Page last updated at 11:45 GMT, Tuesday, 12 May 2009 12:45 UK

The ethics of workplace benefits

Biros

By Stephen Dowling
BBC News

Details of MPs' expenses claims have provoked a storm of criticism from the public, but who can really hold their head high and say they have never, ever bent the rules on workplace entitlements?

You might call it the Stephen Fry defence. Buttonholed by a reporter on Monday, the actor, writer and humorist was asked for his reaction to the drip-drip of revelations about MPs' expenses claims.

"I've cheated expenses, I've fiddled things. You have. Of course you have," said a forthright Fry.

"Let's not confuse what politicians get really wrong… with the rather tedious bourgeois obsession with whether or not they've charged for their wisteria. It's not that important."

Stephen Fry on MPs' expenses row

Plenty of hardworking folk would disagree, but Fry alludes to an interesting point. Most of us know when we are breaking the law. We would not walk into a shop and take something without paying.

But MPs have been keen to stress that while their claims may appear excessive, they have not, largely, broken the rules under which they can claim. They may, however, have transgressed the moral boundaries most of us hold.

But while rules are set out in black and white, morals are personal.

Away from the House of Commons, in the more humble workplaces many of us occupy, the unsuspecting stationery cupboard throws up a dilemma or two.

Taking a ballpoint pen and slipping it into your rucksack to do the crossword on the train home is something most office workers would do without thinking. Few managers would see it as wrong, let alone worth a ticking-off.

But what if one of your co-workers bagged a box of pens? You might feel compelled to say something. But your colleague might equally seek to justify the act.

Someone else's money

Before the current slew of revelations about MPs established a firm moral framework in which they could be judged, they also thought they could justify their claims, says John Arnold, professor of organisational behaviour at Loughborough University.

"In this case it's clear that MPs tend to think they're underpaid and therefore convinced themselves that what they're doing is just addressing an injustice.

"What they are saying is: 'I am not sufficiently esteemed or rewarded for a difficult and demanding job, therefore I will do anything I can to increase my reward up to something I think it should be'."

It's human nature to abuse expenses
Simon Webley, Institute of Business Ethics

He says: "Without wanting to feel pious, I try to claim for things that have been absolutely necessary and appropriate and are additional to what I would have incurred had I been at home."

"It's always 'better' to spend someone else's money. But the question is, would they be prepared to spend their own money on these things?"

The world of workplace ethics and expenses is riddled with doubt and uncertainty.

Simon Webley, head of research at the Institute of Business Ethics, casts a more cynical eye over the dilemmas thrown up by Expensesgate.

It is "human nature", he says, to abuse such areas as expenses - we feel compelled to test the limits of such a system.

"It's a something for nothing culture. It is saying that you can get away with stuff that most of us are taxed on."

Allowances

What if your work offered money for meals while away from base and you were not required to present a receipt? Would you spend the full amount? Would you pocket the change from an M&S sarnie and buy a book for the train ride home?

Some jobs are particularly open to these sorts of dilemmas. In the medical profession, drug company sales reps have tended to offer doctors free gifts, such as stationery, mugs or key rings - and sometimes more substantial gifts.

Fleet Street in the 1970s
Fleet Street in the 70s: the golden age of creative expenses

There is another job that was once in a similar position as MPs are today - one where it members used a system of allowances and arcane expenses to bump up their salaries, at a time when the economic climate meant wage rises were being restricted.

That profession? Journalism.

Veteran journalist Tim Gopsill reflects on Fleet Street's "golden age" in the 1970s and 80s that saw all manner of wheezes to raise the take home pay of the reporters. His reminiscences are also an example of the herd instinct whereby employees almost spur each other on, and justify their claims on the basis that everyone else seems to be doing the same.

In the 1970s, the government made a deal with the unions to limit pay rises - and while those in the public sector had little chance of increasing their wages, there were ways for workers in private companies to boost their earnings on the side.

Newspapers and media companies were making good money and the claims were made with the full support of the bosses. It soon became a problem if you weren't taking part in it - an example of the limits of the system being defined by the behaviour of those in it.

