The ongoing row about MP expense claims has threatened to escalate further after it was revealed that more than a quarter still claim for first class train travel, despite the practice being discouraged by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa).
An analysis of expenses by the Sunday Telegraph revealed that 185 claimed the cost of first class tickets from taxpayers’ money in the past year, despite new rules being introduced in 2009.
The Sunday Telegraph alleges that some claimed tickets cost as much as £300, which is five times more expensive than the cheapest standard ticket on the same route.
The row was revealed last week when it emerged that chancellor George Osborne tried to sit in first class on a Virgin train despite having only paid for a standard ticket on his journey from Wilmslow in Cheshire to London Euston.
It is still permissible under Ipsa’s rules for MPs to claim for a first-class ticket if it is cheaper to buy than a standard open ticket, but the latest developments have brought stinging criticism from the chief executive of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, Matthew Sinclair.
He told The Guardian: “If MPs can get themselves organised to order a first class ticket in advance, they should be able to order a standard-class ticket in plenty of time as well and it will almost always be cheaper.
“If standard class travel isn’t good enough for MPs it isn’t good enough for ordinary commuters who pay for their own tickets.”
This is the latest in a long line of new controversies surrounding what politicians claim on their expenses from the taxpayer, something that continues to rumble on despite the guidelines brought in after the 2009 scandal.
Last week also saw another media storm over MPs claiming public money to rent another property while renting out their homes in London.
It emerged that 27 rented their homes in London, including former cabinet members Andy Burnham, Liam Fox and Chris Bryant, and gave rise to new concerns that politicians were still capable of making a profit by manipulating their expense claims.
In addition to this, the speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow has come under fire for preventing the publication of documents that identify MPs’ landlords, which could have revealed a potentially embarrassing scenario where politicians rent properties off one another and still claim money from the public.
In a letter on Wednesday, Bercow said: “The processing of the data … could involve causing unwarranted damage and distress. I should be grateful if you and your colleagues would reconsider such a plan.”
He cited concerns about MPs’ addresses being revealed to the general public, but the move brings back memories of previous speaker Michael Martin and the loss of confidence in him after his perceived poor handling of the 2009 expenses scandal.
The way that these rows continue to develop in the media perhaps shows the public still has a lack of confidence in their elected representatives, and that there is still an overriding concern that they are still keen to work the system in their favour.
There is also some concern that Ipsa’s rules are not stringent enough to prevent politicians making money from their expense claims, either intentionally or otherwise.
On the housing issue, Ipsa bans MPs claiming interest on their mortgages on expenses, with politicians only allowed to claim money back for rent on a property.
However, these rules do not prevent the situation like that of Labour MP Linda Riordan, who lets her London flat to her party colleague Ian McKenzie, and concern is still ride among an untrusting public that their representatives are continuing to ride the “gravy train.”
Of course, as with any job that includes travel and accommodation expenses, provisions should be made for that to be claimed back under a transparent system, but this issue looks set to continue for some time.
As Conservative MP Mark Field told BBC Radio 4’s World at One, politicians have to be open and honest about their expenses, otherwise they face seeing confidence in them undermined.
He said: “I think the lesson is quite straightforward. If MPs want their affairs to be private, they shouldn’t be claiming any public money.
“The worry is that trust will be further undermined in MPs.” Pressure will continue to mount on politicians, and with the pending release of further information, the expenses furore has not yet died down.