and TIM KELSEY
MPs from constituencies in the North, Scotland and the West are netting thousands of pounds a year tax-free by choosing to travel to their homes and constituencies by car rather than use the train.
Commons mileage allowances mean they can earn up to 72p per mile from using their cars, compared with receiving free rail or air tickets.
Some claim to have a legitimate reason for using the car, such as non- availability and unreliability of a train service.
Unlike systematic expense abuses uncovered by the Independent - and causing concern at the Nolan Committee into standards in public life - this is within Commons' rules.
Despite its legitimacy, however, MPs are afraid that in the current climate of concern over sleaze at Westminster their constituents may not understand why they choose to drive rather than let the train take the strain.
One worried MP contacted by the Independent and asked why he frequently drives 300 miles on a Thursday evening from Westminster, rather than use British Rail, insisted on not being named. "It is extremely difficult to justify this to constituents. We are all a bit sensitive about it," he said.
MPs are allowed to claim 72.2p per mile for a car above 2300cc for mileage up to 20,000 miles. If an MP were to claim every mile, it would be worth pounds 14,440 tax free.
Commons rules stipulate that cars between 1300cc and 2300cc are eligible for a rate of 46p per mile, and below this 30.5p. After the first 20,000 miles, the mileage rate drops to about half. This is approximately 20p more than the allowances recommended by the AA.
For cars between two and three litres travelling 20,000 miles per year the AA advises 51.2p as the cost per mile of keeping the vehicle on the road. This includes the purchase price of the car.
Members are eligible for free travel on public transport - by sea, air or rail. Many, though - even those in the most distant constituencies - prefer to use their cars.
Among 30 MPs surveyed by the Independent at random, two-thirds said they used cars rather than the free air and rail warrants.
Roger Godsiff, Labour MP for Birmingham Small Heath, drives the 120 miles to his constituency each week, according to his office. Robert Banks, Tory MP for Harrogate, routinely drives 204 miles: "I drive in the main. My house is some distance from Harrogate. It is quite a large rural constituency. I have to have a car."
Rupert Allason, Tory MP for Torbay, confirmed that he has never once used a rail warrant to travel the 200 miles from London to his constituency. "I find trains completely unreliable," he said last week.
Even MPs from as far away as Scottish constituencies frequently drive. Brian Donohoe, the Labour MP for Cunninghame South, near Glasgow, drives at least once a month - an 800-mile round trip worth pounds 576. "There are times when you need to take books from the library," he said.
Eric Clarke, the Labour MP for Midlothian, also travels by car about once a month.
Other car users include Michael Fabricant, the Tory MP for Mid-Staffordshire, who normally drives the 133 miles to his constituency.
Sir Ivan Lawrence tends to journey the 140 miles to his northern constituency. His secretary said: "He has to change if he takes the train."
Sir Marcus Fox, senior Tory backbencher and chairman of the 1922 committee, uses the car for about half his journeys to his West Yorkshire constituency, his office said.
However, some MPs do insist on using the train. Robert Hicks, the Tory MP for Cornwall South East, always travels by train because "it is far less stressful than car". Stuart Bell, Labour MP for Middlesborough, also takes the train.Reuse content