Labour whips block questions on MP 'fiddles'

Queries on travel claims barred
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Westminster Correspondent

Labour party whips put pressure on a backbench MP to withdraw two parliamentary questions about MPs fiddling their expenses and the size of their travel claims.

Following revelations in the Independent of abuse of MPs' secretarial, office and travel allowances, it emerged last night that senior Labour whips have been trying to prevent details reaching the public domain.

On 15 May, Lynne Jones, the Labour MP for Birmingham Selly Oak since 1992, tabled two questions for written answer by Tony Newton, Leader of the House of Commons. The questions which appeared on the published Order Paper have never been answered.

The first asked Mr Newton "what safeguards are in place to prevent fraudulent travel claims being made by honourable Members; what evidence he has of the extent to which the safeguards are effective; and if he will make a statement."

The second asked Mr Newton "if he will list the total cost of travel expenses claimed by honourable Members for each of the last five years by (i) car, (ii) train and (iii) other means of travel."

Normally, such questions are quickly answered, or the MP receives a holding answer. Ms Jones's questions have not been answered and no holding reply has been sent. After she came under pressure from the whips' office, she decided not to pursue the questions.

The reason given by the whips office was that because many Labour MPs travel long distances from northern constituencies, her questions would prompt further inquiries and interest which could paint them unfairly in a bad light.

Ms Jones was told by friends that if she persisted she stood to become "very unpopular"and after consulting colleagues, agreed to the request.

Ms Jones was so incensed - she believed that the public would understand Labour travelling expenses were bound to be higher - that last week she personally handed a letter to Tony Blair, the Labour leader, saying she trusted that if there were malpractices he would act.

Asked about her conversations with the whips, Ms Jones said last night: "I am not prepared to discuss that."

An investigation by the Independent uncovered evidence of abuse by MPs on all sides including: submitting claims for journeys not made; employing wives as secretaries and then paying them for work not done; paying bonuses to their office staff, including wives, to use up their annual pounds 42,754 allowance.

For journeys to their homes and constituencies, MPs receive free first- class rail, sea and air tickets. If they drive, they can claim up to 72.2p a mile to a limit of 20,000 miles a year.

Members from the North, Scotland and West Country have been driving to and from their constituencies and claiming hundreds of pounds a week, without breaking any Commons rules. Often, they blame the unreliability of the rail service for choosing to drive.

After the Independent reported on the practice yesterday, MPs pointed out that the money they received was partially taxable and for many of them there was no choice but to drive.

While refusing to comment on why she did not pursue the questions, Ms Jones said last night: "In the light of the revelations in your article, it would be a good idea if the Nolan committee [on standards in public life] investigated this matter, because unfortunately all MPs, even those playing correctly by the rules, are tarnished by allegations of this nature.

There was no comment available from the whips' office.