Auditor under renewed fire over MPs' expenses

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Indy Politics

The auditor of MPs' expenses came under renewed fire today as it emerged that a number of his demands for repayment had been overturned on appeal.

Tory MP Roger Gale announced that he had been cleared after contesting Sir Thomas Legg's assertion that he had wrongly claimed thousands of pounds.

The Thanet North MP was among 80 who appealed to Sir Paul Kennedy, a former appeal court judge, because they felt that Sir Thomas's demands were unjustified.

Others who have been cleared by Sir Paul include Liberal Democrat frontbencher Jeremy Browne and, reportedly, Labour MP Ann Cryer.

Another Labour backbencher, Dennis Skinner, said today that Sir Thomas had offered him an "unreserved apology" after mistakenly asking the veteran MP to pay back about £5,000.

Mr Gale was ordered last October to hand back around £2,100 for mobile phone bills and £370 in rent for a London flat.

He insisted that his mobile claims were "permissible" under the rules at the time they were made and that the rent demand was made under the mistaken impression he had double-claimed.

Mr Gale said today he had received a letter from Sir Paul, who was appointed to hear appeals amid uproar at Sir Thomas's rulings last year, saying his appeal had been upheld.

"I'm gratified that Sir Paul Kennedy has done thoroughly and very carefully the job that I had hoped and expected that Sir Thomas Legg was going to do," he said.

He stressed that he had told Sir Paul, in his initial letter, that he would abide by his adjudication and pay back the money if he insisted.

Mr Skinner today disclosed the contents of a letter he had received from Sir Thomas last year after the MP challenged the former Whitehall mandarin's repayment demands.

"This should not have happened and I want to lose no time in offering an unreserved apology," Sir Thomas wrote to the Bolsover MP.

The auditor had asked him to pay back money towards a £9,280 kitchen, an £880 sofa bed - specially adapted because of the MP's illness - and cleaning costs.

Mr Skinner, 77, said Sir Thomas relented when he proved that he had already covered about 70% of the kitchen and half of the sofa bed, and that the auditor had double-counted his claims for cleaning.

"Since I have been in the bottom three for expenses claims for six years and I have the best voting record, even at my age, naturally I was a bit upset when I saw what he was saying and I knew all these things were wrong," he said.

"I knew he was wrong as soon as I saw his (initial) letter, I thought it was a funny process when he's put three items down and it's all wrong."

Mr Skinner said he had never even claimed for the mortgage on his second home.

After auditing all MPs' expenses between 2004 and 2008, Sir Thomas last year instructed about 200 MPs to return hundreds of thousands of pounds in "excessive" second home claims.

But he infuriated many by imposing retrospective rules and limits for reasonable spending on activities such as gardening and cleaning.

Other MPs who are known to have appealed to Sir Paul include Labour's Frank Field and Frank Cook and Tory Bernard Jenkin.

The official publication of the Legg review's findings - following the Kennedy appeals process - will not be published until next Thursday.

Mr Browne, a Lib Dem Treasury spokesman, disclosed last night that Sir Paul had determined that his second home claims were fair after all.

The Taunton MP had been told to hand back £17,894.24 after Sir Thomas decided he should not have claimed a higher amount in second home allowance after remortgaging.

In a letter to the MP, Sir Paul said it was clear to him Mr Browne had acted "openly and honestly" and his claims were for "the very purpose" the second home allowance was designed for.

Mr Browne said: "I am pleased and relieved to have had my appeal accepted in full.

"I have always maintained that I behaved properly when I used my own money to buy a home in Taunton and rejected alternative arrangements that would have actually cost the taxpayer more.

"My name has been cleared and my reputation restored with the confirmation by Sir Paul Kennedy that I acted 'openly and honestly'."