In times of crisis, we all need someone to direct our anger at. There are some new candidates during this coronavirus epidemic: people who sit down in parks, people who panic bought toilet roll, and police officers threatening to check shopping baskets. But the old staples remain, and top of that list are the selfish, venal MPs who have just handed themselves £10,000 to work from home.
This sort of story proves the point of all those who believe that MPs are out of touch and in it for themselves. It does such a good job of proving that point that it's too good a story to check. Which is just as well, because anyone bothering to check what's actually going on will find the facts rather less convenient.
Here is what has really happened. On 19 March, Ipsa, the independent body which regulates MPs' pay and expenses sent out a bulletin about its response to the coronavirus outbreak. This explained that:
'We have agreed a series of immediate measures that we hope will provide you with the resources and flexibility to concentrate on your parliamentary duties and support your staff at this time.'
The biggest change was that the existing office costs budget that MPs can claim expenses on will increase by £10,000 'to cover any additional costs you may incur to set up working remotely as a result of coronavirus'. The existing office costs budget (found here, along with all the budgets for MPs' spending) is up to £28,800 for London MPs, and £25,910 for all the rest. This covers renting a constituency office, and filling it with desks, computers, printers and so on, as well as equipment for the Westminster office (staffed by different people) and constituency surgeries. MPs can already claim for the cost of a home office for them and their staff if that's where they routinely work from, but not the normal cost of living in that home.
They will have longer to submit their claims for costs because of the turmoil caused by the outbreak, and can be paid back for their spending ahead of sending the necessary receipts or invoices in – but that evidence is still required at some point. Ipsa will also provide additional funding from its staff absence budget in case MPs' staff can't work.
This guidance came out nearly a month ago, but was picked up by the Times this week. The report was fair and accurate, but oddly a lot of people who like to bang on about how lazy MPs are don't seem to have read beyond the headline, and inevitably the claim that MPs have given themselves a lump sum of £10,000 has started circulating. MPs have been inundated with correspondence about how disgusting it is that they have got this money at a time when everyone else is losing their jobs, seeing their pay docked by 20 per cent while on furlough, and care workers haven't got the right personal protection equipment.
There is nothing wrong with getting angry at the way this virus has already damaged so many lives, and the slowness of the government's response to help those on the front line. But the problem is that neither the government nor MPs have anything to do with this £10,000 budget increase. Ipsa was set up after the 2009 expenses scandal to be independent of MPs so that decisions about pay and expenses stopped being political. MPs do not vote on their pay. They do not set their expenses' budgets. Similarly, Ipsa has nothing to do with the supply of PPE, support for teachers working remotely or looking after key worker children, or the system of support available for those who have lost their incomes.
People also seem to have confused the budget allowance set by Ipsa with a lump sum of £10,000 being wired straight to MPs. Many MPs won't go above the existing ceiling set for their office costs budgets because their staff are already equipped to work remotely, either by taking home office equipment, or because they already had sufficiently secure portable equipment. But some will be using their budgets so that their staff can do their jobs properly and in the sort of conditions a responsible employer should provide. Here is one example of an MP spending within the old budget to ensure that.
It is really not hard to understand the difference between a budget allowance and a lump sum, to the extent that some of the people spreading the misinformation about this money must have wilfully decided to confuse the two. Most workplaces have budget ceilings: at The Spectator, we have commissioning budgets and equipment budgets and so on, but they're not handed to staff as a lump sum, nor are they set as a target: you spend up to the limits of that budget and then you run out. This is what is happening in the case of MPs' office costs. At the end of all this, they will have to provide evidence of what they bought, and this will be published in the same way expenses claims have been ever since Ipsa was set up. If an MP tries to take advantage of this to buy themselves a Nintendo Switch for 'home working', then they will have to pay back the money. If one particular MP has spent wildly more than their colleagues, then we will know and will be able to probe why. We will also, by the way, see a drop in travel expenses claims as no MPs are travelling between Westminster and their constituencies during the lockdown.
There are wilful misrepresentations of what MPs are up to, and then there is the more understandable confusion about why it's important that their staff are properly equipped during this outbreak. Even though parliament isn't sitting at the moment (though there are plans for a virtual parliament after recess), MPs still have constituency work to carry out. In normal times, this takes up about a third of their workload, but anecdotally many are reporting a surge in demand as their constituents lose their jobs, find themselves in a legal nightmare over child contact, struggle to access Universal Credit, and find themselves working in a care home with no PPE. It is an MP's job to take on these cases and advocate for their constituents with ministers, government agencies and local government. They have staff to work on cases, who develop considerable expertise in benefits and immigration policy, for instance. And by the time someone comes to their MP with a problem, it is often so complex (when I was researching my first book, Why We Get The Wrong Politicians, I was horrified by the number of plastic bags full of paperwork people would lug along with them to the constituency surgeries that I sat in on) that it takes a good while and an experienced eye to work out how the problem started, let alone how to solve it.
If MPs' staff don't have the equipment to work from home during the lockdown, these complicated, crushing cases will go unsolved and the many people newly in crisis as a result of this pandemic will have nowhere to turn. This seems an odd thing to give up for the sake of people not getting cross about an increase in a budget which many MPs won't even spend. But then again, even if MPs were having to fund their entire office operation from their own pockets (which their salary, much lower than headteachers and senior civil servants, would not cover), and were in fact paying for the privilege of being in parliament, there would be some people who would want to characterise them as venal and lazy, with equally little basis in fact.