MP’s expenses and other inaccurate claims

People often make claims to support their protest about something. Claims about tax avoidance, deaths, benefit fraud levels, or, on the other side of the political spectrum, claims about income, NHS spending, climate change etc. It is important to get facts right when making claims to protest about something because using a false claim to support your protest can wipe out any benefit from all the correct facts that you have claimed. The problem arises not just from a desire to mislead, but often from a complete failure to understand the claim and to check the facts, or the date on the information. In our efforts to make a political argument we often seize on a “fact” that we find and repeat it in a massive game of “Chinese Whispers” until it bears no resemblance to reality and is out of date anyway.

False claim about MP's groceries allowance

One such example is the idea that MPs routinely get £160 per week for groceries.It’s just not true. I have asked some MPS and they confirm that they do NOT get £160 per week for groceries. What is true is that MPs can claim for dinner if they are away from home late on parliamentary business or debating after 7:30pm in the House of Commons.

From the Parliamentary Standards Authority:

MPs can claim:

  • £25 per night for food and non-alcoholic drinks when travelling outside of the London Area and their constituency in pursuit of parliamentary functions
  • £15 per night for food and non-alcoholic drinks when the House of Commons sits beyond 7.30pm*

The typical amount that an MP might claim, in the rare circumstance of being away for five nights, is £125 for dinner out. If they have to eat out and aren’t living on kebabs while away then this is a likely cost. In normal circumstances they wouldn’t be claiming this at all. I’m not making any claim as to whether it is fair or not, just what the actual numbers are. (Also note that food in the Houses of Parliament is subsidised, a separate issue.)

The important point I want you all to take away from this is CHECK YOUR FACTS. If your claim is wrong, or even if it is nearly right, opponents will dismiss all your claims. I am guilty of this mistake too, but we should all try not to. Whether quoting benefit fraud rates or MPs expenses, find a trusted source and make sure you have the facts.


MPs and iPads

Over at Political Scrapbook there’s a headline or “Tory MP too busy to answer emails buys £750 iPad on expenses.

Outrageous! Shocking! String him up!

George Freeman
George Freeman MP

Except… what has he done wrong? Well, refuse to answer emails, obviously. Except he hasn’t refused, he’s just replied en-mass with a statement. Not the best manners, but justifiable if his workload is high.

What has that got to do with his iPad? Nothing, actually. This headline is bad journalism. There are two separate issues here, one is whether he fulfills his duties in communicating with constituents, and the other is whether or not this expense is justifiable.

So, is his expense justifiable?

First of all, realise that MPs expenses are supposed to cover the running of their offices and administration. That includes purchasing computer equipment for that purpose.

Secondly, just because an iPad is a toy for many people, that does not preclude its use as a tool for work and productivity. In fact many journalists, writers, and others make very effective use of an iPad to carry out their work. An iPad can be used for searching the internet, reading documents, taking notes, replying to emails (!) and much more.

Thirdly, why an iPad when he could have had a cheaper tablet, or a netbook? How can he justify paying for Apple? Well, love or hate Apple, their products are the slickest, most effective, and simplest on the market. People that are terrified of computers can use an iPad. Everything is locked down and checked by Apple, so a virus is unlikely. Apps just work. The interface is simple. Yes, there are tablets running Android or Windows. None of them are anything like as simple or reliable as an iPad, and I say that as a fan of Android and I’m not particularly enamoured of Apple since they started being so ruthless and nasty while locking down their products. And anyway, if the cost of Apple can’t be justified, neither can the cost of Microsoft Windows. Could he use a netbook? Of course. But tablets have an extra edge, an extra simplicity, ease of access, that netbooks don’t have.

iPadI’ve seen bargain basement Android tablets. They’re pathetic. Sub-par construction, broken interfaces, and missing the Android Marketplace (app store equivalent) because the manufacturers haven’t licensed it from Google. People who buy these cheap tablets get very annoyed when they can’t find any of the apps that they expected to use. Many return the product in frustration.

So, then, I conclude that George Freeman is quite within his rights to purchase an iPad as a work tool, even if he happens to play a game on it one day. He recieves money to spend on computer equipment, and he has done so. I have no problem with his choice of product, I think it is right for the job and will boost his productivity.

None of that stops me being annoyed that he is a Tory, disagreeing with his views, or thinking perhaps he should pay more attention to his constituent’s complaints.