannot be an MP, this is surely empirical evidence that there is no shortage of alternative candidates for the job ??

Supply and demand is the mantra of the Conservative Party, surely ??

As those philosophers of the eighties, Bucks Fizz, said "If you can't stand the heat, you're no competition.."

Blue Eyes said...

I vividly remember at primary school whenever a child presented the excuse "But Miss! Barny told me to do it!" the teacher would reply "If Barny told you to jump off a cliff would you do it?".

Are MPs really less able to judge right from wrong than the average five year-old? If so, what are they playing at making laws for us plebs?

Ever Vigilant said...

How do we know that bribery has not been used in the Fees Office ?
Police investigation is needed which should include examination of bank accounts of the appropriate staff

simon said...

I'm not exactly sure of the chain of command but doesn't the fees office take its orders ultimately from the Speaker, hence from the House? It doesn't absolve the people in charge of the office from being so lax with public money but if officials were told, in effect, 'these allowances are to be treated as de facto additional salary for MPs', they shouldn't be blamed too much for acting as Mr Fletcher did.

MPs voted for these allowances as a group and abused them as individuals. That's where the overwhelming blame lies.

Anonymous said...

The fact remains that, whatever the part the Fees Office played in this, the ultimate responsibility lies with the MPs themselves.

As anyone who uses an accountant will tell you, when you sign off on your accounts the contents therein are your responsibility. Bad advice from your accountant will not was as an excuse with HMR&C.

Lady Finchley said...

The Good Old Fees Office - when I called to ask what protection staff had now that our personal details had been leaked to the Telegraph I was told that I might want to consider changing my bank account! What part of no way Jose don't they understand? Why should we be put in peril? As usual they are of ZERO support to MP's staff.

Stepney said...

£32k in 1992 what a nightmare.

I was earning £13k, had 2 young children, and a mortgage which took up 71% of our household income.

The sprout soup years if I remember correctly.

I do quite like Mr Brandreth as it goes, but that sort of thing gets right up my arse.

Poor lamb.

wolvreen said...

Committing fraud because your boss (us) wont give you a decent wage, now thats acceptable - if your brain is wired like a politicians. Bit like thinking it was OK to quote 40m for the Scottish parliament build just to get it through the first stages even though it was a lie (David Steel admitted) and eventually cost 400m.
Complete arrogance.

Why when they had their pay increased did this corrupt nonsense not stop?

Thomas said...

There is a lack of perspective with this whole sorry saga. The Fees Office was set up by the House of Commons to facilitate claims within the rules of the Green Book. For anyone to then criticise the Fees Office for trying to help MPs understand the rules seems a tad unfair. By all accounts, the Fees Office was over-worked and under-staffed, and deferent in the extreme to MPs.

jailhouselawyer said...

Next you will be trying to tell us it is a McCarthy type witch hunt?

wolvreen said...

We should dig up the Elizabeth Filkin episode, see this from back in 2001.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/1693721.stm

The bastards screwed her over.

Mentions that Tam Dalyell was one of her critics, I remember thinking at the time, well if the uncorruptable old man Dalyell was complaining then she must be dodgy. How wrong can you be?

Even saint Betty Boothroyd critices her.

Bob Melton said...

Under the present system, the only authority which can assist an MP in deciding which of his/her claims are wholly and necessarily incurred on Parliamentary duties is the voice of conscience on his/her shoulder. And that is where the responsibility lies.

Anonymous said...

Sea Chanty Irish here

Attacking the fee office for being as helpful to MPs as prevailing law & custom allows, is a waste of time.

First, because you are flying in the face of all human nature. Always thought conservatives prided themselves on their respect for and attunement to this fundamental condition!

Second, because the staff of Fee Office were doing their jobs, as they had been instructed, trained & encouraged. The real problem was the instruction, training & encouragement from the management. Namely the government, the Speaker and senior MPs of all parties (not all of them, but they know who they are even if we might not, though Iain almost certainly does!)

Note that fair number of cases have been reported where claims were disallowed or curtailed. Not nearly enough, that's obvious. BUT it does suggest that at least some Fee Office workers tried to curb the worst abuses.

Problem was, the entire system was an abuse, due to lack of limits, accountability and above all transparency.

One point re: Parliament.

As with Congress under the American constitution, the independence of Parliament is a fundamental of the British constitution. Thus there is a strong case for maintaining Parliament's historic independence in matters of internal management.

