The Right Hon Gordon Brown, MP
Prime Minister
10 Downing Street

Dear Mr Brown,

MPs’ Expenses

HMRC Guidance & the Wider Moral Debate: A message from the Third Sector

Amongst the tidal wave of letters which will meet the news of Mr and Mrs Bercow’s recent expenditure to occupy the Speaker’s apartments can I raise the question again of expenses guidance at HRMC. In my professional understanding expenses must be deemed to be essential to the requirements of the role and exclusively for business use: there is no partiality here i.e. one cannot claim for items occasionally used for business and occasionally domestically. I fail to understand how the provision of redecoration, furniture and fittings for the children of the family and, indeed, a nanny the family has made the decision to employ, can meet the criteria set by HMRC, nor the issue of furnishings and accessories chosen for the family’s ‘home life’. The wider implications of the current ‘free fall’ in a family deciding to what extent an employer-provided accommodation’s decoration suits their tastes and comforts or not is clear. In terms of official residents, Parliament should, like all other employers, provide a baseline decoration on the hand-over of one tenant to another, ensure all fittings meet H&S requirements and only provide enhanced fittings where there are disability-specific needs (for the employee) or, in this case, perhaps enhanced security needs in the case of a young family. It is then the family’s duty to choose and supply furniture and fittings, decoration and accessories for children’s and privately-hired staff rooms, and any other accessories for family living they feel they would like and can afford.

There are legal and moral issues here: we have laws in place to ensure employers and employees work within a framework for allowable expenses assigned to a professional role. It is not acceptable for Parliamentary officers or MPs to work outside these rules. We expect those elected to public office to set standards which are exemplary. Where they are seen consistently to exploit systems to personal benefit it is hardly surprising that the public demands change. I run a small, wholly independent rural charity. We have a hugely dedicated working team in which my colleagues will not even submit allowable claims for sandwiches/drinks during 10 hour working days off site at meetings. These meetings invariably in London adding huge cost in terms of travel for a far-flung rural charity. Volunteers equally are loathe to recoup their expenses. Whilst we encourage all staff and volunteers to claim expenses there is a clear dividing line in their minds between what they can claim and what they will claim, inevitably only travel costs (second class rail for longer journeys or use of their own cars locally). This is indicative of a culture in which the staffing and volunteering team sees the importance of preserving our ever-decreasing grant aid and small amounts of public donations to commit to our service delivery to older adults across our 90 square mile area of benefit.

To illustrate this, and our frustrations with cases such as the Bercows: we have over 760 older vulnerable adults on long-term caseload for health & social care, information, advice and supporting programming. We receive no public funding at all, not from central government nor local government and handle just under 6000 enquiries annually. The bulk of our staff salaries are lower than the lowest/entry ranks in the Armed Services and these are paid to post graduates each with 20-30 years of professional life who have chosen the Sector because they believe in the cause and know the income levels aligned to small charities’ staffing. This does not, however, make that right. I am hugely proud of the team which works inordinately long hours least not because our complex case-loading has spiraled.

Case-loading has spiraled because adults are unable to access statutory services when needed . All service providers have cut back delivery to the rurally isolated, the most vulnerable in UK Society and the most ignored, I’m afraid, by this Government. I cannot count the millions pump-primed in to urban contexts not rural lives by this Government, in ‘Third Sector’ tranches of funding allocated only to larger charities with national or regional remits which have inordinately high core costs but do not deliver services from and in the community. We add here the appalling wastage, I’m afraid at local level in interim team pulled from every point of the UK (and one from abroad), at huge expense, in the County’s first Public Service Trust and a Council already, we understand, facing a £3m deficit at this stage in the financial year. The Third Sector has been warned long and hard funding is not forthcoming, nor has it been for some time and councilors seem blithely ignorant of this.

