Saturday, May 16, 2009

Nadine Dorries MP and her expenses: not good enough, would-be minister

The great expenses saga has generated more heat than light, and enough hot air to threaten our climate change targets. A lot of people are outraged that MPs have two houses and buy expensive things, even though nobody would become an MP for the money (working barristers who become MPs suffer a dramatic drop in salary). It seems these days that we no longer hate the rich because they're rich: we are supposed to admire people like Richard Branson or Bill Gates. But we still feel an unease that other people may be getting an easy ride, while we don't. There is something appealingly anachronistic about someone claiming for cleaning out their moat or managing their mole problems, but the truth is that these would be counted as legitimiate business expenses by an estate, farm, or self-employed person.

However, MPs have been taken by surprise at the virulence of the hatred they have unleashed, because they misunderstand its underlying cause: what people care more about money is equitable treatment. Fairness is such a core principle in our psyche that we would prefer that nobody was given a prize rather than it should go to the wrong person. It's interesting in this context to consider the case of Nadine Dorries, the Conservative MP, who is one of the few MPs so far to come out robustly defending her actions. Commenters have queried how many houses she has (and therefore the basis of her claim for an 'additional' house in her constinuency), and she responded with further clarification which sounds complicated but seems reasonable.

But in her response to the Daily Telegraph questions, she concedes the really damaging point. Their first question is:

1. In 2006 you claimed for the cost of a hotel stay on New Year's Eve and another just a few days before Christmas, when the House was not sitting. Please can you explain why you felt this was an appropriate use of public funds.

She responds:

I have never spent a New Years Eve away from my daughters and I have never spent it in a hotel, ever. In fact, New Years Eve 2006 is when I held a party and cooked a 12 bird roast and I blogged the entire evening. Anyone reading this can check it out.

The Telegraph has an invoice charged to MR N Dorries, which was submitted, but never paid. I don’t actually submit the invoices, my PA does, and that one may have been submitted in error, In error - because I never stayed at any hotel on New Years Eve ever if it had ever been paid it would have been refunded IMMEDIATLEY. What may have happened is that someone who is not a member of the Carlton Club may have booked a room in my name, friends do, however; my other point is that I am not even sure the Carlton Club is open over Xmas and New Year?

The fact is though that an invoice was submitted from my office, for a room I didn’t stay in, which is obviously an error and no money was paid to me for that invoice.

She implies it should have been obvious to anyone with any familiarity with her movements and lifestyle that the invoice submitted as a claim was not an expense she had any involvement with.

Which is true.

But what she has admitted is that the invoice which would have been totally out of character for her to have incurred, was submitted to the Fees Office by her PA, who would presumably have known what Dorries did that New Year's Eve. The fact that the claim was never paid does not alter the farudulent nature of that claim submitted on her behalf by her staff.

"Members must ensure that claims do not give rise to, or give the appearance of giving rise to, an improper personal financial benefit to themselves or anyone else."
(Green Book)

However steadfast she is in addressing the other concerns, she has conceded that:

  • her office is so chaotic she cannot keep irrelevant paperwork separated from her offical records
  • her staff prepare and submit claims on her behalf without her checking them (since she would have spotted at a glance that the invoice couldn't be right)
  • the claim made would, if paid, have been in breach of the Green Book rules since she would have been paid for an invoice which was not a legitiamte expense

On a personal level, and perhaps as an MP, maybe this IS a minor matter. But Dorries is touted as ministerial material for the next Conservative government, and one would hesitate to give her oversight of a department when she is transparently unable to run an efficient and honest staff.

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