Which makes transparency even more important.

Because once the Westminster Mews have been shoveled out and hosed down, and once new & higher standards are in place, and once MPs, journos, voters and Fee Office staff understand their privleges and obligations under the new order, THEN the primary way to police the system and keep everyone on the straight & narrow, is via regular, detailed and open reporting.

Ed said...

It seems to me that the fees office was a honey trap instituted by new labour to ensure that their MPs would have a lot to loose from not falling into and staying line.

Sadly as it had to "even handed" it also caught a lot of opposition MPs too.

I think that it was just another one of the many mechanisms of New labour control freakery.

All the transgressors of the spirit of the rules should be brought to book or better still law. That starts with GB who has lived in grace and favor accommodation for 12 years whilst he wrecked the country and yet he still claimed for his second home.

Paul Halsall said...

Politically I have little in common with Nadine Dorries, and I do think she sometimes misses logical connections, but I am also much less hostile to her than a lot of condescending commentators (who seem shocked a mere *nurse* should be in parliament).

Nadine's comments that seem true to me are:

1. At least until 2005 ACA was regarded as part of salary.

2. There continued to be that perception even after 2005, and new MPs such as her (and Malik come to that) asked how to interact with the system and were mislead.

3. (What no one will say) Many MPs would never dream of voluntarily living in their constituency, so any home rented their constitutes an "additional" cost *whatever the other housing arrangements.

Question Time last night, and the Guardian over the past two days have been calling for a "change everything now" agenda.

I think many things do need to change in this country, but the change needs to come through some consideration, not through newspaper rabble-rousing, and not through some ludicrous effort to emulate the United States.

http://englisheclectic.blogspot.com/2009/05/in-defence-of-nadine-dorries-mp-or-lets.html

Anonymous said...

The Fees office were operating on instructions and rules imposed by whom? They were given direction by whom? There jobs were dependant on serving whom? Who were they accountable to at the end of the day?

I'm sure you can work it out for yourselves.

I heard Nadine today on the radio saying, in effect, that she knew the abuses were going on and when asked why she never denounced them (or those who were abusing them) she countered that all the lobby journalists knew as well so they were to blame.

But I say again, who, in reality, did the Fees Office serve?

Savonarola said...

The Fees Office is not some independent autonomous unit.

It is controlled by the Govt of the day. Ie Whips and Party Leaders.

MP's were bought off by Party leaders/whips. The corruption is at the top.

A fish rots from the head. Thatcher got the ball rolling. But as with everything else under troughing NuLab blossomed.

Blair came into power with net worth of under £1m. Today his net worth is £10m+ He and Brown bought their backbenchers and cabinet colleagues. Never a peep out of Hoon. Stll a minister with a £2m property portfolio.

Nigel Allery said...

This system was designed to decieve the public. Who introduced it, who went along with it is not the main issue. Its about deceit. MP's forgoing rises, encouraging the public to accept low pay rises on the basis of their example. Whilst taking increasing allowances.

Are MP's such a spineless bunch that they can't make the argument for sensible pay? If yes is the answer then they do not deserve election. They are meant to be decision makers. And if no is the answer then they must have been happy to deceive the electorate who mostly had no idea how allowances worked.

Anonymous said...

Time to make the fees office the scapegoat now is it, that won't wash.

If I didn't know better I might think that you and Nadine were actually Labour moles, trying to spoil DC's response to the scandal.

Then again, I don't know better.

stuart said...

@Anon If you think the staff in the Fees Office are "overpaid" then you don't know what you're talking about. Staff in Parliament have it drummed into them that they do what the Members tell them. MPs abused their position making claims that were nonsense. It is no-one else's fault but their own. Who will MPs be blaming next? "Society"? I am happy to see MPs who have abused the system thrown to the wolves. Good riddance to them.

Joe public said...

Seem's you've picked up on Nadine's point.

So who was advising who on how to avoid Tax?

Did HMRC approve the 'system'.

Is it right that 'ordinary' taxpayers get threatened with fines & jail if their returns are incorrect?

Presumably there is no 'written' documentation clarifying this 'Tax-avoidance scheme?

Every person in the land will happily accept a 50% cut in salary if an equivalent 50% of tax-free 'expenses & allowances' becomes available. It don't take a genius to work out that that nearly halves an individual's tax bill.

p smith said...

