MPs are embroiled in yet another expenses’ scandal after the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) yesterday revealed that MPs have spent £3.6million of tax payers’ money renting office space from their own local political party.
IPSA have examined each of the 721 leases agreed since the 2010 election and found a staggering 244, more than a third, show the named landlord to be the MP’s local association.
The practice is much more prevalent amongst Tory MPs, 132 of whom rent office space from the Conservative party. In addition, 65 Labour MPs and 26 Liberal Democrats have also taken advantage of subsidising their local party through the back-door.
Critics have been queuing up to criticise this practice. Jonathan Isaby, political director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said:
“It’s one thing if a local political party offers their MP and staff free use of a desk or an office, but quite another for it to be sending taxpayers an annual invoice for thousands of pounds.
“Often this is space that would not in any case be available to anyone else on commercial terms.”
Much of the debate which will follow is painfully predictable. MPs will point out they have broken no rules in subsidising their local party – and by extension their own campaign for re-election – in such a way. They will also claim such leases provide taxpayers with value for money, with IPSA requiring an independent valuation demonstrating the value of the lease reflects the market rate.
I would also be surprised if the Conservative party machine doesn’t at some point mention the fact 10 Labour MPs have leased office space from trade unions, 6 of whom have rented from Unite, the union at the heart of the Falkirk vote rigging scandal.
However, I suspect the figures released by IPSA will prove to be the tip of the iceberg only.
What the information released doesn’t tell us is, for example, how many MPs lease space from local party donors. Again, this wouldn’t be outside of the rules, but as Jonathan Isaby rightly added,
“Individuals, businesses or trade unions should be free to provide office space to an MP as a donation-in-kind, but invoicing the taxpayer for that facility before then making a political donation appears to be little more than a sneaky way of channeling taxpayers’ cash into party coffers.”
There are a host of ways in which the system is able to be manipulated, and I need to look no further than the constituency where I live, Stockton South, to find an example.
The information released by IPSA informs us the local Conservative MP has leased office space since August 2010 from Durham and Tees Valley Business Centre. But what it doesn’t tell us is the office is actually shared with the local Conservative association. A temporary partition has been installed in a poor attempt to create the visual appearance of two distinct offices, thereby enabling rent for each half of the one office to then be charged to the MP and to the association separately. As a result, the local Conservative association benefits from the use a much larger office than they would otherwise be able to afford without the back-door subsidy from taxpayers.
Once again, such an arrangement is not breaking any rules, but it’s questionable whether it is in keeping with the spirit of the rules. At least those MPs renting directly from their local party are being transparent about exploiting this loophole.
IPSA have confirmed they will be looking into the cushy office arrangements of our MPs. Their website proclaims,
“As part of a broad review of accommodation support, IPSA will consider whether, even if the individual leases are appropriate, the cumulative effect means we need to reconsider this aspect of the rules”.
But this beggars the question: if IPSA even needs to ‘consider’ whether MPs subsidising their local parties with taxpayers’ money through the back-door is “appropriate”, how can we accept that IPSA is any longer fit for purpose — if indeed it ever was?