I attended a recent Council Affordable Warmth Steering Group meeting to showcase two tranches of funding we had generated for energy work, amongst others, from grant aid outside the County, non statutory. In my summary, knowing how vital our own work in information and advice is in pulling older adults out of fuel poverty, as we serve a Super Output Area, I said that the Council must start to provide a bedrock of information and advice funding not the ‘nil’ funding situation we are currently in. It must also lobby for rural proofing for benefits such as AA and DLA to ensure the most vulnerable of all living rurally do not pay more in travel costs for services than service themselves, therein are able to raise their disposable income levels and move from fuel poverty. A local councilor told me that in response to my question on I&A funding from Herefordshire Council that ‘there will be cut backs’ not spending this year and forward. Since we receive nothing at all from the Council and were coming to the table to offer funding, and have a team which has raised over £210,000 in specialist finance work for our own clients in 18 months, I asked him “How does the Council cut back from zero?” He seemed unable to answer this. His response: “Stop speaking as you’ve had your say.’ This, indicative of a councilors unprepared to sanction investment for charities, more than happy to praise Charitable activity which displaces cost burdens off the shoulders of the local authority and uncomfortable when faced with face to face questioning asking for real commitment.

At the meeting’s end delegates from outside the Council services spoke to me with clarity and understanding. All had seen straight through the Council’s line and absolutely to the point of discussion: we can do far more to help the vulnerable but we must provide funding for smaller organizations working leanly within locality which have clients already on caseload and volunteers to support delivery. We retain caseload because of our brand name, impartiality, our staff delivery and competency, and, vitally, our local knowledge. The Charity works with a staggering 986 organisations now across its work which shows the breadth of wider knowledge needed to run a full I&A service: investment is essential.

If we get the I&A in place, and benefits meeting rural needs, we can quickly raise adults out of fuel poverty, most specifically those on AA and DLA. There is no equity here at the moment with those receiving the same awards living rurally, 24 miles from service points, as adults close to services in urban catchments. The Government is blinkered to the inordinate costs the sick and disabled must carry as a penalty for living rurally: I count myself amongst these. Whilst still working with progressive MS I live a very isolated catchment. I watch my own costs rise, particularly petrol, now an average £113/litre here, but I have no choice. My decision to continue working, even though very challenging physically, is a far more positive future than the rural isolation otherwise presented. It has been enabled by DLA and Access to Work, but the review of both AA and DLA currently has spread alarm to the working and non working disabled. The argument for rural proofing in this context may again be lost.

This inability to see where the tidal wave of true costs is about to hit rural Councils, certainly for the burgeoning older population, is compounded by over-enthusiasm for apparently ‘low cost’ solutions which are digital. We know in our service provision that the shift in ‘information and advice’ services to internet-based information hubs removes the oldest in our population, those with complex needs such as basic skills and limiting long-term illness, from any access to information. They are unable to use IT systems and unable to afford IT systems, but these are cheaper options for Government than providing bodies ‘in the home’ for clients. A recent university student we had on payroll (not unpaid internship) over the summer cited the inordinate barriers she faced trying to navigate our Council’s IT and telecoms housing access points: completing a masters at Oxford, even she found the barriers too great and could not receive the answers she needed to locate housing for a client. Her final thoughts on working with us were her fears of growing old in the context she had experienced in our information & advice enquiry base.

The growth in tele-care rurally is also displacing more and more older, frail adults in to social exclusion, not the much hyped ‘inclusion’, unable then to have face to face delivery in the home, unless through charitable/community providers, and bewildered, in our experience, by the technology itself. I attended the DH Conference on telecare in Bristol in September, and raised the question with the King’s Fund: “Is anyone undertaking a longitudinal study of the knock-on increase in service demand to the Third and Community Sector?” Nobody could answer. We have inordinate concerns in our County about the growth of telecare, the widening private sector presence which comes under the umbrella of ‘choice and control’ but is creating huge fear and exploitation. To address this we launched our own 2-year programme to support older adults choosing individual or personal budgets with specialist, free I&A in the home, only to glean that Personalisation may now not be following this path in County. As ever, the Third Sector works with emerging Government policy, expends in shaping programming to support it, then is let down at local level when we try to interconnect. Within this clients fall through the system and back to the Charity whose door is open daily in their area, and whose staff and volunteers visit their homes: real faces, real understanding of the local context, and real commitment.

In the Third Sector rurally we carry the failings of this Government nationally and locally very heavily and we have, despite this, staff and volunteers who are able to work dutifully and morally, particularly where expenses are concerned.

I have no doubts you are unable to reply amongst the volumes you will receive weekly but hope that the message, certainly from the Third Sector, and one working to HMRC and public benefit guidance, is very clear.

Yours sincerely,

Elspeth McPherson