Saturday, 8 December 2012

Transparency re London accommodation arrangements

One of the welcome features of the new expenses system is that constituents can see all expenses claims online here, including everything from claims for rent on the constituency office, office phone bills or standard class rail tickets to Wesminster.

In addition, the subject of MPs' accommodation arrangements in London continues to be the focus of some attention, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to provide an update on my own arrangements.

When first elected in 1997 I rented a room for a short period but it quickly became apparent that in the longer-term it would be cheaper to have a mortgage and claim the interest.  Over the years I have stayed overnight and claimed mortgage interest on a bedsit or one-bedroom flat in Westminster. 

Under the rules of the scheme, I would be entitled to retain any profit made from increases in the value of such property prior to the 2010 General Election.  But I have made it clear that in my view the purpose of the scheme is simply to give MPs somewhere to live whilst in London and not to provide a profit.   I have therefore said for some years that when I no longer owned a property in Westminster I would return any profit to the taxpayer.  I am now making arrangements to do this.

In October this year I sold my London flat and am now renting (and ceased claiming for mortgage interest in July).    I estimate that I made a profit, net of capital gains tax and legal fees etc. of around £22,000 through increases in the value of the properties on which I have claimed.  I have therefore written to IPSA confirming that I wish to return this sum and asking for details of how I can return this amount to the taxpayer.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Questions answered on expenses

Today (21st July) IPSA have published figures for the 'expenses' claims of all MPs for 2010/11. I very much welcome the new transparency and openness about the new system. I thought it might be useful if I reported back my own claims and how taxpayers' money enabled me to do my job.

My total figure for 2010/11 was £142,671. The main elements of this were:

- £105,508 for staffing; this is the cost of employing staff in the constituency office and at Westminster, including employer NI contributions and contributions to staff pensions; in 2010/11 one member of staff went on maternity leave and so I incurred additional costs in paying for maternity cover; for this reason my staffing figure is higher than average, though I have queried with IPSA whether these costs have been correctly recorded;

- £15,968 for staying in London overnight around 3 nights per week; I still have a one-bed flat in Westminster where I stay; when the flat is sold, any gain in value will go to the taxpayer;

- £9244 for 'office costs'; this is mainly the cost of lease and service charge for the office at Pooole Court;

- £7151 for general admin costs; this is things like phone bills, toner cartridges for printers, broadband bills, additional IT above the basic amount provided by parliament etc.;

- £4798 for travel; this is standard class rail journies (generally once a week) from Bristol Parkway to Westminster and parking at Bristol Parkway; where possible I buy advance rail tickets but as a minister it can be hard to predict my return rail journey home on a Thursday so I generally buy an open ticket which is more expensive.

In terms of things that I don't claim, I made no claims in 2010/11 for mileage/petrol and no claims for food.

I hope that this is helpful information for local residents.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Coming to a conclusion on fees

I’m grateful to everyone who took the trouble to contact me about the difficult issue of fees.

I’ve thought long and hard about it, as you might imagine. I’ve had to consider two key things – the content of the policy and the things we said before the election.

I think the policy is far more positive and fair than the media reports would imply. At the moment, students repay their fees as soon as they start earning £15,000 per year, well below the typical graduate starting salary. Under the new scheme, repayments won’t start until £21,000. This means that every new graduate will pay less each month than under the present system. They will pay for longer, but after 30 years the balance of their account will be cancelled if they haven’t cleared it. So unlike a credit card debt, there is an end point, and those who don’t earn much won’t end up paying much of the fees back. In terms of fees, there is no risk in going to university - if your career takes off, you pay back fully, if it doesn't, your outstanding debt gets written off.

A second important positive feature of the change is that part-time students (who make up a surprisingly high proportion of undergraduates) will not have to find fees up front. Until now part-time students have been the poor relations and this will change.

Third, the basic cap on fees will be £6,000 (less than double the current cap). Those universities who want to go further than this will have to show they are working effectively to remove barriers to young people from diverse background getting on courses.

Given the need to make long-term changes in order to get the public finances on an even keel, I think that this is as fair a package as could have been achieved. In the words of the second half of the famous NUS pledge: “I will vote for a more progressive alternative”.

Which brings me on to the things that were said before the Election.

I stood on a manifesto that had literally hundreds of policies and pledges. If we had won the election I would have expected us to implement them, and would have been on the front row of the demonstrations if we hadn’t.

But we were faced with a situation where the electorate elected just 57 MPs, and that makes a huge difference to our ability to implement our policies. We could have sat in opposition and voted issue by issue. But then we would only have been able to implement our commitments if someone else agreed with us! I judged (and still believe) that it was better for us to form a Coalition both in the national interest and in order to deliver more of the pledges on which we were elected.

By the end of this Parliament I believe we will indeed have delivered far more of the things we promised before the Election than we have ever done before. I believe that this was the best way to keep faith to the electorate for the things that I said before the Election. Of course I wish that we could have made more progress in the negotiations over fees. But I ask myself how many other things that we stand for, and on which people voted for us, we would have sacrificed along the way. And if we hadn’t ended up giving ground on fees, would I now be having angry e-mails from people saying I had betrayed them on climate change or civil liberties?

