HOLYROOD politicians, including Alex Salmond and several of his government ministers, are funnelling taxpayers’ money to their political parties via their office rental expenses, Scotland on Sunday can reveal.
Politicians across the political divide are taking part in the controversial practice, which sees MSPs use their expenses to rent constituency offices from premises owned by their own parties. In the most recent completed financial year, the SNP was paid more than £50,000 by ten MSPs, including Salmond.
Also contributing to the SNP’s coffers through office expenses were finance secretary John Swinney, environment secretary Richard Lochhead, justice secretary Kenny MacAskill, community safety minister Roseanna Cunningham, sports minister Shona Robison and chief whip Joe Fitzpatrick.
Rent claimed on expenses by a handful of Conservative MSPs in 2012-13 saw their party paid more than £15,000 in office rent. Former Labour leader Iain Gray paid the East Lothian constituency party more than £8,000 in rent out of his expenses in 2012-13.
Politicians are not breaking parliamentary rules by using their expenses in this way, but the practice has come under fire from critics who claim that it represents a “back-door subsidy” for political parties.
Last week, it emerged that the practice was widespread at Westminster when precise details of MPs rental arrangements were published for the first time by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. The IPSA figures found that nearly 250 MPs out of 650 claimed more than £3.6 million in public money to rent from their own parties.
Scotland on Sunday carried out its own survey of MSPs’ expenses claims to find out how prevalent such arrangements were at Holyrood.
Although not on the same scale as Westminster, several notable politicians are involved in such schemes with tens of thousands of pounds being paid into party coffers.
In 2012-13, a monthly rent of £312.50 was paid from Salmond’s expenses to the SNP North East Scotland Regional Association – making an annual payment of £3,744. The payments have continued throughout this financial year. Similarly, Swinney’s expenses paid £3,160 to SNP Perthshire North, contributing to an SNP total of £50,675 for 2012-13.
Conservative front-benchers were also to the fore with enterprise spokesman Murdo Fraser contributing £2,979 through his office expenses, transport spokesman Alex Johnstone and health spokeswoman Nanette Milne providing £4,980 each and education spokeswoman Elizabeth Smith paying £3,475.
Apart from Gray in the Labour ranks, three MSPs – Hanzala Malik, Anne McTaggart and Drew Smith –used their expenses to pay several thousand pounds in rent to the Scottish Trades Union Congress, the umbrella group for trades unions, many of which are affiliated to Labour.
Last night, Jonathan Isaby, political director of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, called for Holyrood rules to be made tougher to clamp down on the arrangements. “Just like Westminster, the authorities in Holyrood urgently need to tighten up the rules over politicians renting office space from political parties or donors,” he said.
“Invoicing taxpayers for rent for office space owned by these groups is effectively creating a back-door subsidy to political parties. Often the space would not have been available to anyone else on commercial terms, so it’s ludicrous for MSPs to bill taxpayers commercial rates for it.”
The political parties defended their rental arrangements, saying that it was within the Holyrood rules.
Holyrood rules state that an MSP who leases local parliamentary office premises from a party must supply the Scottish Parliament’s Corporate Body (SPCB) a report by an independent surveyor.
The surveyor’s report should provide “a professional opinion as to the fair market rent for the premises”.
The SPCB will not reimburse the rent until the report is provided. And, if on the basis of the report, the SPCB decides that the rent payable in terms of the lease is greater than the fair market rent, the member will only be liable for the fair market rent.
An SNP spokesman said: “These offices are rented at independently verified market rates and approved by the Scottish Parliament’s allowances office.”
A Scottish Labour spokeswoman said: “All of our MSPs constituency arrangements meet the robust regulations set down by the Scottish Parliament.”
A spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives said: “It’s up to individual MSPs to arrange their own office facilities, and it all has to be approved by the Scottish Parliament.”
At Westminster, those identified by IPSA as using their office expenses in this way included Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, Tory Cabinet ministers Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Jeremy Hunt, Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa Villiers and Justine Greening, and senior Labour MPs Sadiq Khan, Peter Hain and Tessa Jowell.
The Westminster list also included the SNP’s leader at Westminster, Angus Robertson, deputy leader and chief whip of the SNP Westminster Group Stewart Hosie, Angus MP Mike Weir, and Pete Wishart, MP for Perth and North Perthshire. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Lib Dem Danny Alexander, former Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell, and Gordon MP Sir Malcolm Bruce all also rent offices from party branches.