An analysis of expenses for MPs has found that 185 of them (more than one-quarter) made claims for first-class train tickets over the last year. This is contrary to guidelines that discourage doing so unless the first-class fare genuinely costs less than a standard fare.
The Sunday Telegraph, which revealed the issue, says that some of the claims for first-class fares have cost up to £300. This is five times the amount of the cheapest standard ticket on the same route. The paper claims other MPs who have done this include Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, former chancellor Alistair Darling, Transport Minister Norman Baker, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin and Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude. Overall, two Plaid Cymru, three Scottish National, 19 Liberal Democrat, 48 Conservative and 113 Labour MPs have claimed expenses for first-class travel in the last year.
The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) has limited first-class travel since the expense scandal in 2009. However, it’s still allowed in circumstances where it’s cheaper to buy a first-class ticket than a standard open fare. The travel expenses guidelines suggest MPs to consider value for money and if inflexible, cheaper fares will end up costing more if arrangements change at the last minute.
Despite this, MPs have clearly been taking advantage of the rule. This emerged as Chancellor George Osborne was criticised for boarding a first-class carriage on Friday after only paying for a standard fare. Osborne’s office insists that the chancellor always intended to pay to upgrade and that the train manager was sought out by an aide to do just that. However, a reporter travelling in the same train carriage claims that the aide ended up in a confrontation with the inspector about the issue.
Granada TV journalist Rachel Townsend posted on Twitter about the incident. She said Osborne boarded the train with a standard fare but sat in first-class. His aide told the ticket inspector that the chancellor can’t be forced to move to sit with passengers in standard-class and requested that he be permitted to remain in first-class. However, the ticket collector refused.
This account was disputed by a source close to the chancellor, insisting there was never a question about Osborne paying for an upgrade. They said the total for two fares from Wilmslow, Cheshire to London Euston on Virgin Trains amounted to £189.90. The chancellor had to take a different train than planned because of an itinerary change after several meetings in his constituency. He didn’t have a seat reservation for the new train and the carriage was crowded, so he decided to get an upgrade. He obviously intended to pay for his seat and was happy to. The upgrade was sorted by an aide.
In a separate incident in May, a commuter on the same service told reporters that an inspector confronted Osborne in first-class when he had only purchased a standard fare. The worker looked kind of embarrassed about it all, but he was correct in treating the chancellor like any other customer. After discussing the issue, Osborne gathered his belongings and moved to another carriage, where he “slummed” it with everyone else. The commuter added that they were a little shocked to see him trying to steal the upscale seat, as they thought he would be able to afford a first-class ticket with the money he makes.
First-class fares can end up being cheaper than standard open tickets purchased with short notice if they are booked far enough ahead of time. However, Matthew Sinclair, the chief executive of the Taxpayers’ Alliance says that MPs should be able to order a standard-class fare in plenty of time, which would cost even less. If standard-class seats aren’t good enough for them, then they aren’t good enough for regular commuters who pay for their own fares.