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Claims and counter-claims

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Robin Lustig | 12:08 UK time, Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Any journalist who dares to write about expenses claims needs to do so with a hefty dollop of humility and caution. We are not exactly renowned for our probity in such matters.

Certainly, in my days as a foreign correspondent, I knew of many colleagues who, shall we say, used their considerable creative skills when submitting expenses claims. (On one occasion, when a colleague was asked by his office to account for $25,000 in advances, a group of hacks simply got together and inflated their own expenses claims so that they could help him pay back the money owed.)

But these days it's all very different, as MPs are discovering to their great embarrassment. What was acceptable once - at Westminster as in Fleet Street - is acceptable no more.

So here are some guiding principles for them:

1. Claim only what you would not have spent had you not been required to be at Westminster and if your constituency home is not within commuting distance (20 miles?).

2. When deciding whether to claim for eg a bathplug, use the taxman's "wholly and exclusively" test. Is the item being used wholly and exclusively to further your business? Would you have bought the bathplug had you not been an MP? (For example, journalists are not allowed to claim what they pay for newspapers on expenses, because the taxman takes the view that we would have bought them anyway, whether or not we were journalists.)

3. Apply the "Private Eye" test: how will this look if it appears in Private Eye?

If we, the voters, are MPs' employers, they are entitled to expect us to pay for all reasonable expenses that they would not have incurred had they not been working for us. (So, yes, we should pay for their travel and accommodation while they're at Westminster, but no, we shouldn't pick up their bar bills.)

Maybe the simplest would be to offer MPs a set payment per day, and then tell them it's their choice how they use it - a sister's back bedroom, or a room at the Ritz. But don't regard inflating expenses as a way to make up for "inadequate" basic rates of pay.

The problem for MPs is that until now, they have simply asked the parliamentary authorities "Is it OK if I claim for this, or that, or the other?" and when the answer was Yes, they just bunged in the claim and thought no more of it. They certainly didn't think we'd all be having a good look at what they were claiming for.

So how would you reform the system (the current rules are here)?


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