I'm with Paul Halsall on this. Nadine Dorries has been the sole beacon of truth on this. The fact is that all the party leaders, all MPs and all of the mainstream media have known perfectly well for years how the expenses system has been used as an allowance system.

Leaving aside instances of fraud, it has all been expressly within the rules. For the media, Cameron and Brown to express synthetic outrage, anger and lack of knowledge is both dishonest and cowardly.

There has been no more obscene spectacle than the sight of Cameron, followed by Brown, tossing their colleagues onto the bonfire when they both knew full well what was going on. The fact that they have sought to victimise the eye catching cases (moats, duck houses etc) rather than focus on the far more significant issue of claiming back mortgage interest (for which Cameron for one is guilty) is despicable.

The media are equally complicit but then I don't expect anything other than faux outrage from them.

Dorries was like a voice of reason on the radio this morning. It was brave of her to make the point particularly as she made the point that everyone, including her party leader, knew that it worked that way. Bang goes her career but she has my respect.

Thats News said...

Firday Afternoon update. With corpse warning

Unsworth said...

I've been saying here and elsewhere for a very long time that the Fees Office is a) incompetent and, b) certainly complicit in this whole shambles.

When I first made such comments there were those who immediately and vehemently argued in support of the Fees Office. Where are they now?

But the real question is why did the Fees Office personnel decide to aid and actively encourage fraud on such a massive scale? Did any of these individuals think about what they were, apparently, expected to say and do? Did none of them actually question the legality and/or ethics of what was going on? Was/is Andrew Walker a law unto himself?

And who in Parliament was/is responsible for overseeing their operations? Whilst I believe that the Fees Office people were - probably still are - up to no good, the question is why?

As others here have posted, Cui Bono?

Oscar Miller said...

I was astounded to discover from C4 News yesterday that the Fees Office actually turned down Vigger's claim for his duck house. So it wasn't paid for by the taxpayer after all. Most news outlets, including the vast BBC coverage, never let that duck out of the bag. Indeed it's clearly been one big duck decoy.

manc_ill_kid said...

Could they close the Fees Office and replace it with a polling website, so the public have the choice to approve everything?

Ricardo's Ghost said...

What are we trying to say here?

That the attitude of the Fees Office ought to have been to say, "we know the House has passed the following set of rules and guidelines, but frankly we don't like them so we're just going to operate our own rules and guidelines as we see fit." Really?

Anonymous said...

Christ, just saw Nadine Dorries on the Six O'Clock news. Not good. I'm loathed to call her by her nick name but increasingly it fits.

Mike Law said...

Bottom line: 2 choices -
We actually swallow the guff that MPs are too thick to realise what they were doing was wrong (regardless of what the rules say - and they don't say that a MP can claim for all the stuff we find most have) and it's the rules/fees office who's to blame guv;
Or, we accept the fact that they think we're all fools.

wonderfulforhisage said...

If there were any honour within a square mile of Westminster, Brown, Cameron and Clegg would all resign. If they knew what was going on they should resign as leaders of their respective parties - the buck stops here. If they didn't know what was going on they should resign as an admission of incompetence.

john miller said...

Absolutely 100% not. How can you, as a Conservative, say that, because of the laxity of the fees office, somone who calls himself "The Honourable" is not responsible for his own actions?

Do you short change restaurants and hope they don't notice?

Do you underpay your tax hoping that HMRC will let it go?

Do you mug someone on the basis that the Old Bill will never track you down?

Some of the posts you have been putting up recently have made me re-assess just exactly where you stand. And this one makes me think you are on the side of the baddies.

Oscar Miller said...

Pravda doing their best to turn expenses into a Tory Story. Our Nadine was the star of the News at Six. In fact I agree with Paul Halstall, but she has walked straight into a trap set by the media wing of the Labour party. She needs to be a lot smarter than that.

Red Riding said...

Just been over at Guido's and Dorries is getting a real pasting. Some disgusting sexual stuff as well - I thought he was your friend, Iain?

Max Robespierre said...

So it's all the fault of the fees office. Individuals who allegedly were able enough to make the laws of the land were seduced into claiming for duck ponds, ladders and other essential to carry out the work of an MP by a bunch of jobsworths. This is becoming farcical. They have been found out full stop. This isn't a party political matter. It is matter of character. I'm a Labour Party member of 40 years standing and Cameron has played a blinder in my opinion. As for Dorries and her nonsense about suicide watch. Grow up woman and get a life. The way most people I speak to feel about Steen and co is that they would pull the trigger without a second thought. If anyone thinks that the Telegraph was wrong then they should go to the Guardian and look at Luff's generation game list. Of course I forgot he lives in an accident prone household.

