and TIM KELSEY
The Nolan Committee into standards in public life has been privately consulting the National Audit Office, the public finance watchdog, about allegations that MPs are flouting the rules covering their travel and secretarial expenses.
The move has been made against a background of increasing complaints about the way some MPs are using their allowances, including charges that they have been:
t Submitting claims of up to 72p a mile for car journeys they have not taken;
t Claiming to use cars with larger engines to exploit higher petrol allowances for cars over two litres;
t Paying their wives for work they have not done;
t Giving end-of-year bonuses to their wives to mop up any surplus from their pounds 42,754 annual office allowance.
At a session of his committee earlier this year, Lord Nolan said: "It must be generally recognised that fiddling your expenses, dishonestly claiming the reimbursement of expenses you have not in fact incurred is fraud, is a crime, whether it is done by a Member of Parliament or anybody else."
The law lord acknowledged that the problem was that the MPs' supervisory system was so lax abuses could be difficult to check.
The NAO said it had been asked by Lord Nolan to describe how the rules operated. In late March it sent details, pointing out "the special position of the House of Commons" and the reliance placed upon "the certified statement of the MP that expenses have been wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred on parliamentary business".
MPs from the three major parties are earning thousands of pounds on top of their salaries from regular abuses of the rules, according to MPs and serving and former secretaries interviewed by the Independent.
A senior official in the Commons Fees Office, the section that monitors MPs' travel and secretarial claims, said that at least six cases of suspected abuse were uncovered annually. Of these, about two would be referred to the whips for further action.
No instance of an MP being disciplined for fiddling his or her travel or office allowances has ever been publicised. Instead, said the official, they are "dealt with in- party, in-house".
Sir Clifford Boulton, a former clerk of the Commons and a member of the Nolan Committee, said he could not comment on something that was "within our terms of reference".
"It may well be that MPs' allowances could be the subject of a future report. Anything which casts doubt on standards of conduct, and from the public point of view indicates there might be better controls, could well be right to be a subject for the Nolan Committee," Sir Clifford said.
Harry Barnes, Labour MP for Derbyshire North East, told the Nolan Committee that he was never asked to submit taxi receipts as an MP, that sometimes "MPs who have a travel allowance by car are involved in train travel ... and sometimes one wonders whether they are actually claiming the road travel as being somewhat greater".
Mr Barnes pleaded with the committee for the rules to be tightened and said "greater guidance would ensure [the] problem wasn't there".
At present, MPs are taken virtually entirely at their word when it comes to submitting travel and office claims. They only have to state that they made a car journey to claim the mileage allowance and only have to submit a contract of employment for their wives to be paid as secretaries.
"The rules are so lax it is difficult not to abuse them," admitted one Labour MP from the north of England. "In fact, I am the only Labour MP I know who actually does the mileage."
Two MPs - one Labour, the other Liberal Democrat - and three current and former Commons' secretaries, allege that three members are claiming for bogus journeys.
One well-known Tory MP regularly claimed for false trips both to and from the constituency and within it - at weekends and during the recess - according to a former assistant.
In two cases, MPs have paid their wives as clerical assistants out of the annual allowance provided by Parliament although their wives did no work for them; they also pay them an annual "bonus". The fees office official said: "It does happen. They say it is because they keep their wife on such a low salary and if there is money left over at the end of the year they give her a bonus."
An MP whose wife does a full job of work for him, Quentin Davies, an ex-minister and Tory MP for Stamford and Spalding, said: "That would be very serious if true. I'm staggered that MPs would do that."
Allowance "fiddles", page 3
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