The SNP launched its manifesto for the 2017 General Election today. It contained the usual bits on policies they’d like to see in Westminster but run away from at Holyrood, something about an independence referendum and a bit of good old-fashioned propaganda on their record to date – including this graphic:
I haven’t checked the first two bullets so I’ll take their word on that one but the third point stood out. Last year there was something of a stooshie when the Daily Mail reported that the SNP’s MPs were claiming far higher expenses than their predecessors. This turned out to be a misunderstanding based on a faulty beta system for reporting expenses and resulted in much embarrassment for the accusers and crowing from the accused.
Yet claiming SNP MPs cost £1,000,000 less in 2015/16 than their predecessors in 2014/15 is a remarkable statistic and, I thought, worth checking.
Luckily for me, someone had already done the legwork and alerted me to some *ahem* creative reporting. So my thanks to @BlackRyu82 for pulling all the data from the IPSA site, you can find his work here [LINK].
Regular MPs’ expenses are split into five general categories: accommodation, miscellaneous, office costs, staffing and travel costs – of which staff is far and away the largest burden. For 2015/16, there were also exceptional claims from outgoing MPs for “winding down costs” and from incoming MPs for “start up costs”. To ensure we are comparing apples with apples, as we should always do, I have excluded the SNP MPs’ start-up costs from the comparisons¹.
At first glance, the SNP manifesto would appear to be correct. Excluding the start-up costs they were £1.2m cheaper than their predecessors (£950k including start-up).
This, however, does not tell the whole story because we, or rather the SNP, are not comparing apples with apples.
Election expenses are claimed per tax year, i.e. 2015/16 ran from 6th April 2015 to 5th April 2016. The General Election in 2015 was held on the 7th May and new MPs would only start bearing costs some time after that.
Considering they are not claiming for a full year’s expenses, you might like to ask why the SNP’s MPs are claiming for £100,935 *more* in office costs than their predecessors, an increase of 12%; or £294,174 *more* in travel costs, a 32% increase; or £247,525 *more* in accommodation, an increase of 36%.
Yet the staffing costs are noticeably lower, resulting in that lower overall cost. Of course, there’s a reason for that. Compare, as a random example, the staff claims for Patricia Gibson of the SNP and Katy Clark of Labour, who she replaced in 2015.
Unlike her predecessor, Mrs Gibson’s staff are, quite obviously, not paid for a full tax year. Of course the claim is going to be lower.
It doesn’t appear to be possible, nor perhaps should it be, to see when each staff member was hired, nor what salary each person claims. Nor can we yet see what staff costs the SNP’s MPs have claimed for 2016/17, these are not publicly available until the middle of July. It is possible that their full year staff claims will in fact be lower than their predecessors but at this stage it’s impossible to tell.
What is clear is that in four of the five expenses categories, the SNPs MPs have been more expensive than their predecessors despite their claims covering at least a month less.
And in the last category – staffing – we know their costs are, at least in part, lower because of the differential periods claimed for and we know these costs will increase. How do we know? Well the MPs were all kind enough to tell us.
The following identical text appears in a number of SNP “MP’s commentary” on their expenses, this one from Patricia Gibson:
My staffing costs over the year are lower than I would expect going forward, however, as it took time following my election in May 2015 to recruit staff.
Does it not seem slightly disingenuous to submit your expenses with such caveats and then publish your manifesto implying that your lower costs were some sort of achievement, that your predecessors were more profligate, squandering taxpayers’ money? Particularly when you’ve been 26% more expensive in every other category of expenses?
We may see the full picture in July when the full 2016/17 expenses are published and perhaps the manifesto’s implications will be vindicated, until then we should at least be aware of all the information instead of politically massaged snippets.
And once again, my thanks to @BlackRyu82 for the legwork.
¹ The table covers the 54 SNP MPs who retained the party whip, so excludes Michelle Thomson and Natalie McGarry, and compares them to their predecessors in the 2010-15 Parliamentary term.
² I’m not one for railing against MP’s expenses, I am in no way implying that any of the costs claimed for are illegitimate or reflect upon the MPs’ diligence or suitability for evidence. This blog is merely in response to the implication of the claim made in the manifesto graphic.