An MP has hit back at media coverage of expenses claims of as little as 20 pence that he made for cycling trips on constituency business – and has urged parliamentary colleagues to follow his example and get in the saddle.
Writing in the Guardian, Matt Western, the Labour MP for Warwick & Leamington recalled the recent climate change strikes in schools, the Extinction Rebellion protests in London, and teenage activist Greta Thunberg addressing MPs, including him.
“So, at a time when most of the country is focused on the threats to our environment, the challenges we face in addressing them and the need for not just behavioural change but a transformation of our economy, what is more newsworthy to Fleet Street?” he asked.
“An MP legitimately claiming 20p a mile through parliamentary expenses for cycling between meetings around his constituency? Or an MP trying to lead by example by cycling, attempting to reduce his carbon footprint, and contributing to improving the poor air quality in our towns and cities – all while doing so at lower cost to the taxpayer?”
As we reported at the weekend, The Sun published a story about Western having claimed a total of £8.60 in 2018/19 for cycling, and while the newspaper highlighted that he had done nothing wrong and was entitled to submit the claim, the tone of the article suggested otherwise – including quoting an unnamed MP who said, “Your legs may hurt a little bit after going for a bike ride but it’s not like putting petrol in your car.”
In fact, as we pointed out, the amount claimed for cycling represented just 0.29 per cent of his total travel expenses of £2,989.64 for the year, most of which related to rail travel but also including £623.70 for use of his own car, something that passed without comment in The Sun.
The story was picked up by other newspapers, with Western saying: “The double standards hit an all-time high when The Times covered the story, accompanied by a front page talking about stalling electric car sales and their Clean Air For All campaign. This context left me wondering whether the Times would rather I use my car for these short visits. Interestingly, they have yet to answer this question.”
He pointed out that both in the public and private sectors, claiming 20 pence per mile (the rate approved by HMRC) for cycling on business is commonplace and complies with guidelines set be parliamentary expenses watchdog, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA).
The MP said that “besides the cost of maintaining a bicycle, the most important part of this storm in a teacup is an MP practising what they preach and leading by example.”
Noting that his Leamington last week registered the worst air quality in the country, an issue of concern to his constituents, he said that “when the original story in the Sun appeared, a large number of them told me that they’re not only delighted I’m so visible cycling around our towns, but also relieved that I care enough about our local environment to offer deeds, not words, on local climate change.”
Western said he believed fellow MPs should follow his example to help show leadership on tackling climate change, and highlighted a scheme running in Bari, Italy, where people are given cash incentives to cycle to work or grants to buy a bike – something he said “has huge potential if attached to an infrastructure programme that focuses on improving cycling routes, making it a viable and accessible option for all commuters. It goes without saying that it’s significantly better for the health of others around you, as well as your own physical and mental health.”
He added: “Inadvertently, the national newspapers who attacked me for claiming this expense have raised an important issue and helped kickstart a positive campaign that I want to wage. I would challenge any of my parliamentary colleagues to lead by example during this declared climate emergency and cycle as much as they can. Not only that, but I challenge anyone reading this article to contact their employer to discuss cycle mileage.
“If they wouldn’t have an issue with you claiming for gas-guzzling vehicle mileage, or taking an Uber to your next meeting, why on earth should they be against something that is beneficial for all?
“In the meantime, I will continue cycling in my constituency – for my constituency,” he concluded.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.