07:35 GMT +323 April 2019
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    David Steel (now Lord Steel) looks at the Queen as she gives an address at the Scottish Parliament in 2002

    MP Property Scam May Not Be Illegal But It Is Immoral

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    Tommy Sheridan
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    During his time as the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament from 1999 to 2003 I often clashed with wee David Steel, the former UK Liberal leader.

    He clearly disliked my manner and consistent refusal to accept his rulings as the last word on important matters. To him I was a ruffian from a housing scheme who did not belong in the re-convened Parliament. To me he was a pompous snob who carried a chip of privilege on his shoulder and represented the cosy status quo of the British Establishment. He disliked my successful efforts to compel the Scottish Parliament to debate and abolish the barbaric practice of poindings and warrant sales but his ire was worse when I challenged the unacceptable consequences of the Edinburgh Accommodation Allowance.

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    That particular episode was brought to mind when I read of the recent scandal involving over-paid Members of Parliament last week. More than 160 MPs, already in receipt of incredibly generous salaries of £79,000 a year and expense and travel schemes that most workers could only dream of, have cashed in (or are cashing in) on a property scam that would embarrass even Ronnie Biggs and his Great Train Robbery gang of thieves.

    The Westminster Parliament Allowances scheme allowed MPs to claim up to £24,000 a year for the costs of buying a second home to live in London. The money was available to pay interest only mortgages, council tax and energy bills. On the surface it is a scheme which although very generous could be justified on the grounds of facilitating MPs working away from their constituency homes. But the anomaly in the scheme was that the properties purchased using taxpayers money were registered in the name of the individual MP not the Parliament so each MP could at any time take advantage of rising property prices to sell the house or flat purchased at a tidy profit, pocket the money and claim for a new property. 

    All a perfectly legal use of the Additional Costs Allowance Scheme but absolutely immoral.

    On the back of the MP’s expenses scandal of ten years ago, when politicians took the p**s out of the public with claims to clean their home moats, tune their pianos and pay for adult films, among hundreds of other abuses, it is now revealed that more than 160 of them stand to make hundreds of thousands of pounds from property sales, £255,000 on average, and some over £500,000

    In total these politicians, who we are all supposed to respect, are gorging themselves on a £42 million pound trough of profit from a tax payer funded expenses scheme. It is a f*****g scandal, nothing more and nothing less. 

    Every single penny of profit should be rigorously uncovered and assiduously recovered. MP’s unwilling to admit their gains should be subjected to thorough investigations, named and shamed.

    Many thousands of low income families have been overpaid Family Tax Credits by the Department of Works and Pensions. It is easily done. You are given an annual award after being subjected to a tough means testing process. However, if your income improves slightly during the 12 month award period, and you inform the DWP, you are then subject to a clawback process. Failure to comply quickly and repay overpaid amounts leads to the deployment of debt recovery agents who will hound you until you pay. 

    That is an experience hundreds of thousands have been subjected to. Well for these MP’s on huge salaries the process should be even more vigorous and strict. These individuals have not accidently over-claimed from the State they have consciously tried to rip-off the public purse. They can hide behind the ‘nothing illegal’ retort but they can’t hide from the fact it is downright immoral.

    That property scheme for MPs was scrapped in 2010 as was a similar one for Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs). 

    In May 1999, days after being elected, I voted along with everyone else for the Allowances and Salaries Scheme for the new Scottish Parliament. I did so without proper scrutiny of it. By 2001 it was clear the property speculation clause in the Westminster Scheme had been imported into the Scottish one. MSPs living more than a 90 minute rail journey from the Parliament could claim an Edinburgh Accommodation Allowance enabling them to purchase property on an interest only mortgage deal and then sell and pocket the difference taking advantage of the rocketing property prices in Edinburgh.

    I attempted to blow the whistle and demand the scheme was scrapped over the subsequent years. Wee Mr Steel kept dismissing my efforts and tried to convince me the scheme was fair and perfectly legal. Other keen users of the scheme joined in the collective attempt to silence and ridicule me. However, I refused to be silenced. My research showed 48 MSPs (out of 129) were using the public subsidy to effectively become property speculators and buy and sell properties in Edinburgh at great reward to them. Eleven of those involved were Scottish Government Ministers and all of them were cashing in to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds. At first the media were not interested in my complaints but eventually they were forced to cover the scandal.

    After 4 years of shouting the odds and securing some public exposure the penny dropped that it was an unacceptable practice. Legal it may have been but immoral it definitely was. 

    In the course of an Interest of Members Debate in 2005 the then First Minister, Jack McConnell, felt compelled to order a thorough review and eventual scrapping of the practice. I didn’t succeed in compelling those MSPs who had profited from the Allowance since 1999 to pay back their ill-gotten gains but I did succeed in forcing the Parliament to scrap that aspect of the scheme. It was a small but important victory.

    At Westminster every single MP who has pocketed profit from their use of the publicly funded expenses scheme must be ordered to pay back every penny. The sooner we have politicians paid the average wage of a skilled worker and subject to immediate re-call measures when they renege on promises made prior to elections the better. More on those proposals will be presented in a future column.

    The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

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