Taxpayers pick up tab for inflation-busting expenses

Prime Minister urges speedy review and freezes ministers' pay as inquiry launched after details of Jacqui Smith's claims released
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Indy Politics

The bill for MPs' expenses and allowances soared by an inflation-busting six per cent last year to reach almost £93m.

The latest increase led to renewed demands for the Westminster gravy train to be halted. Last night Gordon Brown urged Britain's sleaze watchdog to speed up its inquiry into how the expenses system could be cleaned up. He also asked it to look at the possibility of scrapping the second-home allowance. In a separate move, Mr Brown announced that despite a 2.33 per cent pay rise for MPs from 1 April, ministers would have their salaries frozen.

The Prime Minister was also forced to declare his support for the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, whose political future is in doubt due to the controversy over her housing claims, including the £10 cost of her husband watching two "adult" movies.

The embarrassing leak of her claims has promoted an investigation by the parliamentary authorities who believe a mole within the Commons is trying to sell the expenses records of all MPs for £300,000. Sir Stuart Bell, a member of the ruling Commons Commission, told the BBC: "It's probably a breach of the Official Secrets Act. It may be a theft, but we will get to the bottom of it."

The latest publication of MPs' expenses and staffing costs revealed they claimed a total of £92.9m from the taxpayer last year – an average of more than £144,000 each. That is on top of a backbencher's basic salary of £63,291 – itself due to increase in the next financial year, starting on Wednesday – and their generous pension entitlements. It represents an increase of more than six per cent on the £87.6m they received in 2006-07 to cover the expense of running their offices, second homes, travel, stationery and computer costs.

MPs were paid a total of £23.1m in "additional costs allowance", under which the taxpayer picks up the bill for running second homes. More than 150 MPs claimed the full £23,083 to which they were entitled under the allowance – widely condemned as open to abuse. Despite having the use of two grace-and-favour homes, Mr Brown claimed £17,073 for running his constituency home in Scotland.

An overhaul of the system is in sight after the Prime Minister wrote to Sir Christopher Kelly, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, asking him to accelerate his investigation of MPs' expenses. He called on the committee to look at abolishing the second-home allowance for outer London MPs and said it should look at replacing the payments with an independently set rate for overnight stays away from home.

The figures showed that Ms Smith claimed £22,948 to run her second property, which she has designated as her family home in Redditch, Worcestershire, where her husband and two children live. Her decision to describe her sister's house in south London as her main home, where she lives during the week, is under investigation.

The furore over the disclosure of expenses claims for adult films viewed by her husband led to fresh calls for her resignation. Paul Flynn, the veteran Labour left-winger, called on her to step down, saying her authority was "badly damaged" after it emerged she "mistakenly" claimed for two adult films watched by her husband. Greg Mulholland, a Liberal Democrat MP, also said she should resign, arguing that she had brought Parliament into disrepute. Mr Brown offered Ms Smith his backing, describing the row as a "personal matter". He said: "The Home Secretary is doing a great job and... she has done the right thing by taking steps to rectify the mistake...."

Ms Smith's overall expenses claim, including travel, office and staffing costs, was £157,631. That sum included 25 journeys for her husband, Richard Timney, who is employed as her parliamentary assistant, at a cost to the public purse of £2,531. She claimed £22,948 for her second home.

The annual figures disclosed that Eric Joyce, the Labour MP for Falkirk, was the most expensive MP, with a claim of £187,334 last year. His travel costs alone came to £40,637, including £21,000 for air tickets. The cheapest was Philip Hollobone, the Tory MP for Kettering, who claimed £47,737. He spent just £400 on office staffing costs, while some fellow backbenchers submitted bills of more than £100,000.

In the summer, every bill submitted by MPs will be published. But they will start getting the receipts back this week. The expenses were released as the 2.33 per cent pay rise for MPs was announced, increasing their salaries to £64,766. Mr Brown's decision to freeze ministers' salaries was taken in such haste that he had to ring round the Cabinet to tell them. Mr Brown's spokesman said: "The Prime Minister does feel that when many families and businesses are facing difficult times... it is important ministers take a lead."

David Cameron said he would not accept any increase in his salary in 2009-10. The Tory leader backed a pay freeze lasting two years running until after the election, which must take place by June next year. The Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg and his deputy Vince Cable have also decided to forego their rises.

The Cabinet

Hazel Blears, the Communities Secretary, right, is the most expensive member of the Cabinet, according to an analysis of the claims made by senior cabinet ministers.

Ms Blears claimed more than £164,000 in expenses and allowances, including £23,083 in second home expenses and £92,407 in staff costs, according to figures showing the huge variation in the costs of their second home and staffing arrangements.

But she disputed figures suggesting she had claimed £2,953, or £500 a trip, for six one-way Salford to Westminster journeys for her husband. Ms Blears said she had in fact claimed £2,615 for 17 journeys.

Overall, 11 out of the 21 full cabinet members claimed less than the average total claim of £144,176.

The Shadow Cabinet

The biggest bill among the Tories' top team was submitted by David Mundell, the Scottish Secretary and the party's only MP from north of the border.

He ran up a total bill of £169,187 last year, reflecting the distance of his constituency from London. His claim included £22,177 for running a second home.

Close behind was Owen Paterson, the shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, whose £164,297 claim included £17,540 for his travel.

David Cameron's total claim of £148,829 included £103,630 for office costs and £19,626 for his second home.

The most frugal Shadow Cabinet member was Theresa May, the Work and Pensions spokeswoman, whose £118,147 claim put her down among the 50 cheapest MPs serving in Westminster.