Jacqui Smith embarrassed by expenses row
Sunday 29 March 2009
Home Secretary Jacqui Smith today apologised and promised to pay back money which she wrongly claimed for a television package which was reported to include adult movies.
Ms Smith said she "mistakenly" claimed for the television package while submitting a bill for an internet connection.
The £67 bill was submitted last June as part of Ms Smith's expenses, the Sunday Express reported.
The newspaper said the Virgin Media bill included two 18-rated features which each cost £5 which were viewed on April 1 and April 6 last year.
The bill was also said to include two viewings of the film Ocean's 13 - at £3.75 each - and an additional £3.50 to watch the film Surf's Up.
In a statement to the newspaper, Ms Smith said: "I am sorry that in claiming for my internet connection, I mistakenly claimed for a television package alongside it.
"As soon as the matter was brought to my attention, I took immediate steps to contact the relevant parliamentary authorities and rectify the situation.
"All money claimed for the television package will be paid back in full."
News of the claim is an embarrassment to Ms Smith who last month faced criticism for claiming taxpayer-funded allowances for a second home while living with her sister.
Ms Smith said she had "fully abided" by the rules by designating her sister's house as her "main" residence, allowing her to claim payments on the Redditch constituency home she shares with her husband and children.
The television bill is reported to be for her family home.
The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, John Lyon, accepted a complaint about Ms Smith's claims and has called on her to explain the £116,000 which she has claimed since becoming an MP.
Ms Smith's apology came as Labour left-winger Harry Cohen, who was said to have claimed more than £300,000 in second home allowances on his house in the capital, insisted that he had done nothing wrong as it was "part of my salary".
Mr Cohen said that MPs had been told "Go out boys and spend it" when the present system was introduced under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
The Mail on Sunday reported that the MP listed a single-bedroom schoolhouse in Colchester, Essex, and a caravan on nearby Mersea Island as his main home.
The paper said that it meant that over the past five years he was able to claim the maximum allowance of £104,701 on his constituency home 70 miles away in Leyton and Wanstead, east London.
It calculated that since 1990, he had received a total of £310,714 in allowances.
Mr Cohen told the Press Association that the arrangement had been cleared with the House of Commons authorities.
He said that the former Conservative minister John Moore had told MPs "Go out boys and spend it" when he introduced a big uprating of the allowance in the 1980s to head off a pay revolt by backbench Tories.
Mr Cohen said that he had taken full advantage of the arrangement ever since.
"That is exactly what John Moore said on behalf of Mrs Thatcher to her Tory MPs. That makes it part of my salary," he said.
"It really is part of my salary in all but name. That is what it exists for."
Mr Cohen said the Colchester property was his "family home".
He said that there was no reason under the Commons rules why London MPs should not live outside the capital and have a second home in their constituency.
"It is the legitimate costs of having a constituency home to do my job. We don't have a system where people are required to live in their constituency," he said.
"I am doing nothing wrong whatsoever. I am using it for parliamentary purposes. It is a legitimate and proper use of it."
Nevertheless the latest disclosure is likely to fuel demands for a complete overhaul of the system of MPs' expenses and allowances.
Gordon Brown last week tried to head off the growing public anger by asking the Committee on Standards in Public Life to carry out a review of the whole system.
It followed the disclosure that another Greater London MP, Immigration Minister Tony McNulty, was claiming the allowance on the home where his parents live in his Harrow constituency, even though he lived only a few miles away in Hammersmith.
However with the committee not planning to report until after the next general election, the latest may lead to fresh demands for an immediate crackdown.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband said that Ms Smith was an "outstanding" Home Secretary, but refused to be drawn on the disclosures about her expenses.
Asked on BBC1's The Andrew Marr Show if it was "final straw time" for Ms Smith, he said: "I am never going to get into individual cases.
"What I am absolutely confident of is that Jacqui Smith is doing an outstanding job as the Home Secretary with some of the toughest responsibilities in government."
Chief Secretary to the Treasury Yvette Cooper said she did not know the particular circumstances surrounding Ms Smith, but said there had to be "greater transparency" regarding the expense claims of MPs.
"I don't know any more than you have just had on your bulletins," she told the Sky News Sunday Live programme.
"It is difficult for me to comment on any individual case. All I heard...was that Jacqui Smith has apologised so I know no more than that, so it is difficult to comment on individual cases.
"I think there is a wider issue, that there has got to be greater transparency, greater independent checks in terms of MPs' expenses across the board, that is why I think this new review that is taking place...is exactly the right way forward.
"You have got to have a system that people can feel confident in."
She added: "My view is that actually those checks and that scrutiny and those independent checks need to be increased as a minimum in terms of reforms that need to take place."
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