In sum, I believe that the way I have kept faith with the people who voted for me is to seek to implement as much as possible of the manifesto on which I was elected, as part of a Coalition programme for government, and on fees, to seek to make the policy as fair as possible given the crippling financial situation in which we find ourselves as a nation. I believe that I have done both of those things and will be supporting the package in the vote which will shortly take place.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

A real rollercoaster

The events of the last few days have been a real rollercoaster, from the highs of the election campaign and the surge in Lib Dem support during the campaign, to the lows of polling night, through several days of tense negotiations to finally agreeing to a five-year coalition deal last night. I know that to many people the place where we have ended up will seem at the very least suprising, so I thought I would put down my thoughts.

My starting point is that we have to respond to the hand that the electorate deals us. No party got a majority of MPs, and even the most successful party didn't get much more than one third of the votes cast. In that situation, one party trying to run the country on its own was unlikely to be sustainable for the long term. I suspect a Conservative minority administration would have been followed a few months later by another General Election. In that election the Conservative demand for a clear mandate and 'strong government' would almost certainly have resulted in a five year majority Conservative government.

Against that backdrop, the only alternative was some form of co-operation between two parties - something that the Lib Dems have always argued is quite normal in most democracies.

Working with Labour would have raised a number of issues. With Gordon Brown kept in post, many people would have accused us of thwarting the will of the electorate. With Gordon Brown gone we would have ended up with a second successive Prime Minister who had not been elected through a General Election. Furthermore, even Lib + Lab votes would not have been a majority in the Commons and the instability of relying on Nationalist votes would not have given us a stable government.

In the end, it was clear that Labour MPs were not ready for joint working, as many said publicly. In particular, there was no appetite for a move on reform of the electoral system which in our view is the key to unlocking more progressive politics.

This left only one option - a coalition with the Conservatives. We had always said we would negotiate with the largest party first, and the Conservatives proved willing to adopt a large number of Lib Dem policies, including putting through legislation to give a referendum on a preferential voting system, as well as fairer taxes and a greener economy.

Clearly, the jointly agreed programme does not give us everything we want as Lib Dems. But it means that a lot more Liberal Democrat policy and principles will be put into practice in government than any of us could have dreamed just a few weeks ago. Let us hope that we can now demonstrate that different political parties can work together for the good of the country.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Thank you!

I'm delighted to be the first Member of Parliament for 'Thornbury & Yate' - indeed at one stage this evening I was the first Lib Dem MP in the country!

The full result was:

Steve Webb (Lib Dem) 25032
Matthew Riddle (Con) 17916
Roxanne Egan (Lab) 3385
Jenny Knight (UKIP) 1709

It was a great honour to get more than fifty per cent of the vote for the third General Election in a row. I think an hour or two of sleep may be called for!

Thursday, 29 April 2010

What do you have to do to vote?

As this will be the first time many people have cast their vote, I thought it might be useful to explain what actually happens when you go and vote.

If you are on the list of the people who can vote (the 'electoral register') then you should by now have had a postcard (a 'polling card') with your name and address on it and telling you either that you have registered to vote by post (in which case you should already have been sent a ballot paper) or telling you where to go and vote.

If you are voting in person, election day is next Thursday, May 6th. The polling stations are all open from 7am to 10pm. When you go and vote it is helpful if you take your polling card with you, but it doesn't matter if you've lost it or can't find it.

You go in to the polling station and give your name and address to the clerks. They will check that you are on the list and haven't already voted and will then hand you a ballot paper. This is a list of the people who want to be your MP, together with a description (eg "Liberal Democrats") and a part logo (eg in our case the 'bird of liberty').

You take your ballot paper to one of the booths and you put a cross in the box next to the name of the candidate that you want to be your MP. You then fold your ballot paper and place it into the ballot box (usually a big black metal box with a slit in the top).

That's all there is to it! If you haven't received a polling card or are not sure where to go and vote, you can check with the Council on 01454 863030.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Interesting times...

Astonishing things going on in the polls at the moment. An ICM poll taken *before* the debate had Lib Dems up 7 and two others polls have Lib Dems overtaking Labour and only a few points behind the Conservatives. Anyone's bet where we go from here.

Two reflections on the events of recent days:

- the biggest change seems to have been the not very extraordinary change of *giving the Lib Dems fair coverage* - for 48 weeks a year the BBC can largely ignore us but for four weeks they are obliged by law to give us a decent showing; and guess what? when people hear what we have to say, presented in an effective manner, lots of them like it!

- the polling people are really struggling to work out how many MPs each party would get if the voting figures stayed as they are now being reported; but what seems clear is that the current voting system could leave the party with the fewest votes with the most MPs!! If that were to happen, surely the case for changing our electoral system would become absolutely overwhelming

I must say I've been amazed at the number of people in the last 48 hours who have told me - unprompted - that they were impressed by Nick on the debate show. Especially encouraging has been that people who don't normally think of themselves as interested in politics watched the show and decided who to support on the back of it. Interesting times indeed....