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Friday, 25 July 2014

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‘Hardworking’ Cumbrian MP shrugs off Twitter critics

An MP criticised for non-political work says he is spending more on his staff because of a sharp rise in his constituency workload.

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Not coy: MP Rory Stewart wants to push broadband

Penrith and The Border MP Rory Stewart spoke out after being criticised in a tweet for having spent time on non-Parliamentary professional activities, which have included making topical television documentaries.

But hitting back at the comments, Mr Stewart said his expenses claims have risen because a rule change means that MPs have been allowed to hire extra staff.

The MP spoke out as the bitter row over the expenses of fellow MP Maria Miller continued to fester even after she resigned from her cabinet post as Culture Secretary.

In 2012-13 – the latest year for which figures are available – Mr Stewart claimed £167,846. This was an increase from £141,370 the previous year.

This consisted of £16,415 spent on office costs; £17,000 on staff expenses; and £119,278 on staff, the figure covering salaries, pensions and other ancillary costs.

“Staff costs represent the biggest chunk of my expenses and I don’t claim for food and most stuff,” he said.

“But I do claim for staff salaries: all my staff are very hard working but they are not very well paid.

“One is on around £18,000, one on £21,000 and my top paid person is on around £30,000.

“They are all dong a great job. But the volume goes up exponentially.

“At the last surgery I held in Penrith there were 20 individuals who came along to see me.

“Since I came to office I have had emails from 12,000 separate individuals, and that is out of a constituency of 60,000, so just over one in six of the population in Penrith and The Border.

“There can be a lot of work in the more complex case work, such as that of John Armstrong [the Wigton man who was freed on bail with fellow security workers form an Indian jail].

“Everybody who knows me will say that I work reasonably hard; I’m able to work longer hours than if I had kids.”

Mr Stewart, who recently made a two-part television programme about the history of the Border region, said that all British MPs must now live with online criticism and abuse, working as they do in a country where many people do not like politicians.

“But I am very proud to be the MP for Penrith and The Border,” he said.

“It’s a place I love and the people I work with are great. That’s what keeps me sane. When I step off the train in Penrith, I sigh with relief.”

Mr Stewart’s BBC documentary Border Country told the story of Britain’s ‘Lost Middleland,’ being a history of the changing identity of Cumbria, Northumbria, and the Borders.

Ms Miller, the MP for Bromsgrove, and regarded as a rising star of the Conservative Party, said Parliament’s standards committee had dismissed the allegations against her – even though it ordered her to repay £5,800 in overclaimed mortgage interest.

She delivered a brief apology in the House of Commons but finally resigned after declaring that media coverage of the issue was proving to be a “distraction” for the Government.

Carlisle MP John Stevenson also does outside work alongside his parliamentary job, continuing to do some work as a solicitor – and believes it’s good for politicians to have other interests.

He told The Cumberland News: “If you are a Government minister or a senior shadow minister and you have time for anything else (work outside Parliament) I would be impressed. For backbench MPs I think it actually improves their role.

“I think it actually brings something extra, provided it doesn’t deepen and their principal role is still being an MP.”

Mr Stevenson claimed £146,935.02 in 2012-13. This included £91,684 for payroll, £21,629 for office costs and £24,499 for accommodation and travel costs.

“Since 2010 the expenses system has been open and transparently run, that is how it should be.”

Mr Stevenson employs three full-time and two part-time staff.

“The role of an MP has changed over the years. Forty or 50 years ago it was more of a Westminster-based job. Now it is two roles, one in Westminster and the other in constituency.”

The expenses claims of other Cumbrian MPs in 2012-13 were: Tony Cunningham (Workington) £128,311; Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) £184,407; Jamie Reed (Copeland) £177,396; John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) £160,919.

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