MP Hugo talks candidly to Sidmouth Herald over expenses

PUBLISHED: 11:58 12 June 2009 | UPDATED: 09:23 18 June 2010

Q: After three weeks of revelations in the Daily Telegraph, some MPs have had their expenses exposed and some have published theirs voluntarily. Why have you not come forward previously? You were the last MP in the region to have them in the public d

Q: After three weeks of revelations in the Daily Telegraph, some MPs have had their expenses exposed and some have published theirs voluntarily. Why have you not come forward previously? You were the last MP in the region to have them in the public domain.

Hugo: 'Having taken advice from the authorities I would be in breach of data protection...I think it is right they were properly gone through and redacted, otherwise I would have had to approach every single person I made a purchase from...

In addition, a lot of it was misleading. I had invoices I was shown originally which were for other MPs.

If other MPs had chosen to go live with them, that is up to them. I have chosen to abide by what advice I have received.

I do want to be transparent in terms of the staff I employ, family members etc., and that has all been for many months now on the Conservative Party website. So it is not as if I have been exactly hiding anything.'

Q: I understand the Additional Cost Allowance is the cost of living outside of your primary residence. Last year it cost you £22,802. What king of things does this cover?

Hugo: 'The original Member's monthly claim form covers rental, £250 of food, utility bills, council tax rate, telephone/communications, cleaning, service and maintenance, repairs, insurance and security.

That was superseded by a personal additional accommodation expenditure form.

Now we can't claim more than £1,250 a month and David Cameron himself has imposed further restrictions.

For instance, I have a burglar alarm, I put that in, I have an annual service charge of £500 and because of what David Cameron said I can't submit that or cleaning and maintenance. We are all waiting for Sir Christopher Kelly's report to come out.'

Q: In 2002/3 your Additional Cost Allowance was £18,722, joint first out of 657 MPs. East Devon is not the most expensive place to live in Britain. Why was this so high?

Hugo: 'My rent is two thirds of that allowance and I have had that house eight years and rent goes up clearly year on year and the rest of it goes, frankly, on council tax.

I have always paid full council tax. I was entitled to 50 percent discount...but I have always insisted on paying full council tax.

The rest, by the time you have done the burglar alarm, and the utility bills, heating oil, that obviously takes account of the other.

The point I would make is the allowance is there for your second home. I rent, and one of the reasons, I suppose, maybe fortuitously that I haven't got into trouble, is because I don't benefit financially from it.

I don't put on a portico or a duck pond because it's not my property.'

(Mr Swire, his wife Sasha and their two daughters, live in a farmhouse in Sidbury, rented from Sir John Cave.)

Hugo: 'Strategically it is in the most perfect position. It is secluded, bang behind Sidmouth yet near Exmouth and the office.

I am not going to say whether people should rent or buy. Quite a lot of members do rent in London.'

Q: If an MP has a second home and is deselected, what happens to that home?

Hugo: 'If it is their own home they might want to go on living there or sell it. This is the discussion going on now, which Cameron said he would be happy with.

Cameron and others say that capital increase (on selling property) shouldn't go to me, it should go back into the pot. That is capital that has accrued on the back of funding by the taxpayer.

A lot of Labour MPs, if they lost their seats, would give up their flats in London. They would go back to where they came from.'

Q: Ever since a story about Iain Duncan Smith and his wife Betsy, any members of the public see MPs employing family members as nepotistic. Can you understand why people have concerns and do you think this is open to abuse, as has been the case with, for example, Derek Conway?

Hugo: 'I don't want to comment on other specific cases, but yes, I fully acknowledge that this is a contentious issue and that in a European Parliament they have decided to phase this out, whereas in the Scottish Parliament they have decided to retain it.

My own view is that I don't think just because you have a family relationship to a Member of Parliament you should be precluded from working for them.

Trying to standardise MPs is very difficult because we are like mini one-man firms. We all run our affairs in completely different ways and we need different people to do different things.'

His wife Sasha starting salary in 2001 was £15,000. She is now on a banding between £30,000 to £39,999.

'I need Sasha because she happens to be a highly qualified journalist in her own right...she does all my website, she does all my press releases and she has an extraordinary knowledge of the constituency having worked for me.

But I do think she and all the members of my staff - and I don't make any exclusions - should be subject to spot-checks, because I think that will make it much easier for her and much easier for me, if there is an outside body; and I think there is one Kelly might recommend, who actually says 'what are you doing?', particularly if you are doing part-time, flexible hours, rather than office hours.'

Hugo also has a secretary Sue, who doesn't work Fridays, a full-time researcher Caroline, and Christy, who does 10 hours a week.

