Am reading full report. The summary says:
The current parliamentary system is designed to establish whether a member of Parliament (MP) maintains a current residence (other than a holiday home) outside Wellington rather than to decide where an MP “lives” in an everyday sense. Traditionally, that residence was in the MP’s electorate.
Yes, this is the essence of it.
Mr English correctly completed the declarations he was required to as an MP, and provided other information on his accommodation arrangements, in order to claim Wellington accommodation costs.
For at least 15 years, the parliamentary rules for claiming accommodation costs have specifically provided for MPs to claim their costs when they buy or rent a property in Wellington. This has enabled a range of practices to arise, including renting from family trusts. The administrative system now includes protections such as a market evaluation of rent and a cap on the total that can be claimed to manage the associated risks. The fact that Mr English was being reimbursed for the cost of renting a house owned by his family trust was not exceptional.
So there is now no doubt that Bill retained eligibility for Wellington accommodation assistance over the years 2000 – 2008.
There is an issue over the Ministerial assistance:
Ministerial Services asked Mr English to sign a declaration that he did not have a pecuniary interest in the family trust. He did so, and attached a copy of the advice he had received about what amounted to a beneficial interest in a trust for the purposes of Standing Orders. Having received that declaration, Ministerial Services got a market evaluation of the rent, took over the existing rental agreement, and provided the house as a ministerial residence.
In our view, the advice that Mr English relied on to make his declaration was not applicable to this situation and was based on too narrow a test for the Ministerial Services’ situation. We consider that Mr English does have an indirect financial interest in the trust.
This issue arose because of Ministerial Services’ evolving practice of renting properties for Ministers combined with the parliamentary rules that enable MPs to rent from family trusts or similar. The two systems do not fit well together.
At Mr English’s request, the rental agreement between Ministerial Services and the trust has now ended. Mr English has reimbursed the rent and other costs that had been paid.
What this basically says is the advice that the house could be leased as a Ministerial House was not correct. This means however that he would still be eligible for the normal parliamentary level assistance of $24,000 a year – however he has confirmed he will not be taking up any assistance.
This reinforces my position that it is much better if MPs do not directly on indirectly own the house they get assistance for. If Bill had moved into Vogel House, or Bolton Street, these issues would haver have occurred I suspect.
The Prime Minister has announced that a new policy is being implemented under which Ministerial Services will no longer provide accommodation directly for Ministers. Instead, Ministerial Services will simply provide a fixed level of financial assistance to Ministers, who will make their own accommodation arrangements. This approach will mean that the question of whether a Minister has a personal financial interest in a property will no longer be relevant, and may help to smooth the interface between the parliamentary and ministerial accommodation entitlements systems.
The news system does sort out any conflict of interest issues.
UPDATE: The full report has more details on the trust issue, and where the advice came from:
He sought advice from the Registrar of the Pecuniary Interests of Members of Parliament on what amounted to a pecuniary interest in a family trust. The Registrar responded with advice that discussed generally what is a beneficial interest in a trust for the purposes of the Standing Orders requirements. …
The Registrar’s advice was based on the definition in Standing Orders of when a beneficial interest in a trust should be declared for the Register of the Pecuniary Interests of Members of Parliament. We have concluded that this was not the right test to apply in this situation, as it is a narrow definition of pecuniary interest for a particular purpose. In general, it is usual to regard an interest held by a spouse or close family member (such as a dependent child) as creating an indirect financial interest. In our view, Mr English has an indirect financial interest in his family trust, because of his relationship with the likely beneficiaries.
So he sought advice from the Registrar for Pecuniary Interests, but that advice was not applicable to the accommodation issue.
The result was that the Crown was renting a property for Mr English from a trust in which he had an interest, and the arrangement was explicitly based on a view that he did not have an interest. Clearly, this was unfortunate. We emphasise that the Minister’s declaration was based on advice. However, in our view, the advice was not directly relevant to this situation. We consider that Ministerial Services should have raised this with the Minister.
Again this is my point about both Bill’s situation, and the Greens Super Fund. Even an indirect relationship is undesirable.
This issue illustrates the different starting points of the two accommodation entitlement systems and that they do not fit well together. Having an interest in a property is not a barrier in the parliamentary system, and protections are in place to manage the risks created by the conflict of interest. The issue has only arisen in the ministerial system because Ministerial Services has moved to rent properties rather than own them and has worked to tailor the housing support it provides to the needs of individual Ministers, including sometimes taking over existing rental arrangements.
The upshot is that the owning the home through your trust was okay for parliamentary rules, but not for Ministerial rules. This really shows why the the two systems need to be streamlined.Tags: Auditor-General, Bill English, MPs expenses