The Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, is being investigated by the parliamentary sleaze watchdog over her expenses claims for a second home.
John Lyon, the parliamentary commissioner for standards, asked Ms Smith for a formal response to allegations from her neighbours that she often spends just two nights a week at the London address she classes as her main home. Ms Smith’s declaration that her primary residence is her sister’s house in south-east London, where she pays £100 a week rent for a room, has allowed her to claim £116,000 in second-home allowance over five years for her family home in Redditch, Worcestershire, where her husband and children live.
The issue turned into a full-scale political row as David Cameron said the Home Secretary had to answer questions about her expenses. But sources close to Ms Smith reacted furiously, accusing senior Conservatives of putting her neighbours in touch with a Sunday newspaper.
Mr Lyon had twice turned down requests to investigate Ms Smith’s second-home allowance. But he decided to ask for a formal response after her neighbours Dominic and Jessica Taplin said it was a “fabrication” to say Ms Smith spends most of the week at her sister’s house. They claimed she was at the address for only two nights a week and rarely spent Sunday there.
Yesterday, Dominic Taplin told the BBC: “When the police are there I presume Jacqui Smith is there and they tend to work Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday nights and just until Thursday mid-morning. I would say she does not spend most of her week living in that house.”
A spokesman for Mr Lyon said: “He has accepted a complaint against Jacqui Smith and is following the procedure laid down for him.”
Sources close to the Home Secretary denied the charges, insisting she paid her sister a market rent for her lodgings and spent Christmas and New Year in London as well as the parliamentary recess. They said police often took part in low-profile “roving patrols” around Ms Smith’s London home.
Before 2004, ministers were required to register their London address as their main home. But since then they have been able to choose whether to claim expenses on their London home or their constituency address.
She insists she wrote to the Commons Fees Office in 2007 and received confirmation that her claims remained within the rules – the Fees Office had told her it was “irrelevant” to an allowance claim where her family lived, it was all about where she spent most of her time. One ally said: “The idea that she has arranged her life, living away from her young children and husband for profit, is offensive to say the least.”
Conservative sources confirmed that that the Taplins emailed David Cameron after contacting the Fees Office. They said officials in the Tory leader’s office told them they had the option of going to a newspaper.
Mr Cameron told the BBC: “I think we need to know what is her main home. The process is now under way and she is going to be asked those questions and she will have to answer them."
Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat frontbencher, also welcomed the inquiry: “It is welcome news that the standards commissioner is looking into this. There is clearly an opportunity for MPs to designate their first and second homes in order to maximise financial advantage, which cannot be right.”
Ms Smith said: “I sought advice about the arrangements that I make for living in two places like lots of MPs have to. I followed the advice I was given and I followed the rules. I’m very happy to answer further questions that the independent commissioner puts to me.”
Location, location: The rules for MPs
MPs with constituencies outside London are entitled to claim up to £23,083 a year to cover the cost of staying overnight away from their main home while on parliamentary business. Claims can cover rent, mortgage interest payments or hotel bills, as well as payments to cover utility bills, maintenance, refurbishment and household goods and appliances.
Before 2004 ministers were deemed to have their main home in London, but the rules have since been changed to allow them to choose whether to designate either their London or constituency address as their main home. The parliamentary expenses bible, the Green Book, says: “The location of your main home will normally be a matter of fact. If you have more than one home, your main home will normally be the one where you spend more nights than any other.”
In Jacqui Smith’s case, this would apply to how many nights she spends at her sister’s house in south-east London, which she defines as her main residence.
The amount the Home Secretary has claimed in second-home allowance for her family house in Redditch.