Hugo: 'Sue has worked for me only for a year-and-a-half, my researchers come and go, so Sasha is the only member of my original team.

If we were to win the General Election and if David Cameron were to offer me a job, it is more important to have someone on my team who is plugged in to what is going on locally.

Kelly may well say no more family members as they have done in the European Parliament. If they do, they do. I think that is regrettable.'

Q: How did you decide to employ your wife?

"I don't think anyone could do the hours she does unless they came to live with me. All my current staff came to me on direct recommendations of other people they have been working for.

It is the great argument at the moment about should staff by employed centrally. Because some people would have you believe that our staffing allowance, which is £103,812 a year, is a pot that I am given and I then say right, I am going to keep some of that and pay the other bit. I can't do that. They all have contracts with the House of Commons. They are all paid by the House of Commons...it is not my money, that's the misunderstanding, particularly the Daily Mail, when they lob together our salary, which is £64,776, they also add in staffing expenditure. So they get the figure right up. But that is not our money to spend and one of the recommendations coming probably from Kelly, I suspect, will be to take staffing away from MPs so that they will be centrally employed, but that will still leave us the ability to choose who we want.

On the whole MPs must be allowed to employ who they want because each of their needs is very, very different...and this is the danger, I think, of trying to standardise everything.

What sort of MP are you going to end up with, just at the time when people are asking for more individual MPs with greater integrity, who perhaps don't always follow the Whip the whole time.'

Q: You are not the only MP who employs their partner and East Devon is not the farthest constituency away from London.

Why was £2,373 claimed for Sasha, putting you 48th out of 645 MPs claiming for spouse travel, quite a high position for a non-shadow cabinet member?

Hugo: "MPs are allowed an unlimited amount of return journeys from the House of Commons or their London residence to their constituency - mileage or train. They are allowed 15 return journeys for their spouses and children up to the age of 18.

Sometimes we go up and down together...and other times Sasha comes down (by car) and I come down on the train. It varies hugely.

That is another thing we should look at. It is First Class travel. All those are claims and you can't claim for more than that and those claims have to be justified.'

The couple have two cars and spend more on driving between London and Sidbury then train travel. Out of £8,766 claimed ('07/8) £5,669 was on mileage.

Hugo: No two weekends are the same, so the logistics are a nightmare, but no-one lives in just one place and one the other, we are constantly going up and down.

I think MPs have got to take a hit on this. There is a recession and people are feeling very hurt, so should MPs automatically travel First Class is one thing I think should be looked at. Perhaps MPs should be travelling Second Class.

Q: Since you were elected you staffing allowance has increased from just under £55,000 to £88,271 last year, a 60 percent increase. How do you account for that?

Hugo: My staffing allowance is £103,000 a year. When I was the Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (previously) I had a team of five. They weren't being paid for by the taxpayer. I also had private money coming in from outsiders.

I also had a chief of staff...who wasn't paid for by the taxpayer.'

If he got a job in Government should Conservatives get into power he would have civil servants doing a lot of the work, he said.

Hugo: 'You may think East Devon is a quiet place in terms of correspondence. Sue, my secretary, who has been a temp for a lot of MPs and is really first class...says she is amazed by the weight of correspondence we get.'

MPs also have an Incidental Expenses Provision (IEP) for costs such as computers and photocopiers.

'If you are overspending on one you can move from one fund to the other at the end of the year.

Of those who have written in about expenses, interestingly very few, I have had absolutely no personal criticism at all.

I had one person who said I suppose you are basically honest. You either are or you aren't.

I've had about 15 people raising general points about it and I have talked to about 10.

I would think my office expenses this year would be significantly down. We are doing more and more on email, which I personally regret.'

Q: When the motion was proposed for MPs expenses to be excluded from the Freedom of Information Act, which way did you vote, and why?

Hugo: I know I voted against some of them, because I think the current system is un-reformable. The reason that people are being done for flipping and all this stuff is because the Telegraph bought the stolen data. Otherwise this would all have been swept under the carpet.

But my view is that this is all slightly nibbling around the edges, doing a bit here, doing a bit there, and then it became a political thing to see who was trying to outbid who.

My own view, and I have testified to the Kelly committee who asked us for submissions, is I just said to him I think it is un-reformable, this system, because I don't think people still really understand why MPs need these allowances for second homes, because they say "why can't you all live in a block of flats, why can't you commute every day?"'

No-one has suggested this to Hugo, who said he would never get anywhere if he had to commute.

Hugo: 'The point is I do think it is un-reformable. I do think salaries should be taken away from MPs and spot-checks done, because, in my own case, that would protect Sasha more and I just don't want the hassle to be honest, but I don't think the new additional cost allowance is really reformable.

