Peers escape overnight allowance punishment

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Indy Politics

House of Lords authorities moved yesterday to protect peers who claim overnight allowances of £174 a night for staying in London even though they have homes in the capital.

The most senior Lords official has ruled that peers can designate a “main residence” outside London if they visit it just once a month when the House is sitting. The ruling means that peers who have claimed up to £200,000 in this way over several years will escape punishment and not have to repay any money. Some peers have been accused of listing properties owned by relatives outside London as their main home.

The controversial decision will revive accusations that peers are being treated more generously than MPs, whose “second home” allowances have been at the heart of the scandal over MPs’ expenses.

Michael Pownall, the Clerk of the Parliaments, cleared nine peers accused of abusing the expenses system by naming a “main home” outside London and living in the capital while the second chamber was sitting.

He said a Lords committee had agreed a threshold “that the main residence has to be visited with a degree of frequency: in the order of at least once a month, over the year, when the House is sitting.” Time spent there during the recess was “also a relevant factor”.

Mr Pownall said: “It is not for me retrospectively to devise rules for the current scheme which have not been in place to date.” That contrasts with Sir Thomas Legg, the former civil servant who audited MPs’ expenses and imposed retrospective limits for cleaning and gardening.

A new system for Lords expenses is due to take effect this year. The £174 overnight allowance will be cut to £140 and peers will have to provide receipts to support claims for rent or hotel stays. It is unclear whether the “once a month” rule for visiting a “main home” will apply.

The peers cleared are Baroness Barker, Lord Colwyn, Lord Hayworth, the Lords Speaker Baroness Hayman, Baroness Morgan of Drefelin, Lord Morris of Manchester, Baroness Northover, Baroness Thornton and Baroness Whitaker.

Before becoming Speaker, Lady Hayman lived at her main residence in Norfolk three weekends out of four while the House was sitting and during the recesses.

Lady Barker lived at a rented home in Sussex for three weekends out of four during term-time and spent more of the recesses there than in London.

Lord Colwyn rents a London property “for the purpose of attending the House” and stays in the home he owns in Gloucestershire more than three weekends in four during term-time and “predominantly” when the House is not sitting. Lord Haworth travelled by air twice a month to his main residence in Ross & Cromarty.

Lady Morgan stayed for one or two weekends a month at her property in Cardigan while the House was sitting and stayed there during the recesses of 2006, when she claimed allowances before becoming a minister.

Lord Morris travelled by train to Manchester about three weekends in four during sitting time until switching his main residence to London because of ill-health in 2008. Lady Northover was resident in her family’s farm in Sussex, owned in her and her mother’s name, every weekend while the House was sitting.

Lady Thornton’s designated main residence was a property in Shipley, West Yorkshire, owned by her elderly and disabled mother. She visited it every weekend while the House was sitting, was registered there for council tax and was on the electoral roll, and met the mortgage and other costs of the property. Lady Whitaker was resident at a rented property in Sussex about three weekends in four during term-time and usually during recess.

Lord Clark of Hampstead, a former Labour Party chairman, is to be investigated by the Lords authorities. He has been accused of claiming more than £100,000 in overnight allowances even though on some occasions he had returned to his Hertfordshire home to sleep. After investigating his expenses claims, the Metropolitan Police said on Friday there was “insufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction”. Mr Pownall said he had referred Lord Clarke’s “complex and serious” case to a sub-committee on Lords’ interests.

Mr Pownall dismissed complaints against former Liberal Democrat chief executive Lord Rennard and the Attorney General Baroness Scotland of Asthal.