Bryan Dunleavy said...

The Fleas in the Tlaws Office are to blame.

Anonymous said...

Most of the comments to this point seem to suggest that the Fees Office onlt followed the rules and that MPs are exclusively to blame. Yes, some of them took the system for everything they could; but while the Fees Office did challenge a lot of claims it seems clear that it was at best sypathetic and at worst negligent over applying the "Wholly, Necessarily and Exclusively" test that would have eliminated or reduced many of the expenses over which the Telegraph has made hay.

I hope the Committee on Standards in Public Life will recommend that the NAO audits the Fees Office to ensure that the test is rigorously enforced.

Victor, NW Kent said...

As far as one can tell this whole affair and the reaction of the MPs shows that they regard this as a Spartan offence - getting caught.

The Telegraph snitched on them, the bloody Fees Office didn't control them, senior colleagues advised them to fill their boots, they are not good at bookkeeping, mathematics are not their strong suit, the "rules" are confusing, they were busy.

Every single one of those excuses shows with great clarity that they had no right whatsoever to be in Parliament in the first place.

Small wonder that debates in the House throw up some members who can hardly put three words together in an intelligible sequence, especially the plants at PMQs who appear to be illiterate - they cannot even read what was written down for them by the Whips.

A common defence is that we don't pay them enough - they could earn far more in civvy street. That is true of some but many of them couldn't earn money as rat catchers or janitors.

It is a disgrace that our democracy even allows people who are totally unsuited to be elected at all. That is largely due to tribal loyalties which throw up Andy Capp on the one side and Colonel Blimp on the other.

Flemingcrag said...

The story is not what the Fees Office passed. The truth that needs outing is who was telling them to pass the many outrageous claims besides the Speaker.

I have said this before and repeat it in the hope that someone will eventually pick it up and pursue the truth to the Nth degree; The Party whips of all parties were using the Fees Office as a "tool" for controlling the outcomes of votes, none more so than the Labour Whips.

Sneer all you want at receipted claims for "cleaning moats" and "duck islands" but, "food claims" totalling £18,800 over a four year period with not one single receipt!!!

Michael Martin might have been the head of the octopus stealing from the public purse but, the Whips were the many arms dishing it out.

bewick said...

Yep I'd guess it IS an inflationary increase despite all the bleating.
I have in my mind some benchmarks.

In 1989/90 I was a Deputy Chief Officer in one of the SIX most major Local authorities in the Country (not Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester so work it out. It is very NORTHERN)

I DID then earn just a little more than an MP and somewhat more than a GP. appropos the MP MY daily responsibility was far more and I regularly worked 12 hour days. The GP - well I'm not too sure about that but I have serious doubts on value even though I have great respect for the skill of SOME of them.
My mid-range professional staff earned about the same as a mid range teacher with a few years experience. the more senior perhaps equalled an MP.
Backtrack another 20 years and my mid-range staff would have been at least EQUAL to an MP in salary.
TODAY? Well TODAY , even with the massive increases in the salaries of top jobs in LAs I would likely now ONLY have the salary of an MP but WITHOUT the tax free perks.
I would earn somewhat LESS than a common or garden GP (courtesy total incompetence by the Govt in determining contracts).
My staff would (and those still serving are) earning rather less than GPs and even teachers with similar levels of professional skill.

And these MPs really THINK that they are "entitled" to expenses equal to another £40k taxed salary? (which equates to £24k after tax).

enough IS enough.Cameron must not just threaten he must SACK. "they are jealous" seems to be the REAL attitude of many.
Given the numerical superiority of the Labour benches then the Tories and Liberals will suffer much LESS than NuLab.
So gather the cojones David and be effing RUTHLESS. Brown will forget WHERE his balls (if any) actually are.

Anger is at its height. TWO Question Times prove it and I'd reckon, after tonight, TWO "any questions".
I remember a Paris taxi-driver pointing out that the Bastille no longer existed when we passed La Place de la Bastille.
Think on Westminster. Do NOT assume because you could have a very nasty surprise. I'm researching sources for rope!

bewick said...

Yep I'd guess it IS an inflationary increase despite all the bleating.
I have in my mind some benchmarks.

