Expenses-gate (or Expensageddon as Johann Hari has called it…) rumbles on. Much of today’s coverage has focussed on Julie Kirkbride’s decision to spend more time with her husband (if she can only remember which house he’s in at the moment), and the devastating effect that being caught with her fingers in the till has had on Margaret Moran’s health. I am, of course, sorry to hear that anyone is suffering. Then again, I note that the stress Ms Moran has been experiencing results from her own actions, and that her decision not to stand down until the next election should afford her ample opportunity to recover, whilst still receiving her parliamentary salary, which is rather more generous than the Incapacity Benefit most other people with health problems have to live on. I have also been amused to note the tributes that have been paid to Ms Kirkbride as an excellent constituency MP – but not by her actual constituents, who have instead been busy organising a petition calling on her to resign immediately.
Anyway, that’s not what I want to write about. I want to write about Sir John Butterfill, the MP for Bournemouth West, whose financial and domestic arrangements are discussed in today’s Telegraph. Sir John is treasurer of the 1922 Committee, the organisation of backbench MPs that handles a lot of the administration of the parliamentary Conservative party, and is therefore a fairly senior figure within the party.
Sir John advised the parliamentary authorities that a small flat in his constituency was his ‘main residence’, and that the large house he and his wife shared in Woking was his second home. This enabled him to claim a whole range of costs associated with the refurbishment and day-to-day running of the property (more on this to come). However, when it came time to sell the Woking property, Sir John advised the tax authorities that it was his ‘primary residence’, and as a result avoided paying capital gains tax on what the Telegraph has reported as a £600,000 profit.
This would seem to have been a very clever manoeuvre, and his ability to think of it is perhaps a result of his positions as a partner in Butterfill Associates (financial and real estate consultants), and a consultant to Curchod & Co (chartered surveyors). If nothing else, these positions indicate that Sir John must have an impressive work ethic, managing as he does to squeeze his second and third jobs (not to mention his unpaid fourth job as Director of Gold Ísland Ltd, an Icelandic mining company, and his unpaid fifth job, as treasurer of the 1922 Committee) around his main job in parliament. These many jobs may also explain why Sir John has only found time to speak in the House of Commons 20 times over the past year.
Getting back to the matter of Sir John’s ‘second’ home, the eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted that Woking is neither in his constituency, nor in London, and may therefore be wondering how he had the sheer brass neck to claim anything for it in connection with his parliamentary work. During the course of a Newsnight interview last night, Sir John said that Woking was 20 minutes by train from Westminster, and that he was prepared to commute. I had a look at the relevant timetable, and it would seem that the journey from Woking to London Waterloo is usually timetabled to take around 30 minutes (it seems to fluctuate between 28 – 38 minutes, depending on the time of day). Adding in the time it would take Sir John to get from his home to Woking station, and from Waterloo to Westminster (to be fair, this journey is only 2 minutes by tube), it would seem that his door-to-door journey time might be at best double what he claimed (40 minutes) and potentially quite a bit longer. Sir John’s unfamiliarity with the actual journey time may perhaps be explained by the fact that, in the parliamentary session 2007-8, he claimed only £195 for rail travel, but £5,547 in car mileage allowances, suggesting he spends rather more time in a car than he does in trains.
During the course of the same Newsnight interview, Sir John defended his decision to purchase a property in Woking rather than somewhere closer to Westminster. He explained that his decision had been motivated by the fact that his wife did not want to live in London. This is rather surprising, since the property in Woking was his second home – that is to say, the simple crash-pad he spent the night in on those occasions when he was unable to make it back to his main home in Bournemouth. His wife’s opinion as to the location and nature of the accommodation should have been irrelevant. Since the £56,000 flat in his constituency was his main home, this must clearly have been where she was spending the overwhelming majority of her time. The alternative – that he and his wife spent most of their time in their £1.2 million ‘second home’ in Woking – is surely unthinkable, as it would mean that Sir John had been knowingly manipulating the parliamentary expenses system for his own benefit.
In any event, the house in Woking does seem to have been more than a little excessive for a simple overnight crash-pad. The Telegraph states:
For five years, Sir John submitted regular claims under the second home allowance for the cost of running his six-bedroom country house, which had a swimming pool and extensive grounds.
Even if his wife always travelled with him, and required her own bedroom (perhaps not unreasonable, if you look at his picture), this would still seem to be an excess of four bedrooms. It is worth bearing in mind that, around the same time that Sir John was luxuriating in an outsize house, there were 100,000 homeless families in England alone; think how many of these could have been accommodated in comfort in a six bedroom house.
