Party funding: Hague to get pounds 500,000 for office

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The Independent Online
WILLIAM HAGUE is to be given pounds 500,000 a year to fund his private office as part of a government move to increase state aid to the opposition parties.

Left-wing Labour MPs are likely to be angered by the move, but Margaret Beckett will announce today that the Conservatives are to receive pounds 3m a year and the Liberal Democrats pounds 1m.

However, the money may not be made available unless the Tories agree to controversial government plans to allow all MPs to take free trips to European capitals.

Mrs Beckett, the Leader of the House of Commons, is expected to tell MPs today that she has accepted in full the recommendations on party funding that were made by the Neill Committee on Standards in Public Life.

The Neill committee suggested last year that assistance to both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats should be increased threefold to allow them to compete effectively against the Government in Parliament.

Mr Hague currently re-ceives a salary of pounds 105,000, higher than most cabinet ministers, because they have forsaken pay rises. As Leader of the Opposition he is also given a car and chauffeur. In addition, the Tories receive salaries for the Opposition Chief Whip and Assistant Whip, while the Liberal Democrats currently have no state aid.

Ministers believe that although the amounts appear large, they are justified, particularly given their own memories of being in opposition with little state support. However, the decision to grant a huge payment to Mr Hague's office, with a pounds 3m-a-year promise of funding, will anger some Labour MPs at a time when the Tories are still looking to clear their pounds 7m debts.

Last year the Conservatives received pounds 1.1m in "Short Money", as the allowance is called. This is about a third of the total spent by the Government on special and political advisers of its own.

The rise in funding for Mr Hague's own office, which is separate from the Short Money, comes as the Liberal Democrats plan a Commons debate to reduce the Tory leader's salary by pounds 1,000 because he is failing to provide the taxpayer with "value for money" as Leader of the Opposition.

The proposal to allow all MPs one free trip a year to cities such as Rome, Madrid or Paris was blocked earlier this year by the Eurosceptic Tory MP David Davis. Under the scheme, MPs would be entitled to claim expenses to cover a Club-class return air fare and hotel costs on one visit a year to any capital within the European Union. Since 1991, MPs have been able to claim one free visit to any EU institution in Brussels, Luxembourg or Strasbourg, but few have taken up the offer and the pounds 170,000- a-year fund is underspent.

Mrs Beckett is determined that the travel scheme should gain parliamentary approval and will introduce an order in the Commons ahead of the order authorising rises in funding to the opposition parties.