MPs' fictional trips milk public funds

EXPENSES FIDDLE: Lord Nolan turns the spotlight on abuse of allowances
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The Independent Online
TIM KELSEY AND

CHRIS BLACKHURST

"My MP would simply tell me to claim to the maximum limit and so I would make up the trips," said the former secretary of a Tory MP. "It was total fiction." This was worth about pounds 1,300 a month to the MP.

MPs are allowed to claim up to 20,000 miles a year without any requirement to prove that trips were made. The MP's secretary said the effort of inventing the trips was taxing: her boss's constituency is within 100 miles of Westminster.

This is not the only allegation of fraud unearthed by the Independent. A northern Labour MP, who requested anonymity, described how some of his party colleagues routinely flouted rules on expenses.

"The classic is to use a rail warrant to come down on the Monday and to return at the end of the week, and to claim a round car trip during the middle of the week," the MP said. He also knew of one prominent Conservative who for several months was claiming a daily return car journey to his northern constituency.

Others, across all parties, have provided evidence to the Independent of day-to-day abuse of the financial privileges enjoyed by MPs.

Another MP alleged that two colleagues routinely claimed for vehicles with higher engine capacity - and therefore larger mileage allowance.

Travel allowances are one means of illicitly topping up a parliamentary salary. Another relatively common practice - among what appears to be a small minority of regular offenders - is to pay wives a "salary" from the annual office allowance, for which she does no work.

A currently-serving secretary and a former clerical worker at the House of Commons have both claimed that their MPs abused their annual office allowance. MPs are allowed to claim from the Commons up to pounds 42,754 against secretarial salaries and office overheads. Some MPs do not spend the full amount and when that happens the Commons holds back the difference. Some MPs are said to "employ" their wives in order to claim the surplus amount and so subsidise their income.

"It is very common to have wives who do not turn up and to have wives who are paid at more than the going rate," said one secretary still working at the Commons. "Another perk is that anybody on the MPs' payroll automatically has 10 per cent of their salary paid by the Commons into a private pension plan. Therefore you can have a wife who does not do anything and is paid pounds 20,000 who also gets another pounds 2,000 paid into a private pension."

A former secretary, who worked for a Tory MP after the last election, described how he paid her about pounds 15,000, his part-time research assistant pounds 5,000 and his wife the remainder of his allowance, after deductions for stationery and other office overheads. "She had a research assistant's pass into the Commons, and she earned this money from him but she never once stepped foot in the Commons for more than five minutes and did not work for him in the constituency," she said. "He had some business problems at the time and he saw this as an additional income."

Another ploy is to pay wives bonuses to use up any of the allowance left unclaimed. One Labour MP said he had paid all his staff, including his wife, a bonus last year. "It is not common, but it does happen," said a senior official at the Fees Office, which oversees pay and allowances for MPs.

The official said that when challenged about bonuses, MPs will often argue that they "keep their wife on such a low salary she deserves an end-of-year bonus". He said that all MPs are required to produce is a contract of employment for their wives. Whether the spouse does the work is not subject to external scrutiny. MPs are left to police the contractual arrangements for themselves. "We are just the paying agent", a senior official said.

The official acknowledged that abuses do occur. As an employee of the House he is forbidden from releasing the names of offenders. However, he said about six suspected cases a year were drawn to their attention, of which four proved to be "genuine mistakes".

In all, six MPs had been formally reported to the whips in the past decade. Any disciplinary action remained confidential - between the MP and the party whips' office.

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