So my argument is do what should have been done ages ago and scrap this additional allowance and roll it into MPs' pay and let them decide how they want to use it...free it all up but don't have a separate allowance, put it in the salary.

This is where we have got into this mess because every single time the senior salaries review board has recommended an increase in MPs pay, no Prime Minister of the day has dared to do it.

We are paid £64,000. The chief executive of Devon gets £124,000, Plymouth chief executive £168,000. So these are the figures of county councils. We are under half some of those.

There are two issues: Get rid of the allowance and roll out into pay and look at MPs' pay...have senior salaries review board and make that binding, unless there were exceptional circumstances, say, for instance, it it's a big award and the country is in a terrible state and can't afford it, it shouldn't be binding.

There should be some system whereby the decision how MPs should be compensated for what they do is decided by a separate body so MPs can't be criticised.

You don't want to make it a rich man's game.

The average wage in Devon is £20,000; (MPs' pay) is three times that. It is not tax free. I get £3,800 a month, not tax free - it is in Italy. The second home allowance is tax free but the salary is taxable. We are taxed like you are taxed.

Q: Do you think the Telegraph has done us all a favour. Ann Widdecombe has been outspoken about how the expenses information was given to the Telegraph and backed Michael Martin's criticism of Kate Hoey. Do you think the public's interest outweighs how this information was obtained or do you believe there needs to be questions asked?

Hugo: 'I am surprised that no authorities are looking into how that information was obtained. If it gets a better, clean and more transparent system, good; if it drives out a lot of good politicians because they simply don't want to live in the world we live in, bad.

If it deters people, qualified, professional people, from coming into politics, that's a disaster.

If we end up with a sort of political cadre who are little more than a fourth branch of the Civil Service, then I think British democracy itself is seriously weakened.

But then there is a bigger issue about what we want our Westminster politicians to do now. Because it seems to me that what hasn't happened is that Westminster has not taken into account the changed world, the devolved world, in which we live.

Don't forget, that however many MPs, 654, we don't have an Empire anymore, we have a Parliament in Scotland, we have a Parliament in Stormont in Belfast, we have an Assembly in Wales and we have European MEPs and I think as a result of which we are the most over-represented people in the world.

We have unitary authorities or county councils, district councils, so I think there does - and this is not meant to be a diversion from cleaning up this muck over expenses and allowances - need to be a serious and radical rethink of what we want our MPs actually to do and then work out how many we want there to be of them, and only then decided what they should be paid.

I would like to go back to a the time when Members of Parliament spend more time discussing whether or not they should take the country to war, rather than all the kinds of things we seem to discuss at the moment. I think Parliament has lost its way.

Finally, what I do regret about the way the Telegraph has done this Robespierrean reign of terror is it has slightly painted us all with the same brush.

It may well be that you and your readers may think parts of my arrangements, which are less clear than others, or not as good, but I really do think that I have not gained financially, nor sought to gain financially.

The only item listed by the Telegraph concerning Mr Swire's expenses was the purchase of a SatNav system for his car to get around his constituency.

Hugo: I've always tried to keep outside interests going so I am not dependent on politics. I think that is another tremendously important issue.

I can walk away from it. I am not going to, but I just feel passionately that when people have invented mortgages which they don't actually have and the taxpayer has been footing the bill, I think there are serious questions to be asked.

When people abuse the system there are some serious questions to be asked and those people, I believe, should be accountable.

But the result of the Telegraph thing is that we have all slightly been just painted the same.

"You are all at it, you are all the same, you are all on the take," and that is not a very convincing reason to stay in politics.

Q: Has it made you think twice about carrying on?

Hugo: I think it has probably made us all think twice about carrying on.

Q: Should they (the worst offending MPs) be investigated?

Hugo: Unless they intentionally misled the Fees Office. I am not a lawyer and I am certainly not a barrack-room lawyer, as most people seem to be, nor am I a kangaroo court like others, but it does seem to me critical that in order to restore confidence in the system and in MPs themselves, no MP should be thought to be above the law in this sorry mess and I think there should be criminal prosecutions.

Q: What has the atmosphere been like?

Hugo: Appalling, unbelievable, it has been horrible.

I do think we should be more transparent. For instance, when we put in claims.

He said the Shadow Cabinet had claims dealt with immediately (live time).

'That is going to happen to all of us on the Conservative side. I long for that.

I really genuinely long to get the information out there. I am not seeking to hide anything.

Q: Both parties have set up internal procedures discipline MPs. Do you believe they should be held in public?

Hugo: I think the parties have set up their own star chambers as it were, but I think the Prime Minister has said that an outside firm of auditors is going to go through all the expenses anyway.

end

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