A dispute over an MP’s £24 train ticket has left the taxpayer with a £27,000 legal bill.
Labour MP Jim McGovern wanted to break the journey from his Dundee constituency to Parliament so that he could take part in a Labour Party meeting in Glasgow. He paid for the £23.90 rail ticket to Glasgow, and for the subsequent £249.95 business class flight to London with a card supplied by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority.
But IPSA, which was set up in the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal, refused to cover the cost of either part of his journey because the party meeting did not count as part of Mr McGovern’s parliamentary duties.
He appealed to IPSA’s compliance officer, who agreed that he could claim for the flight but not for the train fare.
Unsatisfied with the ruling, Mr McGovern became the first MP to take a dispute with IPSA in front of a tribunal. The case was heard in London on 14 March. The tribunal judge, Roger Berner, rejected Mr McGovern’s claim after his counsel had admitted that the Dundee to Glasgow leg of his journey could be described as not “wholly, exclusively and necessarily” part of his role as an MP.
IPSA has now revealed that defending the case cost them £27,000. An IPSA spokesman told the Sunday Herald: "We would rather this hadn't gone to a tribunal, but Mr McGovern made the decision to take it there. We believe the finding upholds the integrity of IPSA rules in what seems to be a test case."
Mr McGovern’s legal costs were covered by the GMB union. A former glazier, he worked for the union full time for eight years before his election to Parliament in 2005. Yesterday, Mark McDonald, an SNP member of the Scottish Assembly, suggested that he should reimburse IPSA.
“At a time when many households are struggling to make ends meet it is unbelievable that Mr McGovern has run-up this enormous bill. It shows how some MPs have learned absolutely nothing from the expenses scandal, which has done so much reputational damage to Westminster,” he said.
When the new rules governing expenses were put before the Commons in April 2009, Mr McGovern was one a group of rebels who voted against the main changes. Previously, he came ninth in the league table of “most expensive MPs” for the parliamentary year 2007/8, having claimed a total of £171,989 – though much of this would reflect the high cost of travel between Dundee and London.
When Sir Thomas Legg investigated MPs’ expenses, the only finding that he made against Mr McGovern was that he had wrongly claimed £266.54 for various items of furniture and hardware – but before the finding came out, Mr McGovern had voluntarily repaid £794.10.
He has also had one previous, minor brush with IPSA. In October 2011, IPSA’s compliance officer, Martyn Taylor, found that he had wrongly to claim towards the cost of maintaining a website which displayed a Labour Party logo, but also noted that he had acted quickly to put the problem right. He was not required to pay any money back.
McGovern blamed the high cost of the tribunal hearing on IPSA for “digging its heels in” over his train fare, and dismissed the suggestion that he should reimburse the taxpayer as “ridiculous.”
"The SNP trying to make cheap political capital out of this does not bear scrutiny," he said.
He added that he did not know what his own legal costs had come to. "To be honest, I doubt very much if I could afford it. I imagine it would be expensive. IPSA are using public money. I don't use any public money for representation."
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