"People who were under-claiming were often taken to one side and told they were letting the side down."

Mr Gopsill remembers all manner of ways the media used to get around the rules. One of the most famous was the Mirror Group's Hot Weather Allowance - a sum of £2.50 payable during sunny weather.

"This caused great amusement when it turned out the Mirror's Africa correspondent wasn't entitled to it because he didn't work in the office," he says.

Eventually, though, these times of lavishness came to an end and, as even MPs will realise, all things must pass.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Yes I have grabbed a pen from the stationary cupboard, hell I even took a few envelopes once but compared with claiming £1000s in expenses that is nothing.


Steve Peto, Bromley

I am the managing director of the UK's largest provider of expense management services. Regrettably, expense fiddling is still socially acceptable across the UK. In fact it is on the increase with some 30% of respondents in a recent YouGov survey admitting that they thought it acceptable for one to fiddle one's expenses. It seems to me that these peolpe are not so happy about it when it's their money! Stephen Fry is quite right. People who live in glass houses should not throw stones. UK plc lost an estimated £2bn in fraudulent expense claims in 2008 and that same YouGov survey told us that those fraudsters are looking to squeeze a little more out of their employers with a further 13% of people saying they will exaggerate claims even more as the recession bites. Until we change the culture of expenses and make it socially unacceptable to be caught fiddling expense claims (like it is to be caught drink driving) then this practice will continue in both the public and private sector. It has been going on for years and unless businesses and public bodies wake up and take control, it's going to continue for a long time to come.
David Vine, London

I've never met a person yet who hasn't "fiddled" their expenses, if by that we mean claiming EVERYTHING that could possibly be construed as a business expense under "the rules" - a decent accountant will justify their fees by the amount they can "save" you... We all know that some MPs are as straight as bananas, but the system allows them to "fiddle" and that's what needs a serious looking at!
Sara P, Nottingham

Stephen Fry has not only fiddled expenses, he has also served time in prison for credit card theft and fraud before he became famous as a comedian. So he is not a very good character to quote in regards to diminishing the scale of the dishonourable behaviour of the MPs and Members of the Lords.
chaplain, canterbury

Not everyone steals pens and cheats on expenses. Some of us try to do the right thing. You can judge people's moral character by what they do when they know they can get away with it.
Joe, Manchester, UK

There are three massive differences between Joe Public's behaviour in these scenarios and that of the politicians

1) The people's money they are taking is that of the electorate to which they dictate laws to and who pay their salaries, a private company is not on the moral high ground and travel/food expenditures affect company profits, not people's taxes

2) The things they are claiming for are unjustified and an obscene amount of money, its one thing to scam a free meal but quite another to claim £100K for a country home.

3) They are also claiming for things that the rest of us have to pay out of our normal wage, unless you were some senior exec on an ex-pat assignment abroad would you expect your rent paid!
Tanya Daly, London, UK

It is not only totally wrong to steal stationery form your employer just as much as it would be wrong to steal from any other source. Theft is theft no matter what criteria you offer as any explanation, however when I asked if I could buy \ pay for the use of photocopy paper the boss laughed and thought I was being awkward, it was an easier and less embarrassing option to go the the stationers and purchase paper direct from that source and leave with a clear un-tarnished conscience.
Frances Lawrence, Chobham, Woking, Surrey, England

I don't think I shall be using office pens to clean my moat any time.
Liz, leeds

Mr Dowling is right, we all claim what we can on our expenses, without outright dishonesty. So I was reasonably sympathetic to the MPs, who do need a second home in London and who have not actually broken 'the rules'. Until I heard about £3,000 for a TV and use of public money for swimming pool maintenance. I think the answer is to purchase a block of one bedroom apartments within easy reach of Westminster and allocate each MP a simply furnished flat for the duration of his/her term of office. If they want more luxury, let them pay for it themselves. They all have offices at Westminster, they only need a place to sleep after all.
Sarah, North Wales

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