£74,000 for the most expensive peer

John Laird, an Ulster politician and public relations man, has emerged as the UK’s most expensive peer. Lord Laird claimed almost £74,000 in expenses in 2008-09, 10 per cent more than the next highest claimer.

Though he speaks only rarely in Lords debates, he also holds an unbeaten record as the most prolific asker of parliamentary questions. Answering his written questions cost the taxpayer more than £100,000 in the same year.

Another high claimer was Lord Ahmed, the Labour peer who earlier this year spent sixteen days in prison for dangerous driving. He was sending and receiving text messages only minutes before a crash on the M1, near Rotherham, in which a man died. He claimed £55,141 in 2008-09, including £4,050 for car journeys between London and his home in South Yorkshire.

Another Labour peer who has spent time in prison is the former MP Michael Watson, now Lord Watson of Invergowrie. He was given early release in May 2006, after being sentenced to 16 months for arson. He claimed £44,267 in 2008-09.

Members of the House of Lords, unlike MPs, do not lose their seats if they are convicted of a crime that draws a jail sentence. The novelist Jeffrey Archer, who was sentenced to four years for perjury in 2001, still has the title Lord Archer, but has not returned to the Lords since his release in 2003. Lord Black, the former owner of the Daily Telegraph, is still serving a prison sentence in Florida for fraud.

Peers are not paid a salary, but are entitled an attendance allowance for each day they visit the Lords while it is in session. Until July 2008, the daily rate was £82.50, but it has now gone up to £86.50. They can also claim for office costs, up to £75.00 a day at the current rate. It is proposed to merge these two into a single daily allowance of £200. Peers who live outside London can also claim £174 for overnight accommodation.

The official record of Lords expenses, published yesterday, shows that Lord Laird claimed his daily attendance allowance 145 times, at a cost of £12,319. He also claimed £30,734 for staying overnight in London, and £14,564 for flights between London and his home in Ulster. With office costs of nearly £14,000, including £598 for postage, and other travel costs, the total came to £73,206.

The next highest claimant was the former Labour MP Irene Adams, now Baroness Adams of Craiglea, who claimed £66,896.

According to Hansard, the official record, Lord Laird spoke on seven occasions during the year, usually only briefly, but that he bombarded ministers with more than 700 written questions - a steady average of five or six each day, and probably more than twice as many as any other peer. On one occasion, a minister was so deluged with written questions from this one Ulster peer that he bundled 34 of them together and answered them all in a single written statement.

Civil servants have calculated that the average cost of answering a written question, at December 2008, was £149, implying that Lord Laird questions comfortably exceeded £100,000. In the previous year he asked 715 written questions.

The 65 year old peer, who began his career in banking and later founded the Belfast firm, John Laird Public Relations, was the youngest member of the Northern Ireland parliament in 1970, when he took over the seat vacated when his father died. He was then an Ulster Unionist, but sits in the Lords as a cross bencher.

In 2000, he ran into criticism when it was discovered that he had spent over £1,000 in three months on meals in the House of Lords, for which he billed the publicly funded Ulster-Scots Agency, of which he was chairman.

Government auditors also criticised his taxi bills, including £260 for a return trip from Belfast to Dublin. Lord Laird said that there a security reason that he needed to use taxis, because he often travelled in a kilt, which made him conspicuous.