I've just accepted an invitation to speak at the Electoral Commission fringe meeting at the Spring Conference of the Conservative Party. The subject is to be 'Politics and Public Confidence'. This is a 'hot' issue in Wales, following publication of Assembly Members expenses just before Christmas. My guess is that it will become even hotter if MP's expenses are made public, though I wouldn't put it past those with the power to do so, of finding a way to stop publication.
Anyway, it was the subject on my mind when I settled down to read Mrs D's Mail on Sunday after lunch today. The big story is about the way Home Secretary, Jackie Smith has used her 'second-home' allowance. Not everyone will fully understand what she's done - so I'm going to try and help. I'm going on what's in the newspaper, trying not to be judgemental. Leave that to you. Lets me start with what happens in the National Assembly.
When I was an Assembly Member, I had access to an allowance which covered costs associated with my having to stay in Cardiff. It was around £10,000 per year, and could be used to pay for hotels, renting a flat, or paying the interest element of a mortgage - plus household bills. My choice was to have a property which served as a 'family home', so we bought a very nice flat in Century Wharf. Its annual cost to us was far more than the 'second-home' allowance would cover. So it cost us. No complaints. It was our choice. Now there has been much criticism of the extravagance of furnishings charged to this allowance by some AMs - TVs, sofas etc.. There's also been criticism that AMs living a relatively short distance from Cardiff are able to claim the 'higher' allowance - rather than the 'lower' allowance (for hotels etc) available to AMs who live very close to Cardiff Bay. Personally, I thought that, in principle, this system was fair enough - with one or two changes.
Now, there was no profit to me in this (unless I sold my property at a profit - which I didn't). But could I have arranged things to benefit myself financially? In theory, I could have lived with Tim and Adrienne, near St Fagans, claimed that as my main residence, and 'transferred' the whole of my 'second home' allowance to cover the mortgage interest on our main home at Cil Farm in Montgomeryshire. If I didn't pay rent to our son and his wife when staying with them in Cardiff, I could have effectively supplemented my income by the £10,000. This seems to be what the Mail on Sunday is accusing the Home Secretary of doing - except that the MP's allowance is £24,000. I repeat that I'm only repeating what's claimed by the MoS. Neither do I know whether this arrangement is available to AMs. Also, Mrs Smith says that its approved and is entirely in order. There are other claims in the article as well, but to cover those would confuse the issue.
I have tried not to be judgemental at all. You may feel differently. My aim was to spread a little understanding of what today's article was all about.