A criminal investigation into allegations of fraudulent expenses claims by MPs and peers is to be launched by the Metropolitan Police, Scotland Yard announced last night. Detectives are likely to concentrate on those who claimed for "phantom mortgages"when their home loans had already been paid off.
The move – agreed by Scotland Yard and the Crown Prosecution Service – comes after informal meetings between senior officers and Commons officials. The Met refused to discuss which politicians it would be investigating, but did say that the inquiry will be conducted by its economic crime unit. While it is likely that it will concentrate on the phantom mortgage cases, the expenses claims of other politicians are also being scrutinised to assess whether there are grounds for a full investigation.
Labour member David Chaytor, who claimed interest payments for a mortgage he had already paid off, has confirmed he is one of the MPs under investigation, while Elliot Morley, another Labour MP who has admitted wrongfully claiming £16,000, said he would be happy to "fully co-operate with any inquiry". A Labour peer, Baroness Uddin, reportedly claimed a Maidstone flat as her main residence so she could access expenses granted to peers living outside London, despite the flat allegedly being empty.
The news that Labour politicians face police investigations will come as a fresh blow to Gordon Brown who today admits he has been "hurt" by the personal attacks on him during the failed attempt to force him out of Downing St.
In an interview with The Guardian he said: "To be honest, you could walk away from all of this tomorrow ... I'm not interested in what accompanies being in power. I wouldn't worry if I never returned to all those places – Downing Street, Chequers ... And it would probably be good for my children."
The police investigation was announced as MPs scrambled to hand back money in the wake of the expenses scandal. According to parliamentary figures, 183 MPs have so far returned almost £480,000 to the Commons Fees Office.
A succession of senior ministers including Ed Balls, his wife Yvette Cooper, David Miliband and Rosie Winterton have repaid thousands of pounds because of mistakes in claims on their mortgages for their second homes.
Ms Winterton, the new Communities minister, returned £8,247 after it emerged that she had claimed for the capital on her mortgage and not just the interest to which MPs are entitled.
Mr Balls, the Schools Secretary, and Ms Cooper, the Work and Pensions Secretary, each returned £1,350, explaining that the repayments reflected falling borrowing rates. Mr Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, returned £434, while Andy Burnham, the Health Secretary, paid back £2,742 of mistaken overpayments by the Fees Office for rent and mortgage interest. Douglas Alexander, the International Development Secretary, repaid £12,600 because he had rented out a property for which he was claiming second homes allowance.
One of the biggest repayments was from junior Culture minister Barbara Follett, wife of the author Ken Follett, who gave back £32,976 that she had claimed for security at her London home and the cleaning of a child's rug she had "claimed in error".
Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, had already promised to pay back £660 covering the service charge for a flat he had already let out, and is now returning a further £298 representing his share of the ground rent and television licence in the flat while it had a tenant. The man who aspires to replace him, Mr Osborne, is repaying £1,194. He has already returned £440 he claimed for a taxi ride and is also giving back almost £100 for an "administrative error" over mortgage interest and a £654 claim for insurance.
Hilary Armstrong, the former Chief Whip, repaid £5,500 for food claims she admitted were "tacky", while Keith Vaz, the former Foreign Office minister, is returning £18,949 "having read the comments of local people".
Members of the Tory front bench are also returning almost £30,000 to the taxpayer. They include Michael Gove, the shadow Schools Secretary, who is repaying £7,000 claimed for furniture, and Chris Grayling, the shadow Home Secretary, who is giving back £5,700 for furnishings. Andrew Lansley, the shadow Health Secretary, is returning £2,600 for home improvements, while Nick Herbert, the shadow Justice Secretary, is repaying £865 in mortgage interest and £329 for a car phone and SatNav kit.
Elsewhere, The Daily Telegraph today claims that over 50 MPs – including former ministers David Blunkett and Beverley Hughes, and shadow ministers Jeremy Hunt and David Willetts – claimed for more council tax than they paid. Until last year, Parliament only required receipts for expenses of over £250. But when the rules were changed many MPs suddenly reduced the amount they were claiming. Several had claimed round figures, such as £150 or £200 a month, which are unlikely to reflect the accurate cost of their council tax bills, while others made 12 monthly claims when their payments were split into 10 instalments.
In the spotlight Second homes and 'accounting errors'
*Received £16,000 for a mortgage on his constituency home in Scunthorpe for 18 months after the mortgage had been paid off. Subsequently blamed the claims on "sloppy accounting" but has said he will stand down at the next election. He was one of 98 MPs who voted to keep expenses claims secret.
*Classified a flat in Maidstone, Kent, as her main home, which allowed her to claim £30,000 a year in expenses for peers living outside London. But neighbours claimed the flat remained unoccupied since she bought it, and that it was completely unfurnished. She denies these claims.
*Claimed £13,000 for a "phantom mortgage". Received £1,175 between September 2005 and August 2006 for mortgage interest on his Westminster flat, even though the mortgage was paid off in 2004. He blamed an "error in my accounting" and has said he will stand down at the next election.