2005-12-14

Money & Stats: Government Tier Expenses Increase

Mr.Keith Raffan, the MSP who quit Holyrood after extravagant and unexplained expenses claims last year, has received another 22_000_GBP from the Scottish Parliament, it was revealed yesterday 2005-12-13. Mr.Raffan's expenses claims were part of a total of almost 10_million_GBP which MSPs claimed in 2004/2005 -- the most charged to the taxpayer since the parliament opened in 1999. Apparently undaunted by the scandals which engulfed two of their colleagues over the last year, MSPs have continued to increase their spending on allowances and expenses to 9.46_million_GBP, up by 100_000_GBP on the year before. Mr.Raffan, the former Liberal Democrat MSP, resigned from the parliament because of ill- health after claiming more than 41_000_GBP for mileage in a single year. He was found to have claimed mileage on at least one occasion when he was out of the country. The row over Mr.Raffan's expenses was followed by the so-called 'Taxigate' affair involving Mr.David Mcletchie. Mr.Mcletchie resigned as leader of the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party after being unable to explain the reasons for a number of taxi claims made on the taxpayer. The figures published yesterday showed that Mr.Raffan claimed 21_709.49_GBP last year in the nine months before he left the parliament -- 255.75_GBP was on travel and 2_095_GBP was in 'winding-up' costs for his office. Most of the 21_709.49_GBP (16_543.49_GBP) was spent on the normal running costs of his parliamentary and constituency offices in the period leading up to his resignation from parliament. Parliamentary authorities are still waiting for explanations from Mr.Raffan for some of his mileage claims and are withholding 6_000_GBP in expense claims as a result. However, Mr.Raffan is understood to be seriously ill and it is not known when, if at all, he intends to return to Holyrood to explain his expense claims. While the total for all MSPs of 9.46_million_GBP does represent a rise on the 9.35_million_GBP figure for 2003/2004, the increase is 1.1 per cent, less than inflation -- a fact that will please parliamentary authorities. The biggest single expense for every MSP comes from running constituency and parliamentary offices -- in many cases this accounts for half the individual amounts claimed. Top of the list this year is Mr.George Lyon, the deputy finance minister and MSP for Argyll and Bute, who claimed more than 67_000_GBP from the taxpayer, including 8_847.23_GBP for accommodation in Edinburgh and 12_959.19_GBP for travel. Mr.Lyon insisted last night that he and his staff were worth the money, pointing out that the big rise in his expenses this year was down to a major refurbishment of his constituency office in Rothesay.
'My staff are worth it not to have them working on second-hand desks, as they were last year. It was not my decision to refurbish the office, but part of a rolling programme of office and computer refreshment,' he said.
Many of the highest spenders were the MSPs from outlying areas, principally because of their large travel costs and the expenses they claimed to stay in Edinburgh during the week. Second on the list was Mr.Lyon's party colleague for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, Mr.Jamie Stone, who claimed 56_397_GBP. Western Isles New Labour MSP Mr.Alasdair Morrison, who came third on the list with a total of 56_300_GBP, claimed the most travel expenses, at 19_768_GBP. Fourth was Mr.John Farquhar Munro, Lib Dem MSP for Ross, Skye and Inverness West, with claims for 55_980_GBP. One MSP from the Central Belt, Ms.Wendy Alexander, the New Labour MSP for Paisley North, did make it into the top ten (in seventh position) because of the extraordinary amount she spent on office supplies. Ms.Alexander, a former minister, spent 15_600_GBP on stationery and postage in 2004/2005, nearly 6_000_GBP more than the next highest MSP, Mr.Brian Adam of the SNP, who spent 9_803_GBP -- and about seven times the average spend on postage, about 2_000_GBP. Ms.Alexander defended her claims by insisting that she had orchestrated three major initiatives from her parliament office last year, all of which needed big mailshots to thousands of people in her constituency. She said:
'We ran three major campaigns -- one on the anti-social behaviour consultation, which is a big issue in Paisley, the second about the future of Argyll and Clyde Health Board, and the third on the future of Renfrew Health Centre.'
Sources close to Ms.Alexander said the former minister did not expect to do as much campaigning this year as she will soon be going on six months' maternity leave and the amount she spent on postage was not as much as many MSPs spent in election years. They also pointed out that Ms.Alexander's 15_600_GBP on postage and stationery would not have put her into a league of the top dozen claimants at Westminster. The explanations provided by Mr.Lyon and Ms.Alexander will be enough to prevent any further problems for them personally over this year's expenses, but the ever-rising total will increase the pressure on the parliament to rein in the amount being claimed from the taxpayer by Scotland's elected representatives. The furore over first Mr.Raffan and Mr.Mcletchie has generated a great deal of public suspicion about MSPs and their claims. The parliament has already started a process to make itself even more accountable by producing much more detail about MSPs' expenses this year than was the case previously. Usually, the publication of MSPs' expenses would run to about a dozen pages. Yesterday's publication of more than 700 pages showed how far Mr.George Reid, the Presiding Officer, is prepared to go to try to restore Holyrood's reputation. However, the huge volume of information did not make the process of analysing the MSPs' claims any easier. Apart from a breakdown of travel expenses -- which divided each MSP's claim into those submitted for the member, those for their staff and the claims put in for family members -- most of the rest of the information was not compiled in a usable way. The headline figures for each MSP were accompanied by tens of pages of individual claims, listing everything from each mobile phone bill to individual train fares. None of it, however, was compiled into monthly or yearly totals. Even in the headline figures, there were problems with the new format. Parliamentary authorities decided to withhold the amount spent by each MSP on staff salaries from the general allowances. This was because of data protection rules and a worry that the public might be able to determine individual staff salaries. However, because the Green MSPs pool their resources to pay for all their staff jointly, their staff costs were included in the overall totals, giving two different categories of MSP in the figures -- the Greens and all the rest. Ms.Shiona Baird, MSP, the Green's co-convener, said:
'The publication of these figures is a welcome step towards transparency and accountability of MSPs' use of public money. 'As part of our commitment to openness, Greens have published annual reports, funded by MSPs' own money, detailing how we have spent our funds since the beginning of this session. We are the only group of MSPs to have done this -- we are glad that the parliament is now following our lead.'
A spokesman for the parliament said that the extra material this year was the first of a two-stage process which would see even more information published next year. She said:
'Next year we will be publishing further documentation, including all claim forms submitted by MSPs. 'If there is an entry this year which says, for instance, "taxi 25_GBP", next year you will be able to see whether this is for one taxi journey or five. 'However, we are not looking at individual receipts.'
'Holyrood's big spenders help push up parliament expenses ', Hamish Macdonell, The Scotsman, 2005-12-14, We Links: TheyWorkForYou.com

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