Expenses: MPs cry foul at payback demands

Party leaders among dozens of MPs embroiled in new scandal that leaves Westminster reeling on first day of new term
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Indy Politics

Gordon Brown's attempt to clean up politics after the MPs' expenses scandal backfired on him yesterday when he was ordered to pay back more than £12,000 he claimed in allowances.

Sir Thomas Legg, a former senior civil servant called in by Mr Brown to audit claims by all MPs, ruled that the Prime Minister had claimed too much for cleaning at his second home and uncovered a £1,396 "double claim" for painting and decorating. Mr Brown agreed immediately to pay back a total of £12,415.

In a dramatic twist to the expenses saga, senior figures in all three main parties were dragged into the net. Sir Thomas asked David Cameron, his shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, and the Chancellor Alistair Darling to provide further details of their claims for mortgage interest under the MPs' "second homes" allowance, while the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, repaid £910 he had claimed for gardening costs.

Mr Cameron – who has paid off the loan on his family home in west London – has regularly claimed mortgage interest on his property in his Oxfordshire constituency. In 2007-08 he claimed £12,972 for mortgage interest payments and in total has claimed £82,450 – including utility bills and other costs – under the second home allowance in four years. He had already repaid £947 to the Commons fees office, which included a £218 overpayment on his mortgage and £680 for the cost of removing wisteria and other maintenance work.

While Mr Osborne has also been asked by Sir Thomas to provide copies of his mortgage interest statements, it is understood that he has not been asked to repay any money.

Mr Darling is also to repay £554 he claimed towards a chest of drawers to furnish his second home after submitting paperwork to recoup £1,104 for the total cost of the drawers, despite there being a limit of £550 for such items.

Mr Cameron said his letter from Sir Thomas did not raise any new issues or ask for any money to be repaid, but asked for one particular mortgage statement. "Of course if any further request is made I'll obviously meet it and meet it straight away," he said. "It is a difficult process but it's got to be dealt with ... We've got to start rebuilding confidence in politics brick by brick."

Mr Clegg added: "We have got to move on. If we are going to be able to look voters in the eye at the next general election, we are going to have to clean up the whole system, repay the money Sir Thomas asks – where those requests are reasonable – and do the radical things, for instance taking MPs out of the property game altogether."

Sir Thomas, whose letters apparently fall into three categories – those passing a clean bill of health, those ordering repayment, and those demanding further information – dismayed and angered MPs in all parties by imposing retrospective new limits of £1,000 a year for gardening and £2,000 a year for cleaning costs for the period from 2004-08.

Some Labour MPs discussed a plan to set up a £2,000-a-head fighting fund so the Legg rulings could be challenged in the courts. They said it was wrong to punish them when their claims had been approved by Commons officials and were within the rules at the time. One MP said: "The change in rules is just bizarre. There is no way it would stand up in a court of law."

Mr Brown fell foul of the new ceiling on cleaning costs because he was claiming about £55 a week for his London flat to be cleaned, plus other costs for window cleaning and dry cleaning of clothes he wore at official functions.

Mr Brown's office said his expenses had always been cleared by the House authorities as entirely consistent with the rules, that he had not claimed the maximum in expenses and that the Legg review said its findings "carry no implication about the conduct or motives of the MPs concerned".

In a letter to all ministers last night, the Prime Minister urged them to accept the audit's verdict on repaying money. "The past system of expenses has comprehensively failed and we have taken action to replace it," he said. "Our actions will mean the discredited regime is completely replaced, so that we prevent the problems of the past from happening again and help to restore public confidence." MPs have three weeks to challenge Sir Thomas's orders. Any ministers who do not comply could face the sack, but in practice, they are expected to fall into line.

Despite this there were signs of a backbench revolt last night when Mr Brown addressed a heated meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party. He told his MPs: "It is a difficult time, it is a difficult day, there are difficult letters on the way."

Several MPs complained to the Prime Minister that Sir Thomas had "moved the goalposts" by applying new rules after the event. Mr Brown told them he shared their frustration, but stressed that they would have to endure the pain of the Legg inquiry to rebuild trust in the system."We can't have closure unless we deal with it," he said.

He added: "The Labour Party was born against the odds and our achievements came against the odds. Whatever the odds may be, we will succeed and we will win the next election."

The former home secretary Jacqui Smith, an early victim of the expenses controversy, apologised to the Commons yesterday after Parliament's standards watchdog ruled that she "wrongly" designated her sister's London property as her main home and claimed second home allowances on her Redditch family house.

Sir Stuart Bell, a senior Labour MP who sits on the Members' Estimates Committee, said MPs were "astonished" and "not happy" that Sir Thomas had "moved the goalposts." His decision on Mr Brown was "clearly wrong", he said.

John Bercow, the Commons Speaker, admitted in a letter to all MPs that Sir Thomas's remit was to examine payments made "against the rules and standards in force at the time" but urged them to co-operate fully with his inquiry.