MPs milked system until the day they were exposed

CPS to reveal charges against members and peers accused of serious fraud
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Indy Politics

MPS were claiming record sums of money from the taxpayer until the final moment that the expenses scandal erupted.

The total bill for their allowances jumped by almost three per cent to £95.6m in 2008-09, an average of almost £150,000 for each MP.

The last financial year ended just four weeks before details of the extent of abuse of expenses emerged, plunging Westminster into crisis and marking the end of lax controls on claims.

The most expensive politician last year was Mohammed Sarwar, the Labour MP for Glasgow Central, who received £192,986.87. His claim included £31,310 of travel claims and £99,104.72 for staffing costs.

He was followed by Roger Godsiff, the Labour MP for Birmingham Sparkbrook and Small Heath (£189,337.89) and Angus Robertson, the SNP MP for Moray (£188,164.16).

Westminster’s expenses bill rose by £2.7m since the previous year’s total of £92.9m which was itself an inflation-busting rise of six per cent on 2006-07.

Details of last year’s allowance payments came as Sir Thomas Legg published his long-awaited audit of every claim by MPs for their second homes over five years.

He instructed 390 current and former MPs to pay back a total of just over £1.3m, a figure that was reduced to £1.1m after several successful appeals by MPs – around £100,000 less than the cost of Sir Thomas’s inquiry. More than half the 752 politicians whose claims he examined were judged to have overclaimed.

Sir Thomas’s damning verdict comes as the Crown Prosecution Service prepares to announce today (FRI) whether charges will be brought over allegations of serious expenses fraud against a small number of MPs and peers.

In the foreword to his report, Sir Thomas launched a withering attack on the “deeply flawed” rules for claiming for second homes, accusing deferential Commons officials of turning a blind eye to the abuse of the system.

He pinned some of the blame on Baron Martin of Springburn, who resigned as Commons Speaker last May amid widespread anger over his handling of the crisis.

The fees office had been “vulnerable to the influence of higher authorities in the House of Commons, from the Speaker down, and of individual MPs,” Sir Thomas protested. “These influences tended more towards looking after the immediate interests of MPs than to safeguarding propriety in public expenditure,” he said.

He also condemned the “vague” rules governing expenses claims and the failure by many MPs to produce the paperwork to justify large claims.

The biggest single repayment will be made by Barbara Follett, the local government minister, who has returned £42,458.21, most of which was spent on security patrols outside her home. She said the expenses saga had been “a sad and sorry episode in Britain’s political life which I deeply regret”.

The Tory husband and wife Andrew Mackay and Julie Kirkbride are returning £60,436 between them. Both are stepping down at the election after it emerged they claimed second homes allowance on different properties.

MPs have been given a deadline of 22 February to arrange repayments and those that fail to comply face having the cash docked from their salaries or their “golden goodbyes” when they leave Parliament.

Many MPs have already returned their overpayments, paying back more than £800,000. The largest sum outstanding is due from the Tory former minister David Heathcoat-Amory, who has been told to pay back £29,691.93 in gardening and cleaning costs.

Thirteen MPs have been given extra time to appeal against the Legg rulings, including the shadow Defence Secretary Liam Fox who is disputing a demand to return more than £20,000 in mortgage interest payments.

Sir Christopher Kelly, who led a review of the parliamentary allowances system last year, told the Commons Public Administration Committee yesterday: “I think all of you are guilty of having gone along with a system which you must have known was flawed, even if you were not personally guilty.”

Reflecting the anger of many MPs over the whole reform of expenses, the former Home Secretary David Blunkett said independent reviews by retired mandarins amounted to “the Civil Service actually running the political system, rather than politicians representing and accountable to the people”.

He said the new allowances regime being put in place threatened to be “obtuse, perverse and extraordinarily difficult to implement”.

Ann Widdecombe, the former Home Office minister, called the Legg review “lazy, incompetent and illogical”.

Payback time: The losers

*Tory husband-and-wife team Andrew Mackay and Julie Kirkbride are £60,436 poorer after the Legg review. Both have also been forced to step down at the election after it emerged that they designated different homes as their second property, including Boeley Hall, Worcestershire. Mr Mackay is returning £31,193 while his wife is paying back £29,243.

* Barbara Follett, the Local Government minister and wife of the millionaire author Ken Follett, will have to return £42,458 – more than any other MP. Mrs Follett, the MP for Stevenage, made invalid claims for mobile security patrols outside her second home, six telephone lines, pest control and insurance for artworks.

*The former Tory frontbencher Bernard Jenkin was initially ordered to repay the £63,250 he claimed to rent his second home from his sister-in-law. The sum was reduced to £36,250 on appeal, but is still the second largest repayment.

* Iris Robinson, the Democratic Unionist MP currently embroiled in a sex scandal, had to return £544.90 of the £1,644.90 she spent on a new bed.

*Labour's Mike Gapes is making the smallest repayment. The Ilford South MP has already returned 40p as a result of a "clerical error".

*The Tory MP Anthony Steen handed back the £28.50 cost of the rope and binding used on the flagpole outside his house, as well as £117 for skip hire and £39.39 for plants.

*Former Labour minister Gerald Kaufman spent £240.95 replacing two broken china grapefruit bowls. He was told he should have claimed on his insurance.

*Former Tory minister Douglas Hogg submitted an 18-page letter appealing against a demand to return £20,639.42, including his housekeeper's expenses. It failed.

*The claim by Labour's Harry Cohen for a £150 flower vase was deemed "excessive".

Knights at the helm: Expenses investigators

*If you have a crisis that threatens the established, what is the first thing you do? Call in the establishment.

Sir Thomas Legg, a former civil servant, was given the task of auditing MPs' allowances and deciding how much they should pay back.

Sir Paul Kennedy, a retired High Court judge, heard appeals against his conclusions and cut the amount MPs will have to return by £200,000. Sir Ian Kennedy, another lawyer, has been drafted in to make sure nothing like this can happen again by drawing up new rules for MPs as the chairman of the new Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. But even he does not have an entirely free hand. He will be working on proposals from Sir Christopher Kelly, the former senior civil servant who chairs the Committee on Standards in Public Life.