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Friday, December 03, 2010

MPs’ expenses: Ipsa and Commons at war

MPs’ expenses: Ipsa and Commons at war

MPs have ordered the watchdog responsible for House of Commons allowances to relax the tough new regime created following the expenses scandal.

MPs spent five times longer discussing their expenses than the last Afghanistan debate Photo: PAUL GROVER

By Rosa Prince, Political Correspondent 6:14AM GMT 03 Dec 2010

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority was warned that MPs would take action unless a “simpler” and “fairer” system was introduced by next April.

The often testy relationship between the two sides reached a new low as MPs interrupted the busy Parliamentary calendar to hold a five-hour debate on their own allowances.

It culminated with the unanimous passing of a motion which demanded that Ipsa introduce a "simpler" system itself, or face action.

The packed session lasted five times longer than the most recent debate on the conflict in Afghanistan, with MPs abandoning their usual custom of quitting Westminster early on Thursday afternoons to attend to constituency duties.

At the height of their heated discussion, the head of Ipsa issued a statement rejecting allegations by a senior Labour MP who accused the watchdog’s staff of leaking “juicy” information to the Press.

She also disclosed that she had wanted to punch a constituent who had accused her of being a “thief” at the time of the expenses scandal.

Ipsa has replaced the now-discredited House of Commons fees office, which failed to prevent the widespread abuse of the system of Parliamentary allowances.

Since its introduction in May, many MPs have complained bitterly at having to abide by its tough new strictures – which were approved by the Commons following the expenses scandal.

During the debate, MPs singled out individual members of Ipsa’s staff for criticism, accusing them of fostering suspicion and leaking stories to the Press. Other officials were described as “remote” and “obstinate”.

There were claims that MPs had been reduced to tears at being forced to abide by the rules.

Labour's Tom Harris said that MPs would not be "bullied by that kind of unacceptable and disgraceful behaviour".

While the debate was still ongoing, Sir Ian Kennedy, the head of Ipsa, issued a statement rejecting as “categorically untrue” allegations by Ann Clwyd, a former chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, that the watchdog had leaked stories to the Press.

Saying that details of expenses claims had been released only following a freedom of information request, he added: "I regret deeply, as will many, such attempts to undermine the professional integrity of members of my organisation."

Miss Clwyd also complained that MPs’ reputations had been “smeared” by the expenses scandal.

She said: "During my election campaign, someone came up to me and shouted 'Thief!' and if I had been a man I would have run after him and punched him in the face.”

Roger Gale, Conservative MP for North Thanet, said that there was a “climate of mistrust within Ipsa” which he claimed had been: “inculcated in to them, imposed upon them from the top ...

“Let's now call a spade a spade and understand what we are talking about."

The debate came as the first tranche of expenses claimed since the election was released by Ipsa.

There was criticism, however, after Ipsa failed to produce receipts submitted to justify the MPs’ claims – during the expenses scandal it was these receipts which led to the discovery of some of the worst abuses, including potential criminal wrongdoing.

The watchdog said it was a waste of public money to produce the receipts.

But Adam Afriyie, a Conservative MP who introduced the motion, described the decision not to publish the receipts as “calamitous”.

"I believe that this decision will prove to be calamitous; it implies secrecy and concealment when MPs could have nothing to hide and it encourages misinterpretation and miscommunication unnecessarily," he said.

During the debate, David Winnick, a long-standing Labour MP, said: "If they continue in their present way, remain so obstinate, remain so remote, then I am afraid the time may well come in this Parliament that Members will have no alternative but to come to the conclusion that new arrangements should be made."

Fellow Labour MP Clive Efford added: “I have spoken to Members of Parliament who have been in tears about the financial situation that they have been put in by Ipsa, who are not here speaking today."

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MPs ‘playing rules to maximise income’

Alex Ralph, David Brown, Soraya Kishtwari
Last updated December 3 2010 12:04AM
Times (£)

MPs are claiming twice as much in rent as they were in mortgage interest payments, the first tranche of expenses under the new regime reveals.

In some cases long-serving MPs, including ministers, are renting more expensive properties in London, while renting out their old homes in the capital, which had previously been maintained at taxpayers’ expense.

The Times has also found that since the general election the average monthly rent payment to MPs has risen by 50 per cent and that many are already claiming the maximum £1,450. In May the average rent claimed by MPs was £793; by October it had risen to £1,174.

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, the body set up to police MPs’ expenses in the wake of the scandal, published the 22,000 claims of 576 MPs yesterday. It showed that MPs had claimed £3.1 million for the first four months since the general election, compared with £96 million for the whole of last year.

Under the new system MPs are allowed to claim rent only for second homes. MPs who were re-elected at the last election have until August 2012 to stop claiming mortgage interest.

The change was introduced to prevent MPs from “flipping” their second home and making capital gains at the taxpayer’s expense. A sample of the 649 MPs found that five MPs have switched from claiming mortgage payments to rent, but are also receiving rent on another property. Under the new rules, any capital gains made on a property where an MP is claiming mortgage interest on expenses must be handed back to the taxpayer.

Clive Betts, the Labour chairman of the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee, claimed £1,450 for rent on a London flat in June and July. In September, he declared that he was also receiving rental income from a London flat.

It follows an investigation by The Times which revealed that Mr Betts had used his housing expenses to help to pay for a country estate and flipped his designated second home before taking out a mortgage on a Westminster flat. He had previouly claimed £135 a month in mortgage interest.

Peter Luff, the Defence Minister, claimed £1,450 rent in both July and August, plus £175 in a tenancy agreement in July. In the last Parliament he was claiming £663 a month in mortgage interest on his Lambeth flat. According to his latest entry in the Register of Members’ Interests, Mr Luff, the Tory MP for Mid Worcestershire, is receiving rent from a flat in London.

Meg Munn, a Labour MP and former Foreign Office minister, claimed £1,447 between May and July, and £176 for the tenancy agreement in August. In the last Parliament she claimed £1,054 in mortgage interest. The latest Register shows that she, too, is receiving income from a second home.

David Crausby, the Labour MP for Bolton North East, was claiming £162 on a London flat, but is now claiming £1,450 in rent. In November, he declared “income received from a residential property in London owned jointly with my wife”.

Peter Facey, director of Unlock Democracy, said: “It appears MPs are playing the new expenses rules to maximise their income. If they had stayed where they were there would be less of a cost to the taxpayer.”

Other MPs who previously claimed mortgage interest are now claiming up to three times the amount in rent.

David Hamilton (Labour, Midlothian), who was reimbursed £1,170 for decorating a second home in London, had been claiming £126 a month mortgage interest on a flat in South London, but is now paying £1,320 a month in rent.

Mr Hamilton said that he had sold his flat several months ago in anticipation of the future ban on MPs claiming for mortgage interest. The latest MPs’ expenses include an £82.13 claim for toilet paper from Bob Russell, the Lib Dem MP, and £1 for cleaning gloves from Gloria De Piero, the Labour MP.

All MPs were contacted by The Times but not all returned calls.


sweet1 said...

same old same old, want want want. Just because you went to UNI, does not mean that you can pilfer all the expenses YOU want. All MPs should be audited, and if they are doing wrong, should be charged with fraud.

sweet1 said...

All MPs should be audited regular, and if they are found to be thieving, then, charge them and send them to jail. Taxpayers need good honest MPs, not rogues.