MPs avoiding £70,000 a year in congestion and emissions charges by putting them on expenses

Exclusive: Clean air groups write to expenses watchdog as investigation finds 116 MPs expensing anti-pollution charges

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Sunday 24 October 2021 08:44
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MPs who drive into Westminster are avoiding tens of thousands of pounds a year in congestion charges and ultra low emission zone fees by putting them on expenses, an investigation by The Independent has found.

Clean air groups have written to parliament’s expenses watchdog asking it to stop MPs avoiding the anti-pollution charges, which are supposed to deter people from driving into central London and adding to its illegal levels of air pollution.

MPs expensed nearly £70,000 of congestion charge and ultra low emission zone (ULEZ) fees in the most recent full financial year – and have managed to rack up another £10,000 bill in the two months before this year’s summer recess.

Many of the MPs claiming the fees on expenses drive more polluting cars that require them to pay the additional ULEZ fees – which brings their total payments to £27.50 a day. But under parliamentary expense rules they can have the taxpayer cover the cost, an approach the chair of London’s health committee warns “defeats the point of having these deterring measures in place”.

The Independent has identified 116 MPs who have expensed £15 congestion charges or ULEZ fees at least once since the beginning of the current financial year – 86 of them Conservatives and 24 Labour. None of the MPs have broken any rules as IPSA, parliament’s expenses watchdog, allows both fees to be legitimately reimbursed.

The most-high profile MP to have the taxpayer cover both the congestion charge and ULEZ charge was Matt Hancock, who made the expense claims while he was still health secretary.

Other ministers expensing TfL road charges include environment minister Jo Churchill, who claimed £325 to cover fees in March alone. So far this financial year Northern Ireland minister Conor Burns has expensed over £302 in both congestion charges and ULEZ charges, while Wales minister David TC Davies expensed over £192. Former environment secretary Owen Paterson has also expensed both the congestion charge and ULEZ charge.

Other well-known MPs to put the congestion charge down as an expense include shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds, Labour rising star Jess Philips, and Tory MP Mark Harper – who chairs the Covid recovery group which argues against coronavirus restrictions. Speaker Lindsay Hoyle also expensed £25 worth of TfL road charges in March this year. Not all 116 MPs identified made clear which of the two charges they were expensing in their claims, so it is not possible to work out exactly how many were driving more polluting cars that attracted the higher ULEZ fee.

The revelation comes ahead of the expansion of the ULEZ on Monday, with the anti-pollution charge extended to cover most of inner London as far as the north and south circular roads. Environmental issues are also high on the agenda because world leaders will this week travel to the UK for the first day of the landmark Cop26 climate conference.

In a letter to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) shared with The Independent, six clean air groups said they were “deeply concerned” and called for an “urgent” review of the Commons expenses policy.

Arguing the scheme needed everyone to play their part and that MP should be “role models”, they said: “The public should not have to pick up the bill for MPs who choose to drive a polluting car in London. This is on top of the public costs we already face from air pollution – scientists estimate every car driven in an inner-city area in the UK costs the NHS and society around £7,714 over its lifetime.”

Accepting that the claims were “legitimate” under the existing rules, the groups added: “There is however a legal and moral duty to take all the action we can to improve air quality.”

The letter to IPSA was organised by the Clean Cities Campaign – a coalition of European NGOs campaigning for zero-emission mobility – and was also signed by representatives from Mums for Lungs, Possible, CPRE London, the London Cycling Campaign, and Fare City.

Caroline Russell, the Green London Assembly member who chairs the body’s health committee, told The Independent: “Employers allowing employees to regularly expense a charge like the ULEZ or congestion charge just to get to work completely defeats the point of having these deterring measures in place.”

Jenny Bates, transport campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “MPs should be setting an example and not drive unnecessarily into central London, contributing to climate emissions and the capital’s deadly air pollution.

After The Independent had collated the data for this story, but before IPSA responded to a request for comment, the expenses authority wiped the relevant details from the expenses data from its website.

Asked why this had been done, a spokesperson for IPSA said that the authority had “temporarily” removed “descriptive detail from previously published claims on our website” as a security measure as a response to the killing of MP David Amess a week ago.

The congestion charge to drive into central London is £15 a day, and the ULEZ charge for the most polluting cars is another £12.50 on top of this. Electric vehicles do not have to pay anything, and people living inside the congestion charge zone – as many MPs do – can claim a 90 per cent residents’ discount.

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