Staff costs send MSP expenses soaring

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MSPs have claimed a record £15.8 million in expenses after bosses at Holyrood changed the rules to allow them to take on more staff.

With the Scottish Parliament being given new responsibilities over tax and welfare, MSPs are now permitted to employ three people, instead of two.

Salaries plus pension and national insurance contributions for MSPs’ staff totalled more than £12.1 million in 2016-17, an increase from £9.5m the previous year.

And Holyrood bosses stressed the increased limit of £85,000 a year that MSPs are allowed to spend on employees is still less than it is for Members of the Welsh Assembly and MPs at Westminster, with the latter allowed to employ up to four people at a cost of £140,000 a year.

Labour’s Neil Findlay had the highest staff costs out of the MSPs covering Edinburgh and the Lothians at £82,406.

He said he was one of the first MSPs to be registered as a Living Wage employer. He said: “I’m absolutely clear that in order to provide the best possible service to constituents I should recruit the best people available and to so I’m happy to pay them a fair wage for the skills they have.

“I do my utmost to ensure everyone who contacts me receives a reply and the no-one’s emails, letters or surgery meetings are not responded to.

“This takes a lot of time and resources but I believe it is worth it because people expect that level of service.”

When it came to general expenses, which includes travel and office costs, the MSP with the highest claim in the Edinburgh and Lothian area was the SNP’s Christine Grahame at £19,241 – but her constituency covers not only Midlothian South but also a vast area of the Borders.

Second was Gordon MacDonald, SNP MSP for Edinburgh Pentlands, at £19,101.

And third was Daniel Johnson, Labour MSP for Edinburgh Southern, claiming £17,649.

He said: “Since being elected I have worked very hard to make myself as accessible as possible and communicate as effectively as possible. My office has been focused on that and my expenses reflect that.”

Lothians Green MSP Alison Johnstone had the lowest claim among serving Edinburgh and Lothian MSPs at £2228.60, closely followed by the other Lothian Green MSP Andy Wightman, who claimed £2314.84.

Ms Johnstone said: “I use the bus, my bike and walk to get about.

“Lothian Buses ridacard is great and the bus app means I’m never at a loss for change now.

“I do try to minimise my costs, cover my own phone and don’t claim for taxis or trains within the region.”

The amount MSPs could claim for staff salaries and other employment costs increased in May last year from £62,300 to £85,000, enabling each member to employ up to three staff, where previously two staff would have been typical.

The parliament said the ­allowance also ensured all ­support staff could be paid the living wage.

A Scottish Parliament spokesman said: “The increase in support staff provision came into effect in May 2016.

“It reflects the increasing demands being made on MSPs and their staff as the Parliament assumes significant new powers over tax and welfare.

“To be clear, this is funding to enable MSPs to employ up to three full-time staff, instead of two, so they can better meet the needs of constituents, scrutinise the Parliament’s new powers effectively and continue to hold the government to account.”

In addition to the expenses claims by current MSPs, the latest figures also include claims by MSPs who were defeated or stepped down at the elections in May 2016 for the final weeks of their term of office and winding-up costs.

These were: Marco Biagi, former SNP MSP for Edinburgh Central, claimed £723.89; Sarah Boyack, former Labour Lothians MSP, £383.60; Cameron Buchanan, former Conservative Lothians MSP, £29.52; Malcolm Chisholm, former Labour MSP for Edinburgh Northern & Leith, £526.78; Jim Eadie, former SNP MSP for Edinburgh Southern, £4097.15; Colin Keir, former SNP MSP for Edinburgh Western, £1713.81; and Kenny MacAskill, former SNP MSP for Edinburgh Eastern, £1.40.

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com