We should perhaps not be too harsh towards Sir John on this point, however, as he did adapt the house in order to provide accommodation to one family apart from his own – that of his housekeeper and gardener/ odd-job man. In fact, the cost of adding an extra wing to accommodate Sir John’s staff – £17,000 – was charged to the public purse, which was also funding the council tax bill (not only for Sir John, but also for his staff), and paying up to £1,178 a month in mortgage interest payments. Strangely enough, when he was interviewed on Newsnight, Sir John expressed outrage that the Telegraph had described the new wing on his house as ‘servants’ quarters’, while freely admitting that this was accommodation for live-in staff who looked after the house and garden. Perhaps those who are born into the servant-employing class will be aware of a difference between ‘servants’ and ‘live-in domestic staff’, but I’m afraid the distinction is too subtle for me.
In any event, what really does beggar belief is that Sir John evidently believed absolutely in what he was saying – that he was the injured party, and that it was a good idea for him to give a telephone interview to Newsnight in order to clear up the ‘confusion’. He sincerely felt that the ‘young lady at the Telegraph’ – strange that he didn’t think to call her a journalist – had grossly misrepresented him by describing somewhere for his staff to live as servants’ quarters. He obviously believed that Newsnight viewers would listen to his explanation and think to themselves ‘Oh, well, that’s alright then – the 17,000 quid seems entirely justified’.
There was one final thing about his interview on Newsnight last night that greatly frustrated me. He made reference to the fact that he had spent a lot of his own money on renovating his Woking house, and that as a result he had made only a ‘small profit’, and not the £600,000 the Telegraph was claiming. Two things occur – firstly, I think £100,000 would seem like quite a lot of money to most people, and not really a ‘small profit’. But secondly, it isn’t him who’s made the profit at all – it’s the taxpayer. The taxpayer paid the interest on the mortgage, and without a mortgage he wouldn’t have owned the house, and wouldn’t have made a profit. And a substantial part of the added value will have come from the new annexe paid for by the taxpayer.
Sir John has evidently changed his mind about being entirely in the right. He’s announced that he’s to pay £40,000 to the taxman, an amount equivalent to the 40% rate of capital gains tax on a profit of £100,000 (the Telegraph is still claiming his actual profit was between £300,000 and £350,000). He’s also returning £20,000 to cover the cost of his new staff annexe, and repairs made to his constituency flat (which, if it was his main residence, shouldn’t have been claimed for under the second home allowance). The Telegraph say that this means he is now the MP who has paid back the most. But this really isn’t enough. The public don’t just deserve return of the original money, and payment of the tax – we deserve our full share of the profits he made by ‘investing’ our money in his mortgage payments and his building works.
Even more importantly than that, though, the electors of Bournemouth West (and everywhere else) deserve a full-time MP. They deserve to be spoken for by an MP who works full time for them – not one who splits his time between a total of five jobs, not to mention overseeing his property developments. Sir John isn’t a complete waste of space – he’s long campaigned in parliament for blind people to be granted the mobility component of Disability Living Allowance. But that isn’t enough. Being a vocal supporter of one group of disadvantaged people, and a member of a couple of committees, and the sponsor of an occasional bill, and a sometimes-speaker in the House of Commons, and making himself available to his constituents for a pitiful 4 hours a month – none of that is enough to justify his £64,766 salary and his (still very generous) legitimate expenses.
This is the real issue, I think. His expenses ‘fiddling’ is maddening, certainly, but the real problem is that the electors of Bournemouth West don’t have someone working for them, and their interests. They have someone who sometimes works for them, but sometimes works for the Conservative party, and sometimes works for Butterfill Associates, and sometimes for Curchod & Co, and sometimes for Gold Ísland Ltd, and sometimes for his own property developing interests.
It’s clear that politics isn’t Sir John’s only (or even perhaps his main) interest, and that’s fine. If he sees his involvement in politics as an adjunct to an already successful career then that’s fine, too. But it does mean he shouldn’t be allowed to be an MP. Neither should anyone else who has a job outside parliament, or a position as a charity volunteer, or anything that will occupy their time. We should say to MPs – if you want the honour of serving in parliament, and if you want the financial rewards that come with it, then you work for your constituents and no-one else, whether paid or unpaid. You dedicate your time to scrutinising legislation, and holding the government to account, and advocating on behalf of your constituents, and informing yourself about things in order that you can do the various aspects of your job more effectively.
Because that’s the deal. Ever since 1911, MPs have been paid, and that means they work for us, and we should insist that, if they work for us, then they work for no-one else. Insisting on this is probably one of the most important constitutional amendments we could make, and it would have the side-effect of helping to make things like Expensageddon more unlikely. You see, if we did, being an MP would no longer appeal to people who want to earn mega-money, because taking a job as an MP would place an upper limit of £64,000 on their earnings. Instead, the job of MP would appeal to people who want to serve their country, and want to make politics actually work, and want to offer practical support for their constituents.
That would mean we’d get more MPs like Tom Brake. Mr Brake hasn’t claimed anything under his second home allowance since 2004, and has no other jobs listed in the register of member’s interests, and is an above-average attendee at the House of Commons. It seems to me that more MPs like Mr Brake, and fewer like Sir John, is precisely the kind of change we need. The beneficial effect on expenses claims would just be a welcome bonus.