Public bays for blood as expenses scandal grows

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Indy Politics

Another clutch of embarrassing parliamentary expenses claims were revealed today as the public mood over the revelations turned increasingly angry.

Justice Minister Shahid Malik claimed for tens of thousands of pounds on his second home in London while renting his constituency home in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, for less than £100 a week, according to the Daily Telegraph.

Former Cabinet member Clare Short was also paid £8,000 too much after claiming for her full mortgage payments despite only being entitled to the interest, it was revealed.

And there were revelations about a number of MP couples, including Cabinet colleagues Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper who reportedly "flipped" their second home to three different properties within two years, and Ann and Alan Keen, who have allegedly claimed almost £40,000 a year on a central London flat less than 10 miles from their family home.

The details were published amid mounting pressure for police action against the worst alleged abuses and after the continuing scandal claimed its first MP scalps.

One opinion poll today also showed Labour had slumped to its lowest rating of 22 per cent, handing the Conservatives a landslide victory if translated into votes at the next general election,

Mr Malik's claims for his second home in Peckham, south London, amounted to £66,827 over three years, the highest figure for any MP, according to the Telegraph.

They were said to include £2,600 for a home cinema system - which was cut in half by the Commons Fees Office - £730 for a "massage chair", and £65 for a court summons for the non-payment of council tax.

The Telegraph said that his landlord, local businessman and landlord Tahir Zaman, confirmed that he was paying well below the market rent for his Dewsbury address.

Mr Malik insisted last night that he had acted within the rules and denied that his job was on the line.

He declined to discuss the Telegraph's claim that he was renting a house in Dewsbury at below market value, saying: "That is my private business."

He added: "I spend half the week in Dewsbury and half the week in London and claim on my second home in London. I have not broken any rules."

Later he told Sky News: "I think this is a bit of a non-story to be honest.

"This isn't £16,000 I've had to pay back, it's not £8,000 extras I've claimed, its not that I've claimed as a couple for an extra house - none of that nonsense."

Mr Zaman told the Telegraph: "(Mr Malik) is definitely paying well under the market value rent. I'm renting (out) the next-door (property), (it's) half the size of his property, they pay me more rent than what he's paying me."

Ms Short - who now sits as an independent, having quit the Government in 2003 over the Iraq war - was said to have claimed the full cost of her mortgage for two and a half years despite being entitled to charge only for the interest.

She paid back the money after the error was pointed out by the Commons Fees Office in 2006, but only after complaining that they should have spotted the mistake earlier.

The MP for Birmingham Ladywood said that it had been an "honest mistake" made when she switched from an interest-only to a repayment mortgage on her constituency home after she left the Government.

"This is years ago. So the system worked. I made a mistake, the money was repaid, there is no fiddle of any kind, no milking the system," she told the BBC News channel.

Yesterday former environment minister Elliot Morley was suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party after it was revealed he claimed £16,000 of taxpayers' money for a non-existent mortgage.

And Tory backbencher Andrew MacKay resigned as an aide to Tory leader David Cameron after confirming he claimed for a second home allowance while his wife, Tory MP Julie Kirkbride, claimed it for another property.

Windows at the front of Ms Kirkbride's offices in Worcestershire were smashed yesterday as public anger appeared to boil over.

And MPs including Sir Menzies Campbell and Margaret Beckett appearing on BBC's weekly Question Time debate last night were jeered and heckled as they attempted to explain their claims.

London mayor Boris Johnson, who is chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority, said there could be grounds for bringing police in to investigate some claims.

He said: "I think, frankly, looking at some of these cases it looks to me as though Plod needs to come in.

"I must be careful what I say here because I am chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority, but it looks to me as though some people may very well have a serious case to answer."

Campaign group the TaxPayers' Alliance has submitted a formal complaint to police over Mr Morley's expenses and warned it would consider a private prosecution if the authorities failed to bring him to court.

TPA chief executive Matthew Elliott said: "This is too serious an issue to ignore, and it is too harmful to our democracy to pretend that it can all be dispelled by waving apology cheques or claiming lapses of memory.

"If any of Mr Morley's constituents behaved as he has with their employer's money or with the taxman, they would be in extremely hot water - those same rules must apply to MPs."

A Scotland Yard spokesman said: "We have received and are currently considering a number of complaints in relation to alleged misuse of expenses, but no decision has been taken on whether to investigate."

Former Tory Cabinet minister Douglas Hogg also agreed to repay £2,200 for clearing a moat at his Lincolnshire country home after accepting that it was "not positively excluded" from his expenses claim.

The Sun published the results of a YouGov poll, which showed the Conservatives on 41 per cent, Labour on 22 per cent and the Lib Dems on 21 per cent.

Translated into seats at election time, that would give the Tories a 152-seat majority, the paper said, with the likes of Chancellor Alistair Darling and Home Secretary Jacqui Smith losing their seats.

Mr Malik claimed that much of the reporting about his expenses claims was "absolute nonsense".

Speaking from Dewsbury, he insisted he was "as straight as they come" and said nearly every other MP in the country had spent the same amount as him.

But he pledged to donate £1,050 he claimed for a television to worthy local causes in his constituency.

He told Sky News: "I will not be giving it to the authorities in Parliament because it is legitimately mine.

"But as a gesture I am giving that to good causes in my constituency, and I think it will be appreciated by those who receive it."

Mr Malik alleged that the focus on his expenses was politically motivated.

He told Sky News: "You are running with the Conservatives' agenda, and obviously the way that they have played this has been more detrimental to Labour than to anybody else."

Mr Malik batted off questions about why he needed to spend £730 on a massage chair, saying it was a "legitimate expenditure" that he was allowed to make.

He said he went "one million per cent by the book" when he designated the house he rents in Dewsbury as his main home.

But he added: "The one thing I am clear about is that the rules are in complete tatters.

"I was a new MP. Everything I did, I asked before I did it because I didn't want to be doing anything that was against the rules."

But Mr Malik admitted that the stories about MPs' expenses have had a negative impact on the UK's democracy and politics.

"With hindsight, I think every MP in this country would have done things differently," he said.

"And for that collectively, on behalf of all MPs, of course I apologise."

He added: "I'm not in it for the money. I love my constituency, I love this country and I'm here to make a difference."

Asked whether there was a problem of confidence in Mr Martin as Speaker, shadow foreign secretary William Hague told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "There certainly is a problem. Any MP has to acknowledge that.

"I'm not going to join in the criticism of the Speaker, who I think has a very difficult job to do. But clearly there is a problem among some Members of Parliament about that. Of course we have to recognise that, but that is not a substitute for dealing with the wider issues.

"The public would be much more impressed if we showed we were dealing with all this now through total transparency and setting out to reduce the cost of politics and Parliament as a whole improving its relevance to the country - these things are much more important than anything about who sits in the Speaker's chair."

* London mayor Boris Johnson put his own slant on the expenses scandal today at the start of work on the £16 billion Crossrail scheme, which will involve tunnelling under the capital.

Accompanied by Gordon Brown, Mr Johnson, in a speech to guests at the opening, said he wanted to send a clear message to all politicians and it would be a message which reversed the normal state of affairs.

Mr Johnson said: "Gordon, you may think you are in a hole, but, when you are in a hole as big as Crossrail, it is absolutely vital to keep digging."