EXCLUSIVE: Hugo Swire MP in the Herald's hot seat
AS the row over MPs' expenses continues to rage, East Devon MP Hugo Swire volunteers to sit in the Herald's hot seat to answer questions about his own expenses and to talk about his views on the system.
AS the row over MPs' expenses continues to rage, East Devon MP Hugo Swire volunteers to sit in the Herald's hot seat to answer questions about his own expenses - and to talk about his views on the system.Q: After three weeks of revelations in the Daily Telegraph, some MPs have had their expenses exposed and some have published theirs voluntarily. Why have you not come forward previously? You were the last MP in the region to have them in the public domain.Hugo: Having taken advice from the authorities, I would be in breach of data protection...I think it is right they were properly gone through and redacted, otherwise I would have had to approach every single person I made a purchase from... In addition, a lot of it was misleading. I had invoices I was shown originally which were for other MPs.If other MPs had chosen to go live with them, that is up to them. I have chosen to abide by what advice I have received. I do want to be transparent in terms of the staff I employ, family members etc, and that has all been for many months now on the Conservative Party website. So it is not as if I have been exactly hiding anything.Q: I understand the Additional Cost Allowance is the cost of living outside of your primary residence. Last year it cost you �22,802. What kind of things does this cover?Hugo: The original member's monthly claim form covers rental, �250 of food, utility bills, council tax rate, telephone/communications, cleaning, service and maintenance, repairs, insurance and security.That was superseded by a personal additional accommodation expenditure form.Now we can't claim more than �1,250 a month and David Cameron himself has imposed further restrictions. For instance, I have a burglar alarm I put in, an annual service charge of �500 and, because of what David Cameron said, I can't submit that or cleaning and maintenance. We are all waiting for Sir Christopher Kelly's report to come out.Q: In 2002/3 your Additional Cost Allowance was �18,722, joint first out of 657 MPs. East Devon is not the most expensive place to live in Britain. Why was this so high?Hugo: My rent is two thirds of that allowance and I have had that house eight years and rent goes up clearly year on year and the rest of it goes, frankly, on council tax.I have always paid full council tax. I was entitled to 50 per cent discount...but I have always insisted on paying full council tax. The rest, by the time you have done the burglar alarm, and the utility bills, heating oil, that obviously takes account of the other.The point I would make is the allowance is there for your second home. I rent, and one of the reasons, I suppose, maybe fortuitously that I haven't got into trouble is because I don't benefit financially from it.I don't put on a portico or a duck pond, because it's not my property.(Mr Swire, his wife Sasha and their two daughters live in a farmhouse in Sidbury, rented from Sir John Cave.) Hugo: Strategically it is in the most perfect position. It is secluded, bang behind Sidmouth yet near Exmouth and the office.I am not going to say whether people should rent or buy. Quite a lot of members do rent in London.Q: If an MP has a second home and is deselected, what happens to that home?Hugo: If it is their own home they might want to go on living there or sell it. This is the discussion going on now, which Cameron said he would be happy with. Cameron and others say that capital increase (on selling property) shouldn't go to me, it should go back into the pot. That is capital that has accrued on the back of funding by the taxpayer.A lot of Labour MPs, if they lost their seats, would give up their flats in London. They would go back to where they came from.Q: Ever since a story about Iain Duncan Smith and his wife Betsy, any members of the public see MPs employing family members as nepotistic. Can you understand why people have concerns and do you think this is open to abuse, as has been the case with, for example, Derek Conway?Hugo: I don't want to comment on other specific cases, but yes, I fully acknowledge that this is a contentious issue and that in a European Parliament they have decided to phase this out, whereas in the Scottish Parliament they have decided to retain it.My own view is that I don't think just because you have a family relationship to a Member of Parliament you should be precluded from working for them.Trying to standardise MPs is very difficult because we are like mini one-man firms. We all run our affairs in completely different ways and we need different people to do different things.(His wife Sasha's starting salary in 2001 was �15,000. She is now on a banding between �30,000 to �39,999.)Hugo: I need Sasha because she happens to be a highly qualified journalist in her own right...she does all my website, she does all my press releases and she has an extraordinary knowledge of the constituency, having worked for me.But I do think she and all the members of my staff - and I don't make any exclusions - should be subject to spot-checks, because I think that will make it much easier for her and much easier for me, if there is an outside body; and I think there is one Kelly might recommend, which actually says 'what are you doing?', particularly if you are doing part-time, flexible hours, rather than office hours.(Hugo also has a secretary, Sue, who doesn't work Fridays, a full-time researcher, Caroline, and Christy, who does 10 hours a week.)Hugo: Sue has worked for me only for a year-and-a-half, my researchers come and go, so Sasha is the only member of my original team.If we were to win the General Election and if David Cameron were to offer me a job, it is more important to have someone on my team who is plugged in to what is going on locally.Kelly may well say no more family members as they have done in the European Parliament. If they do, they do. I think that is regrettable.Q: When the motion was proposed for MPs' expenses to be excluded from the Freedom of Information Act, which way did you vote, and why?Hugo: I know I voted against some of them, because I think the current system is unreformable. The reason that people are being done for flipping and all this stuff is because the Telegraph bought the stolen data. Otherwise this would all have been swept under the carpet.But my view is that this is all slightly nibbling around the edges, doing a bit here, doing a bit there, and then it became a political thing to see who was trying to outbid who.My own view, and I have testified to the Kelly Committee, who asked us for submissions, is I just said to him I think it is un-reformable, this system, because I don't think people still really understand why MPs need these allowances for second homes, because they say "why can't you all live in a block of flats? Why can't you commute every day?"The point is I do think it is un-reformable. I do think salaries should be taken away from MPs and spot-checks done, because, in my own case, that would protect Sasha more and I just don't want the hassle, to be honest, but I don't think the new additional cost allowance is really reformable.So my argument is do what should have been done ages ago and scrap this additional allowance and roll it into MPs' pay and let them decide how they want to use it...free it all up but don't have a separate allowance, put it in the salary.Q: Has it made you think twice about carrying on?Hugo: I think it has probably made us all think twice about carrying on.THIS is only an extract of the question and answer session held with Hugo Swire MP. To read the interview in full, don't miss this week's Sidmouth Herald - out on Friday.