OTTAWA — As MPs get ready to publicly disclose more details of their expenses, several groups are questioning why members of Parliament and senators are allowed to claim per diems for food while in Ottawa without having to show any receipts.
MPs and senators are allowed to claim up to $89.95 per day for breakfast, lunch and dinner, without having to show how they spent the money, while working in the national capital region. Members of Parliament are also eligible for per diems while traveling across the country or abroad and may also charge taxpayers for meals while traveling in their own riding.
"The total comes to almost $90 a day. A day!" said former Liberal MP Michelle Simson, a champion for disclosure after being one of the first MPs to post all her expenses online. She says she was shunned by her colleagues for it and is currently working on a book about her experience in Ottawa.
"That is tax-free money and you don’t have to produce receipts at either place — the Senate or the House — to prove that you went out for dinner and maybe you treated yourself and dinner was $30. You just automatically apply for it and you get it."
"MPs and senators and frankly, members of the armed forces and anyone in government who gets a per diem, should have to produce receipts proving that they spent the money before they get reimbursed," she added. "Huge corporations have per diem amounts that cap what you can spend, but you certainly don’t get reimbursed without proving that you spent the money."
Nick Bergamini, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation research director, said he knows a lot of MPs are honest but anecdotally he’s heard stories of abuse, and wonders why taxpayers need to pick up the tab when MPs already get free food.
"Everyone else pays for their lunch and I don’t see why MPs can’t as well," he said.
A recent audit by Deloitte found that Sen. Mike Duffy had claimed 12 days of per diems while he was actually vacationing in Florida. The Senate told Duffy he owed them $1,050.60. In explaining the error, Duffy’s assistant, Diane Scharf (described in a Postmedia article as a veteran Parliament Hill staffer who had worked for both Liberal and Conservative MPs and senators) called the rules for expenses "convoluted."
According to Postmedia, she said it was "standard practice" in the Senate to file per diem claims based on the number of Senate sitting days in a month.
Bergamini called per diems a "salary top up" — worth up to $11,881.75 in tax-free money for MPs in 2013 according to HuffPost’s calculations — and said MPs have enough benefits as it is. He called for all MP and senators expenses to be posted online — with receipts.
"MPs get very, very generous benefits, (this) will make the system honest and then taxpayers can come to a conclusion about whether or not MPs actually deserve them," he said.
The National Citizens Coalition president Peter Coleman told HuffPost that per diems in the business world are meant to be used when an employee is traveling, not for day-to-day work.
"I don’t think they (MPs) should be getting per diems when they are in Ottawa," Coleman said. "I think they are wrong."
Simson said any committee she ever sat on that met during the lunch hour had meals brought in and warm food was served in the government and opposition lobbies on either side of the House.
"For me, it’s double dipping if you claim a whole day’s per diem but you had lunch in the House, you’ve double dipped for lunch…(but) I know that’s not the view that everyone takes," said Simson, noting that she never claimed any per diems during her three years in Ottawa.
It is just another example of the way MPs and senators are different than other Canadian taxpayers, Coleman said. "They have things and get benefits that you and I would never get as taxpayers working in the private sector. There has to be a reasonable level of where it makes sense and where it doesn’t make sense, and these per diems are just part of a symptom of a bigger problem."
Late last month, Marjory LeBreton, the Senate's government leader, told the upper chamber new spending rules would limit the number of per diems senators can claim while they are in Ottawa and the Senate isn’t sitting.
"The system was never intended to allow senators to stay in Ottawa over the summer months, pop into the office for an hour or so and claim a $90 per diem," she said. But since some senators do "legitimate" Senate work outside of chamber sittings, LeBreton said members of the red chamber who provided proof would be entitled to claim up to 20 additional days of per diems.
NDP House leader Nathan Cullen told HuffPost that because per diems come from the same budget allocation used for MP rent and hotel stays while in Ottawa — the Travel Status Expenses Account — and it maxes out at $26,238, many MPs don’t use their per diems or rarely claim them because there’s little budget left over.
"Most people don’t claim most of their per diems ‘cause you can’t, there is not enough budget. In my first three or four years here, I was donating money back to the federal government all the time because they don’t set up a budget that’s sufficient enough," he said. Cullen called the suggestion that MPs only get refunded on the presentation of receipts "interesting" and said "we’ll take a look at it."
Sunday on Global TV’s "The West Block," Cullen, who is also a spokesperson for the secretive Board of Internal Economy, a committee that administers the affairs of the House and only meets behind closed doors, said the Board was planning to send a letter to the Speaker Monday or Tuesday to explain new reporting guidelines that would provide more details on MPs’ expenses.
"We’re going to get more detail in the coming months on MPs’ salaries so that Canadians can go online and click a link and find out what we’re spending on travel, on hospitality, on hotels, on our staffing, that kind of thing," Cullen said. The Board had previously said it plans to release a more comprehensive breakdown of what MPs spend, but shied away from asking MPs to post receipts.
Conservative MP Brad Trost told HuffPost he’s not necessarily against the suggestion that MPs should have to fork over receipts for meals before being refunded. "I might actually come out ahead," he said.
Trost said he also doesn’t have the budget room to claim per diems every day but he has a policy with his staff that even if he is in Ottawa for more than four days, he claims no more than three. "It just averages out throughout the whole year," he said. "I use them as a way of covering expenses that are otherwise unexpensable."
Once a month, he says he hosts a different ambassador and other guests and he picks up the tab. "I don’t claim for that sort of stuff because I get ... per diems," he said. "Like a lot of MPs, the per diems pick up the expenses that we just can’t claim elsewhere."
He said it was easier to do this than use his hospitality budget, which ranges for all MPs between $8,541 to $10,734 based on the size and population of their riding.
Most people are "reasonable," Trost said but there "are always MPs who charge every stick of gum they possibly can."
According to the latest MPs’ expenditure report, MPs spent a total of $6,507,808.37 on housing and per diem expenses while in Ottawa during April 1, 2011 and March 31, 2012.