MPs face being barred from using public money to furnish their homes as part of sweeping reforms designed to draw a line under the expenses scandal ahead of the next election.
The infamous "John Lewis" list, spelling out the amount that MPs can spend on household furniture for their second homes, is in line to be scrapped completely as part of a review being carried out by an independent sleaze watchdog. The final report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, chaired by Sir Christopher Kelly, will be published on 4 November.
MPs are bracing themselves for the arrival of the most austere expenses system in the modern world. The plans being drawn up by Sir Christopher are thought to include an axing of the food allowance and the gradual outlawing of mortgage payments. MPs needing a second home in London would be forced to rent.
Some MPs said yesterday that a huge amount of "self-imposed austerity" would see the total expenses bill fall to the lowest level of any modern parliament. Many have already been forced to pay back thousands of pounds as a result of an independent audit carried out by Sir Thomas Legg.
However, party leaders are struggling to contain a growing backlash against Sir Thomas's audit as more MPs openly question his findings or even refuse to repay the amounted demanded. Frank Field, the former Minister for Welfare Reform, has become the most prominent expenses "refusenik" to date, after being asked to repay £7,000 in housekeeping and household bills.
Mr Field, who has been praised for his low expenses claims, accused Sir Thomas of turning him from "honourable member to rogue" and said he would be challenging his findings. He added that the former civil servant had introduced "retrospective and unprecedented" changes to how much MPs could claim for household help.
Mr Field could now become a leading voice for MPs who want to question the repayments demanded from them. Although he is a former Labour minister, Mr Field has many cross-party supporters. "Nowhere has Sir Thomas explained why he has changed the rules which have resulted in his recalculations," he said. "Imagine that you have been driving, perfectly legally, through a 30 mile an hour zone at a speed of 25mph. Imagine your reaction when, five years later, you receive multiple fines as a decision has been taken to change, retrospectively, the speed limit to 20.
"Last week I replied to Sir Thomas. I was dazed that, as someone who has always been open about my expenses, his decision should link me with the abuses known all too well to voters."
David Curry, a Tory MP who is due to become the new chairman of the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee, said yesterday that MPs were not being subjected to natural justice, but added that the clampdown was "inescapable". He told the BBC. "I think the feeling is that it's probably inescapable that party leaders want to be seen to be leading on this issue. And that does mean that they are also handing out some rough justice."
David Blunkett, the former Home Secretary, said yesterday that there would be a severe clampdown on expenses. "The consequence of what's happened will be that MPs will be receiving probably the least available allowances in the developed world."
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