Most-expensive MP says the £168,889 was for constituents

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The staff of Claire Curtis-Thomas could hardly cope with the torrent of telephone calls yesterday after she won the unwelcome title of Britain's most expensive MP.

The staff of Claire Curtis-Thomas could hardly cope with the torrent of telephone calls yesterday after she won the unwelcome title of Britain's most expensive MP.

One remarked that her Merseyside electorate, Crosby, had not attracted so much publicity since Shirley Williams won a spectacular by-election victory for the Social Democratic Party in the constituency 23 years ago.

Ms Curtis-Thomas, who ran up an expense bill, met by the taxpayers, of £168,889 last year, spent the morning in a local school, before devoting the afternoon to her three children, with her mobile telephone switched off. By then she had issued a short, defiant statement insisting her top spot was testimony to her diligence in working for her constituents in Crosby.

It said: "It is an irony that the MP who spends more will be working hardest for their constituents. I ensure I fully represent the community I have been elected by and therefore require high operating costs. I always have and will continue to work the hardest I can for my constituents."

A Blair loyalist, Ms Curtis-Thomas claimed her full £20,033 allowance for her London living costs and £18,780 for an office in the constituency.

She was, in addition, paid £71,773 to employ eight staff, £27,155 for personal travel, £3,572 for staff travel costs, £5,661 for stationery, £19,038 for postage to constituents, £2,021 for computers and £559 for other costs.

By way of explanation, she has argued that her team visited every home in Crosby last year and held several street surgeries.

Many of her constituents were, however, in an unforgiving mood yesterday over their MP's price-tag. Sarah Parry, a nurse, said: "Claire Curtis-Thomas has done a good job representing Crosby, but her expenses are far too high. How can she justify travel costs that are more than double the claims of other local MPs? It stinks."

Alison Baldwin, a childminder, said: "The bill she has run up is equal to a small lottery win and is more money than most of her constituents can hope to earn in a lifetime."

David Donnelly, a chef, said: "She is paid enough in salary without claiming more three times that in expenses. It is going to make people think twice next time she is asking for their votes."

Ann Burke, an accountant, said: "I would like to know how Mrs Curtis- Thomas plans to explain her astronomical cost to local people. There are people living in parts of this constituency who are struggling to get by on just a few hundred pounds a month."

No one in the Labour high command expected Ms Curtis-Thomas to capture Crosby, a former Tory middle-class stronghold north of Liverpool, in 1997. Indeed, it was only when Tony Blair heard her result on election night that he realised the scale of his landslide.

Since then, Ms Curtis-Thomas, a 46-year-old former mechanical engineer and university dean, has assiduously cultivated the constituency. She increased her majority to 8,353 in 2001.

As a result she is little-known in Westminster, making most impact there in campaigning for care workers falsely accused of child abuse. She has also called for greater protection for neglected animals and backed changes to abortion legislation because of concern over late terminations.

Ms Curtis-Thomas - inevitably dubbed a "Blair babe" in her early days in the Commons - also faced embarrassment when the Mersey Tunnels Bill, which she was sponsoring, was delayed because she had failed to be in her seat when it was called.

Welsh-born, Ms Curtis-Thomas was educated at University College, Cardiff, and Aston University and worked for Shell UK, initially as a fitter, and for Birmingham City Council. A Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, she was dean of the faculty of business and engineering at the University of Wales, Newport.

Believed to be the first woman engineer to be elected to the Commons, she made an early impression when she produced a spanner and repaired a broken parliamentary lift.