One of the MPs charged with theft over his expenses has claimed he was told by a Labour whip he could "move money about" between taxpayer-funded accounts.
Jim Devine mounted an extraordinary defence of his actions after Gordon Brown distanced himself from the three Labour MPs who are to face court next month on criminal charges. The MP for Livingston made the allegation that a member of the Government had effectively approved his expenses arrangements in a highly charged interview.
Mr Devine is charged with theft by false accounting over claims for £3,240 for cleaning services and £5,505 for stationery using false invoices in 2008 and 2009. He told Channel 4 News: "We have separate accounts – London living, staffing, communication and an office budget. And you can move money around these accounts.
"I was moving money from communications to the staffing budget. I was advised by a whip that I could do this, who said that you could move money about like this. There was stationery... other parts of the money went into a staffing account. I was told that that was acceptable. Nobody queried it."
Mr Devine said he had no "in-service training" of how to deal with expenses because he arrived in Parliament after the October 2005 Livingston by-election, following the death of Robin Cook. "I was given a pile of books, went to the Fees Office, filled in a form and carried on with the advice I was given." But a Labour source said: "This is clearly rubbish. If a whip was going around saying that, you would assume everyone would be at it."
In a separate development, it emerged that former MPs found guilty of over-claiming expenses while they were in Parliament could have the money taken out of their pensions if they refuse to pay up. Parliamentary watchdogs are considering the plan to claw back disputed expenses amid fears that they have no authority to demand payment in any other way.
The expenses auditor, Sir Thomas Legg, dealt with the hundreds of serving MPs found to have claimed too much when he reported that £1.1m would have to be repaid. The Leader of the House, Harriet Harman, last week set a deadline of 22 February for MPs to pay up or face having the money docked from salaries, pensions, or allowances – as revealed in The Independent on Sunday in October.
But the exercise has raised questions over how Parliament can get cash from former MPs over whom it no longer has any control. A senior government source said yesterday there was now "a political appetite" for deducting any overdue repayments from pension entitlements. "This is the second phase of the process," he said. "Everyone has said we want to ensure no one escapes this process, so we have a right and a duty to go after anyone who still hasn't paid up, using all the weapons at our disposal."
Mr Devine and two fellow Labour MPs – Elliot Morley and David Chaytor – plan to claim the protection of parliamentary privilege, enshrined in the 1689 Bill of Rights, to escape prosecution. Conservative peer Lord Hanningfield faces six charges of false accounting. But the Hansard Society warned this move would send a "deeply damaging" message to voters.
Parliamentary privilege is intended to cover proceedings in the House of Commons, and legal experts say it would be difficult to see how this could cover expenses claims. Dr Ruth Fox of the Hansard Society said: "If it is a defence against almost any action that an MP takes in Parliament, in any relationship with their work, then I think that is going to be deeply damaging for the public. They will see that it is putting MPs above the public, giving them enhanced powers, making them essentially above the laws that they themselves make."
Mr Brown and David Cameron will this week try to draw a line under one of the worst incidents in Parliament's history by pushing ahead with political reform. On Tuesday, MPs will vote on the proposal for a referendum on the alternative vote (AV) system. The Prime Minister is expected to use the occasion to claim that while Labour is pro-reform, the Conservatives are opposed to a clean-up of Parliament by voting against the AV system.
Yet, in a speech tomorrow, Mr Cameron will counter the allegation by insisting that reform of Parliament after the expenses scandal is not related to changing voting systems.
In the first of his weekly video-casts, Mr Cameron called on the Prime Minister to implement reforms proposed by the Wright report on loosening the grip of the executive on Parliament – which many fear will be blocked by the Government. Mr Cameron said: "He [Mr Brown] has delayed the debate [on the Wright reforms] to effectively stop these changes taking place. I just don't know how he has got the nerve to talk about cleaning up politics. What did he do last week?... He came up with a plan for a new voting system. I think that is crazy."