In 1989/90 I was a Deputy Chief Officer in one of the SIX most major Local authorities in the Country (not Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester so work it out. It is very NORTHERN)

I DID then earn just a little more than an MP and somewhat more than a GP. appropos the MP MY daily responsibility was far more and I regularly worked 12 hour days. The GP - well I'm not too sure about that but I have serious doubts on value even though I have great respect for the skill of SOME of them.
My mid-range professional staff earned about the same as a mid range teacher with a few years experience. the more senior perhaps equalled an MP.
Backtrack another 20 years and my mid-range staff would have been at least EQUAL to an MP in salary.
TODAY? Well TODAY , even with the massive increases in the salaries of top jobs in LAs I would likely now ONLY have the salary of an MP but WITHOUT the tax free perks.
I would earn somewhat LESS than a common or garden GP (courtesy total incompetence by the Govt in determining contracts).
My staff would (and those still serving are) earning rather less than GPs and even teachers with similar levels of professional skill.

And these MPs really THINK that they are "entitled" to expenses equal to another £40k taxed salary? (which equates to £24k after tax).

enough IS enough.Cameron must not just threaten he must SACK. "they are jealous" seems to be the REAL attitude of many.
Given the numerical superiority of the Labour benches then the Tories and Liberals will suffer much LESS than NuLab.
So gather the cojones David and be effing RUTHLESS. Brown will forget WHERE his balls (if any) actually are.

Anger is at its height. TWO Question Times prove it and I'd reckon, after tonight, TWO "any questions".
I remember a Paris taxi-driver pointing out that the Bastille no longer existed when we passed La Place de la Bastille.
Think on Westminster. Do NOT assume because you could have a very nasty surprise. I'm researching sources for rope!

Steve W said...

GB's diaries are a bloody good read.

Not many political diarists come out with sentences as honest as:

"Met that total cow, Emma Nicholson..."

hehehe

Ricardo's Ghost said...

Of course the aspect that hasn't yet made it into the story is that some of the most egregious claims weren't actually approved or paid by the Fees Office. For example the public didn't pay for:
- cleaning Douglas Hogg's moat
- building Peter Viggers' duck island
- buying Lembit Opik's £2500 TV

Anonymous said...

shameful iain- shameful. you ought to hang your head in shame. you dont understand that politics is contaminated with this and you are frankly making excuses. disgrace

Anonymous said...

Fees Office, and all Commons staff are employed by the Commons Commission headed by the Speaker. They are not Civil Servants as they cannot work for the Government as they serve Parliament as a whole. Whilst they have been craven in the extreme they were almost certainly directed to be so and if you cross an MP your card is marked. Fees Office accounts are subject to inspection by the NAO but it should be pointed out that whilst many of these claims were being nodded through, the Comptroller & Auditor General of the NAO was himself no stranger to controversy in relation to - well, his own expenses actually.

Thatsnews said...

Great. That's just what we need in a crisis! A prime minister who become hysterical with rage and can't be relied upon not to say the first stupid thing that comes into his cavernous head...

Anonymous said...

I'd like the DUP's David Simpson's little oversight/repayment investigated a little more.

The fees office lost his original expense claim apparently, then when his office queried it, they asked him to send in another claim.
He did...but only when 'going through his claims thoroughly' at a later stage did he discover that the Fees Office paid out the original and the re-submitted claims.

Hmmmmm....another £1000 odd worth of public money paid back by an 'outraged and angry' MP.

Brian said...

I'd just like to add to those who aren't condemning the Fees Office; they were complicite in as much as they were applying and advising on pretty loose rules.

That they did object to the likes of 8,000 quid TVs and duck islands shows that they were trying to hold back some of the excesses. This does not excuse the fact that Members felt they had an entitlement to such extravagant claims (I find the claims that were turned down to be as objectionable as those that were passed).

Furthermore, as has been shown - and I think one of the things that has been really telling from this whole saga - is that MPs when confronted by the Fees Office will receive a barrage of complaint from the MPs saying, in effect, 'how dare you?' (we won't know of the (unrecorded) phone calls - I've heard them - saying 'but I'm the MP'...).

This unfortunately is part of the culture of a body that runs on the idea of honourable members - sovereign, beyond reproach and to whom everyone must pay deference (remember the MP/staff queueing debacle) - who do not take on the responsibilities that come with such a title