Labour MP and wife rebuked for expenses claims

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The parliamentary sleaze watchdog called for tighter controls on MPs' expenses yesterday as a senior Labour member was rebuked for claiming £3,700 to which he was not entitled.

The parliamentary sleaze watchdog called for tighter controls on MPs' expenses yesterday as a senior Labour member was rebuked for claiming £3,700 to which he was not entitled.

MPs should be subjected to the same checks as public sector employees, said Elizabeth Filkin, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

Bruce George, the chairman of the Defence Select Committee, was criticised for his wife's mileage expenses and over payments he made to her for secretarial work. An investigation by Ms Filkin found Mr George's wife, Lisa, had failed to pay tax or national insurance "for some years" until 1997, when the parliamentary fees office took over administration of the payments. Mrs George had also claimed mileage payments entitled to MPs' wives but had failed to mention that the car was a company one, on which she should have claimed a reduced rate.

MPs can claim an office-costs allowance of £50,264 a year and mileage at a rate of 51p per mile. They "self-certify" the miles they drive and no further checks are made.

Ms Filkin said the system left honest MPs exposed to false allegations as well as making it impossible to investigate such claims fully. There should be a proper audit trail, she said. "I believe it would protect MPs because the vast majority of them do their expense claims scrupulously and if they get a complaint against them there is no way of checking because there is no certification," she said.

The Committee on Standards and Privileges recommended that no further action be taken, but warned that "members should take care to ensure that their expense claims are accurate".

Mr George said Ms Filkin's investigation had been fair and had not found him guilty of any wrong-doing. "I fully accept the judgement that I was insufficiently careful in two of my office procedures. It was a genuine mistake." Mr Bruce said he had repaid the mileage expenses and his wife was waiting for the Inland Revenue to tell her how much she owes it.

Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, questioned ministers on the issue and found that MPs claimed an average of £5,000 each last year for car travel. Some were receiving as much as £230 per week, he found, and the total cost was £3m per year. "This is excessive and it encourages MPs to drive long distances to the Commons rather than taking the train," Mr Baker said.

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