Labour peer ordered to apologise over expenses

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Indy Politics

A Labour peer was today ordered to apologise to the House of Lords after an inquiry found he claimed overnight subsistence payments for nights when he did not stay in London.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead has already repaid expenses totalling £9,190 to the House authorities after newspaper allegations about his claims which sparked a police investigation.

The Crown Prosecution Service announced in February that Lord Clarke would not be charged as there was insufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction.

Members of the House of Lords are not paid a salary but peers whose main home is outside Greater London can claim night subsistence of up to £154.50 if they spend the night in the capital before or after attending a sitting or meeting at Parliament.

The payment is intended to cover the cost of staying in a hotel or maintaining a second residence in London. No receipts are required, but peers are expected to claim only for expenses incurred.

In May last year, Lord Clarke was accused by the Sunday Times of having "fiddled" his expenses on the basis of telephone calls and an interview in which he admitted claiming for nights when he returned to his home in St Albans, Hertfordshire, and claiming the maximum amount even though he had stayed free with friends or family.

The paper reported that he had claimed around £18,000 a year - a total of more than £100,000 since 2001.

The peer - a trade unionist and former chairman of the Labour Party - referred himself for investigation and gave a personal statement in the Lords in June 2009, in which he said: "I accept that my conduct may have fallen short of the high standard that this House demands of its members. I tender my humble apologies to the House."

He repaid £9,190, which he said covered the maximum amount he may have claimed for nights when he in fact returned to St Albans between 2003 and 2009 - suggesting that he did so on about 60 occasions.

But in evidence to the inquiry by the Sub-Committee on Lords' Interests, Lord Clarke said he had been following the advice he was given when he joined Parliament by Labour's then chief whip Lord Carter of Devizes, who told him that he could claim whenever he attended sittings on consecutive days.

"Lord Carter explicitly stated that the claims were treated as attendance allowances and were paid as such in lieu of salary," he wrote in a letter to the sub-committee.

"I was... under the honest belief that, notwithstanding the wording of the forms, I was entitled to claim the night subsistence to the full allowance for any days when I attended consecutive sittings of the House. I understood that this was an agreement reached and acted upon by the House authorities.

"I do not accept that I 'fiddled' my expenses. I believed that I was entitled to make the claims because of what I had been told by the chief whip and other peers.

"I accept that on some occasions I claimed night subsistence on days when I returned to my main residence in Hertfordshire between sittings. I made the claims believing I was entitled to do so.

"I was told that I should claim the full amount of the allowance for night subsistence and that I was entitled to do so."

However, the sub-committee - chaired by former MI5 head Lady Manningham-Buller - found there was "no ambiguity" in the rules that peers should claim only if they do not return to their main residence overnight.

The sub-committee found: "In no circumstances should he have believed that he was entitled to make these claims. Lord Clarke was at fault to have claimed night subsistence for nights that he did not spend in London."

The sub-committee judged that the repayment already voluntarily made by Lord Clarke was an "appropriate remedial action" for this breach.

But it said he was not "personally culpable" for claiming the maximum allowance, as this is what he had been advised to do by other peers.

Lord Clarke has indicated he does not wish to appeal against the sub-committee's findings, and the House of Lords Privileges Committee today approved its recommendation that the peer should deliver a personal statement before the dissolution of Parliament "to apologise without reservation for his misuse of the scheme".