Smith ordered to apologise over expenses

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Indy Politics

Former home secretary Jacqui Smith was ordered to apologise to the House of Commons today after a watchdog found that she had "clearly" breached rules on second home expenses.

But the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee said no further action should be taken on the Redditch MP's claims for expenses for cable-TV films - including blue movies watched by her husband.

In a report, the committee said Ms Smith had already acknowledged that these claims were unallowable, apologised and returned the money.

It is thought likely Ms Smith will make her apology in a personal statement to the Commons later today.

The report was published today as letters were sent out to MPs by a separate review into their expenses.

Sir Thomas Legg is carrying out an audit of all allowances paid out over the last five years and has today written to raise questions over some claims. MPs are being given three weeks to provide justification for the money they received.

Reports that Sir Thomas may require them to repay sums which were permissible under the rules in action at the time have led to suggestions that some MPs could refuse to comply.

Veteran Labour MP Sir Stuart Bell, who sits on the ruling Commons Members Estimate Committee (MEC), said: "The MPs will have in their breast pocket a letter from Sir Thomas dated the 2nd of July saying that his review will be carried out in accordance with the rules at the time and the standards that applied at the time over the past five years ...

"I think many MPs, if they read the newspapers, may feel (Sir Thomas) is not staying within that remit, he's not respecting the decisions that were made by the fees office in accordance with the rules at the time."

Commons Speaker John Bercow, who chairs the MEC, also wrote to MPs today urging them to "cooperate fully" with the Legg inquiry.

"As you know, this review of past allowance payments is part of the important process of restoring public confidence in our allowance system and in the House," he wrote.

"The MEC, therefore, urges Members to cooperate fully with its inquiries."

He reminded MPs that the original remit of the review was to assess payments going back five years "against the rules and standards in force at the time".

Sir Thomas was also obliged to give MPs "a fair opportunity to make representations" about his findings before recommending who should pay money back.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown urged MPs to comply with any of Sir Thomas's recommendations.

"We have got to clean up politics, we have got to consign the old discredited system to the dustbin of history, so this is part of the process of doing so," he told GMTV.

"Sir Thomas Legg will make recommendations, people have a chance to look at what he says, then my advice to people is, if after the process has gone through in the next few weeks, he says you have got to repay, let's get it done, let's get it sorted out and let's get it back to a system that people can make sure they have confidence in."

And Tory leader David Cameron said during a visit to Bedford: "Every MP has got to take part in this, this is a very important part in cleaning up our politics, sorting out the mess of the House of Commons.

"Everybody should respond to these letters, respond to the inquiries that are being made and of course at the end of the process everyone will have to comply with what the authorities are asking."

An inquiry was launched into Ms Smith's expenses claims after it emerged she had designated her family home in the West Midlands as her second home for expenses purposes, while listing a room at her sister's London house where she lodged as her main home.

Between 2006 and 2009, Ms Smith claimed £64,240 in Additional Costs Allowance for the Redditch property, including mortgage interest, utility bills, council tax, telephone, servicing, maintenance, repairs and cleaning.

Meanwhile, Standards Commissioner John Lyon also looked into complaints over her expense claims for a cable TV, telephone and broadband package over an eight-month period, which included additional sums for pay-per-view films and sporting events. Among these were pornographic movies which her husband Richard Timney has admitted watching while she was away.

Ms Smith has already apologised over the films, insisting she did not know they were included in the claim, and has repaid £400. The Commissioner found the sum wrongly claimed was in fact £185.20.

Mr Lyon concluded that Ms Smith was in breach of Commons rules over the designation of her second home from 2004 to 2009, and the committee today backed his finding that her constituency home was in fact her main home.

However, the committee said it was a "significant mitigating circumstance" that Ms Smith sought advice on her position from House authorities in 2007 and acted on it.

"Whilst we acknowledge that there are mitigating circumstances, Ms Smith clearly breached the rules of the House by wrongly designating her main home from 2004 to 2009," found the committee. "We recommend that Ms Smith apologise to the House by means of a personal statement."

