Media criticism has actually kickstarted an MP’s drive to get commuters on to two wheels
“MPs should be leading by example and cycling to Parliament”, says Matt Western .
Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images
Over the last few weeks, our schoolchildren have staged climate change strikes, while Extinction Rebellion locked down central London. Nearby, MPs (including myself) listened to Greta Thunberg and held debates on climate change.
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?
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?
Over the last few days a handful of national newspapers have put out a story about me claiming cycle mileage expenses for trips to meetings and events in my constituency, Warwick & Leamington.
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.
Claiming 20p a mile for cycling to and from work duties is actually common practice in many private and public sector organisations. The rate is HMRC-approved and any business can offer this if they wish to do so. It’s important to note that cycle mileage claims are considerably less than car mileage claims, and entirely within Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) guidelines on expenses.
Any cyclist will testify that wear and tear can be very costly. Bikes and accessories aren’t free – nor is the maintenance that they require, and this ultimately plays a big part in how the mileage rate is calculated.
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.
Early last Thursday morning saw Leamington Spa register the UK’s worst air quality – and I am regularly in contact with constituents who are incredibly concerned about this issue. So, 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.
In fact, I believe more MPs should be doing the same. The mileage rate is less than cars and taxis, and given the discussion and debate we have had on the climate emergency in recent weeks, it would be a positive step if more of us showed leadership on this issue by questioning, and changing, our own behaviour and habits when travelling around the constituency.
If we had the political will we could even go one step further. The Italian city of Bari is currently trialling a scheme where the public can be paid for their commute if they cycle to work, as well as offering a grant for those who currently don’t have a bicycle.
I believe that this 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.
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.
• Matt Western is the Labour MP for Warwick & Leamington