Sunday, 27 September 2009

Lib Dems were told to Exploit MPs Expenses System

Internal party documents obtained by today’s Sunday Telegraph show that Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians were being told how they could get the taxpayer to fund ‘material that does not meet [parliamentary] guidelines’.

The MPs were schooled in the use of ‘grey areas’ to get questionable spending through and advised:
“There is lots of scope... so be imaginative!”
The revelations come only days after Nick Clegg told his the Liberal Democrats party conference:
“Only the Liberal Democrats will clean up Westminster [and] reform expenses.”
The leaked documents were produced as recently as March 2008 by officials at the Liberal Democrats national headquarters, including Hilary Stephenson, the party's director of campaigns and elections, who will be running its next general election campaign, Ed Howker in the Sunday Telegraph reports. By that stage, the issue of MPs' expenses had already become highly controversial and the Liberal Democrats leader, Nick Clegg was vocal in calling for reform.

However, the documents show that behind the scenes the attitude was different. One, entitled ‘The Seamless Web’, an extract from the ‘Liberal Democrat Best Practice Manual’, deals with the common practice of sending unsolicited ‘MP reports’ to all local voters at public expense. Under Commons Fees Office rules, such taxpayer-funded material must be confined to factual accounts of the MP's activities. Party political propaganda, campaigning or fund-raising at public expense is banned.
However, the document then goes on to outline how MPs can get around this restriction:
“Many MPs will wish to include material that does not meet the Fees Office guidelines, for example... appeals for help or money”.
In this case, advises the document, MPs should take out adverts – paid for by public funds – in their own party propaganda material. Although the adverts themselves will be politically neutral – giving, for instance, the MP’s contact details or surgery times – the taxpayer-funded income from them will subsidise the party-political content of the rest of the leaflet.

As the document advises MPs:
“You can pay for the report by other means and then pay from the [taxpayer-funded] incidental expenses provision for advertising space.”
Mr. Clegg himself is among the Liberal Democrat MPs to have done this.

Another briefing, ‘MPs’ allowance rules’, tells MPs to ‘be imaginative’ to get a party-political message across at public expense. The
“divide between party political campaigning and MP campaigning”
was described as a
“grey area”
which could be exploited. Other ‘grey areas’ included the use of the party logo on taxpayer-funded material, the use of party slogans and the use of election candidates outside the immediate few weeks of the election campaign itself.

Officially, the document says, party logos can be used only
“a bit”
in taxpayer-funded material, and in a
“proportionate and discreet”
way. But MPs are advised that this is yet another ‘grey area’ which can be manipulated.

The document also advises the Liberal Democrats MPs that they should
“spend up to the limit… [and] should be making full use”
of the various allowances. It points out that the total available for staffing, communications and 'incidental expenses' added together is as much as £125,000 and advises MPs to transfer money between the categories for maximum impact.

It adds:
“Planning will mean that £125,000 of resource will be used to best effect.”
However it fails to mention some restrictions on transfers in the rules – for instance, the stipulation that only ten per cent of the staffing allowance can be transferred into communications.

Last year MPs of all parties spent almost five million pounds under the communications allowance for material sometimes barely distinguishable from their election leaflets.

Most of the highest-claiming MPs under the allowance are in marginal seats, suggesting that taxpayers' money is being widely used for political campaigning.
Gillian Merron, Labour MP for the marginal Lincoln constituency, has produced at public expense a ‘parliamentary newsletter’ posted or delivered to all constituents which appears almost indistinguishable from a Labour election leaflet. The newsletter uses the Labour Party’s standard typeface and the layout and colours are the same as a Labour leaflet.

The newsletter contains nationally-used Labour campaign slogans such as 'Working hard for...'.

A spokesman for the Liberal Democrats said the party's ‘best practice’ manual had now been superseded and was
“commenting on a system that no longer exists”.
He said:
“Everything in these documents is designed to make sure that MPs follow the rules and is about helping MPs communicate more effectively within the rules.”

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