MPs and the property market: an uneasy pairing

June 1, 2010

BRITAIN-ELECTION/Would you have an MP for a tenant? Not so long ago, those two letters placed after a person’s name were seen as a mark of respectability, but the unending drama of the expenses scandal has blown all that away.

New rules, brought in after revelations last year about MPs “flipping” their main and second homes to maximise allowances, stipulate that MPs can no longer buy second homes and claim mortgage payments on expenses. If they wish to claim expenses related to a second home, they will have to be content with renting one.

This has led to a flurry of activity by real estate agents in areas of London close to Westminster. With 232 new MPs taking their seats, many of whom represent constituencies outside the capital, the agents have scented an opportunity. In Kennington, a south London neighbourhood that is popular with MPs because it’s only a short walk or bus ride away from the Houses of Parliament, residents have been inundated with leaflets urging them to consider renting out their properties to members of the untainted new Commons intake.

Some of the leaflets seek to allay any fears of scandal that may dissuade prospective landlords fearful that a crowd of journalists could show up outside their property one morning or that they might find a photograph of it splashed all over the front pages. Don’t fret, the leaflets say, we know that there are new expense rules in place and we can guarantee everything will be above board.

But the whole issue of MPs and their housing needs continues to make news, and not of the kind that the estate agents will welcome. The revelation that the Liberal Democrat David Laws had been claiming for rent paid to a landlord who was also his long-term partner forced him to resign on Saturday from his prestigious post as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. This was a major blow to the coalition not only because the highly qualified Laws was widely seen as the right man to carry out painful spending cuts, but also because it lumbered the new government with the kind of sleazy baggage that it had been so keen to avoid. So much for the “new politics”.

On this morning’s Today Programme on BBC Radio 4, MPs once again found themselves the butt of jokes. The influential programme broadcast a clip by comedian Arthur Smith  in which he imagined showing a house-hunting MP around a property. Star features included a dimly lit lobby for illicit meetings, a television set up so that pay-per-view adult movies would show up on the bills as old episodes of Today in Parliament, a secret passageway leading to a spare room where a mistress or gay lover could be kept, and a study where “a member of your family can pretend to be working”.

MPs accustomed to hearing serious political interviews on Today will perhaps not have appreciated the humour. But it was just another reminder that they still have a very long way to go to shed the stigma of the expenses debacle.

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