On the claim for TV movies, the committee said: "That Ms Smith wrongly claimed for unallowable expenditure is not in dispute. We welcome Ms Smith's admission of her error and her acceptance of responsibility.

"These, together with Ms Smith's early action to repay a sum in excess of that which she wrongly claimed and her apology to this committee are, in our view, sufficient for us to regard the matter as closed and we make no recommendation for further action."

In a written response to Mr Lyon's inquiry, sent to the committee in September and included in today's report, Ms Smith insisted her designation of her family residence as her second home was "reasonable and defensible".

She added: "I have never 'flipped'. I have only ever owned one home and I don't believe that making a different decision would have resulted in better value for money.

"I am disappointed that this process has not led to a fairer set of conclusions, based on objective and consistent application of the rules as they were at the time."

However, the committee rejected her argument, agreeing with Mr Lyon's finding that "the gravitational pull in terms of family and property is, on the basis of all the evidence I have seen, Redditch and not London".

Today's report noted that when Ms Smith was first elected to Parliament in 1997 she nominated her Redditch property as her main home, but switched it to London when she joined the Government in 1999.

This was in line with rules in operation at the time which required ministers to name their London residence as their main home.

When this requirement was removed in 2007, Ms Smith consulted the Commons authorities, who agreed it was "reasonable" for her to continue to claim second home allowance on her family house, as she was spending most of her time in London.

However, checks on Ms Smith's personal and ministerial diaries, as well as police protection records, showed that while she spent more nights in London before becoming Home Secretary, once she was promoted to the post in June 2007 she began spending the majority of nights in Redditch.

The Standards Commissioner found that the London address was "more than some sort of temporary room in a stranger's house" as she was a guarantor of the mortgage, contributed to household bills and had use of shared rooms as well as her bedroom.

But he said guidance to MPs that they should nominate the property where they spend most nights as their main home did not mean that they should "reach an unnatural interpretation of that term".

Her decision to continue to name the London home after 2007 was therefore "mistaken" and "contrary to the purpose as well as to the letter of the rule".

Mr Brown's spokesman confirmed that as of mid-morning the premier had not received a letter from Sir Thomas.

The spokesman stressed: "The Prime Minister is fully supportive of, and in fact was the person who initiated, the Legg process and he thinks it is a very important part of strengthening trust in the political system. He is fully behind Legg."

Asked if Mr Brown was concerned that Sir Thomas was straying beyond his brief, the premier's spokesman replied: "He accepts this process may not be completely perfect but he thinks it's important it is done and dusted in the right way."

The spokesman added: "The Prime Minister accepts there's an element of retrospection to this system. "That's the way it's being applied.

"He believes we have an agreed approach with Legg which allows people to respond to questions raised and that's the right thing to do."

Guidance given to MPs in 2006 informed them that they could claim expenses on the cost of phone bills and a TV licence at their second home.

But Mr Lyon found the Commons authorities advised it was not appropriate for MPs to claim for sports and entertainment broadcasts which were charged for separately.

Ms Smith's expenses included claims for her entire Virgin Media cable TV, telephone and broadband package, including a number of pay-per-view films and sporting events.

Writing to the commissioner, Ms Smith said she did not see the supporting documents submitted with the claims and would have noticed their "unsuitability" if she had done.

"I have accepted that claims for entertainment are not allowed against the ACA," she said. "It is a matter of great regret and embarrassment to me that I did not check this element of my claims in more detail."

A formal request by Ms Smith to be granted a slot in this afternoon's Commons business to make her statement is being considered by Speaker John Bercow, his office said.

Commons authorities later confirmed that the former home secretary would make her statement this afternoon.

Unlock Democracy director Peter Facey warned MPs against contesting Sir Thomas's approach.

He said: "The allowance abuse scandal is a storm entirely of Parliament's making.

"The House of Commons has rigorously contested every attempt to make its system more transparent and many MPs have clearly used this lack of expenses scrutiny to run up the most outrageous claims.

"Contesting this process will achieve nothing except to prolong the agony and drain the authority of Parliament still further. MPs who are serious about rebuilding their relationship with the public should quietly pay up if asked by Sir Thomas."