Labour MPs have been told by their own party officials that they have done nothing wrong over expenses despite the growing controversy surrounding their claims.
A remarkable email, sent to Labour members by the Parliamentary Labour Party's office and leaked to The Independent, says: "It would be easy for the public to gain the impression from this [media] coverage that MPs are generally claiming excessively or outside the rules laid down by Parliament, which is not the case."
The briefing paper, from the PLP's resource centre, insisted that the expenses claims disclosed in recent days enjoyed "the full approval of the parliamentary authorities". Although ministers have refused to say sorry for the way MPs have exploited the system to the full, they began to adopt a more contrite tone yesterday. They admitted that Parliament had been damaged by the flood of disclosures and suggested that reforms to the expenses regime could be endorsed by a panel of the public or "citizens' jury".
Today MPs will launch a drive to restore public confidence in the system. The Commons will agree to call in outside accountants to vet every single expenses claim by MPs in future. The new audit unit will be independent of the Fees Office, which approves payments and has been criticised for failing to challenge MPs' claims. It will cost about £600,000 a year to run.
Sir Stuart Bell, a member of the House of Commons Commission, which oversees expenses, said yesterday that MPs had "lost the confidence of the public and we need to get that back". He added: "I would hope that once this body is created and is up and running it will then be hived off to the private sector, to another firm, so there is an entire arm's length between MPs and those who are dispersing amounts under allowances."
But some MPs expressed fears that privatising the operation might prevent future claims being published. Tony Wright, Labour chairman of the Commons Public Administration Select Committee, said: "If this is another ruse to exempt MPs from the scrutiny of freedom of information, it is as unbelievable as it is unacceptable."
The commission will also consider a plan to bring forward to next week the publication of details of payments made to all 646 MPs over four years.
An edited version had been due to be issued in July, before the uncensored 700,000 pages of claims were obtained by The Daily Telegraph.
Lord Naseby, who was deputy Commons Speaker from 1992-97, called for Parliament to be dissolved so that a "fresh start" could be made after a general election. The Tory peer said: "The great British public has lost confidence and I think that it is extremely serious. And if it is that serious, then there is only one way of dealing with it and that is to dissolve Parliament."
There seems little prospect of that happening. Opinion polls published yesterday suggest that Labour and Gordon Brown are paying the price for the expenses scandal. A BPIX survey for the The Mail On Sunday showed Labour on 23 per cent, its lowest rating since opinion polls began in the 1940s. It put the Tories on 45 per cent and Liberal Democrats on 17 per cent. A YouGov poll for The Sunday Times put the Tories on 43 per cent, Labour on 27 per cent (down seven points from last month) and the Liberal Democrats on 18 per cent. Seven out of 10 people believe Mr Brown is doing a bad job as Prime Minister and six out of 10 say he has "completely lost authority".
The grim findings for Labour increase the chances of a meltdown for the party at next month's European and local elections. Some Labour MPs fear the party will come third, which could trigger new moves to force Mr Brown to stand down before the general election. There was just one crumb of comfort for Mr Brown when The Telegraph admitted he had not broken the rules by claiming for cleaning services for his Westminster flat in a shared arrangement with his brother, Andrew. The paper said: "There has never been any suggestion of impropriety on the part of the Prime Minister or his brother."
Europe's example: What politicians earn
Salary: €62,160 (£55,236) annually, before income tax, for National Assembly members.
*Monthly allowance of €5,790 (£5,182) for travel, lodging and entertainment.
*Low-interest housing loans available, up to a maximum of €67,534 (£60,450) .
*Deputies receive free first-class rail travel around the country and up to 40 return flights between Paris and their constituencies.
Salary: €88,068 (£78,258) a year for German MPs.
*Monthly allowance of €3,782 (£3,360) is intended to cover lodging, entertainment and a railcard.
*Yearly allowance of €13,660 (£12,138) for the running costs of parliamentary and constituency offices, including staff salaries.
Salary: €65,839 (£58,506) annually for MEPs after tax.
*There is a second-home payment of €48,037 (£42,432).
*Annual office allowance (including for staff salaries) of €53,378 (£47,432).
*Subsidised health care.
*Free flight and train tickets to and from Rome. Car travel can also be claimed.
Salary: €62,998 (£55,981) a year, before tax, for Swedish MPs.
*Travel and home office costs are covered by parliament.
*Ministers who live outside of Stockholm are provided with second homes rent-free.
*MPs who choose to live in their own flat receive a reimbursement of €639 (£572) , but can't claim for any improvements to that accommodation.
*Election campaign costs for existing members of parliament are tax- deductible.
Salary: Senators and members of the House of Representatives receive $174,000 (£115,382) a year.
* Cost-of-living allowance is included as part of an annual pay rise
*In 2008 the maximum allowance for a member of Congress was $1,637m (£1,085m).
*For senators it ranged between $2,757m and $4,416m (£2.93m).