Westminster Babylon: The Great Expenses Giveaway

With so much cash sloshing around the House of Commons, it can be hard to keep up. So here is Jane Merrick's handy guide to parliamentary perks

Sunday 12 April 2009 00:00

1. The bath-plug scandal

Jacqui Smith’s career is going down the plughole after she signed off expenses for two porn films watched by her husband, Richard Timney. She has paid back the money – but there are thousands of pounds claimed – that the taxpayer will not see again – for dozens of more mundane household items.

They include 88p for a bath plug, a few sacks of coal worth £82.40, a footstool for £120.80, four scatter cushions at £18 a throw, a “large extending table” – ideal for writing out expenses forms – for £460, and a kitchen sink for £550. She has described the claims as “fair and reasonable”. MPs are allowed to claim for redecoration and white goods for their second homes, so it’s all within the rules. But if the Home Secretary spends most of her time in her sister’s spare room (see below), her husband must be the one benefiting from all those soft furnishings and nights by the fire.

2. Grace and very favourable

It must be something about ministers wanting to salvage what they can out of the falling property market. First, it emerged that Geoff Hoon had “three homes” when he was Defence Secretary – his main home, a second home in his constituency, and a grace-and-favour pad in Admiralty Arch, which came with the job. He rented out the main home, and claimed money on the second home, making around £50,000 from this tidy arrangement. Now it’s emerged that Alistair Darling, who as Chancellor knows a thing or two about money, and Margaret Beckett, who as housing minister knows a thing or two about homes, were also claiming second home allowances despite having access to grace and favour properties. Shaun Woodward has turned down a Cabinet minister’s salary as Northern Ireland Secretary, but this week it was revealed he too claims for a second home allowance, despite having access to the £80m Hillsborough Castle.

3. Second, third and fourth homes

And it’s not just those who have access to grand taxpayer-funded piles who are using the controversial second-home allowance to their benefit. Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper were cleared by Parliament’s standards commissioner for claiming expenses on what they said was their second home in north London, even though this is where their children go to school and they spend most of their time. The rules say an MP can nominate whichever property they like as their second home, so they had technically done nothing wrong. The second home is the one that brings in all the cash. So it helps if this property is the expensive London pad that one can dress up to the nines, rather than the more ordinary constituency house. Again it’s all within the rules. Others who have enjoyed this particular parliamentary quirk include Ann and Alan Keen, married Labour MPs who claim a second-home allowance even though their constituencies are not far from Westminster.

4. Services to family

Most people are happy to see members of their wider family only at Christmas, weddings and funerals, but not the honourable members who represent us in Parliament. It must only be acts of extreme selflessness that have seen Jacqui Smith house-share with her sister in an unprepossessing terrace in an unfashionable part of London, and Employment Minister Tony McNulty bunk down at his parents’ home in Harrow, for which he claimed £60,000 in expenses until this January. Yes, the Home Secretary has spent more than £150,000 since 2001 kitting out the detached family home in Redditch in soft furnishings and electrical equipment that would do a Barratt show home proud, but she doesn’t actually live there – she prefers to argue with her sister over whose turn it is to do the washing up. Highly commended in this category are Derek Conway, who put both sons on the payroll as parliamentary researchers, and Caroline Spelman, whose nanny doubled as a constituency secretary.

5. Air miles

Not content with luxury in their second homes, MPs need a bit of pampering abroad too. And when they are members of select committees, the powerful groups that are supposed to scrutinise the work of the Government on behalf of the public, then their “fact-finding” jaunts around the world are paid for by the taxpayer. Last year we stumped up £1.4m for these junkets, or as MPs say, important inquiries. The Home Affairs Committee spent £49,332 on a trip to Ecuador and Peru to investigate the cocaine trade; the Business and Enterprise Committee £48,224 in Saudi Arabia and the UAE on an inquiry “exporting out of the recession”; while the Justice Committee needed a £48,051 visit to South Africa to probe the role of a prison officer.

6. Green fingers in the till?

There seem to be so many keen gardeners in Westminster, it’s a miracle any laws get passed. The additional costs allowance of more than £23,000 is supposed to cover “necessary” expenses to enable MPs to carry out their parliamentary duties. So it must be that ministers go through their red boxes in the shade of a taxpayer-funded pergola, or contemplate the West Lothian Question as they turn sausages on a barbecue, or hold constituency surgeries offering advice on the right petunias for hanging baskets. Ms Smith, again, is a leader in this category, claiming £104.56 for a patio heater, £30.72 for “white rope” and, apparently planning an entry to the Chelsea Flower Show, £3,132.69 on plants. (She insists she has paid for some of the items herself, but does not say which.) Other gardening enthusiasts at Westminster include Mrs Beckett, who claimed nearly £2,000 for a pergola and plants.

7. Speaker cornering the market in freebies

He was heavily criticised for allowing the police to raid the House of Commons offices of Tory MP Damian Green, and there is a hard core of MPs from all parties who want him to quit, so perhaps it is no surprise that Michael Martin would want to gild his lifestyle with a bit of luxury to soften the blows. Over six years, Mr Martin – usually accompanied by his wife, Mary – has cost the taxpayer nearly £150,000 by travelling more than 105,000 miles around the world. The couple often sat in first class or business class, and their destinations included Hawaii, the Bahamas, New York and Rome. Once again, none of this is against the rules, and he says he is on official parliamentary business, but this has fuelled discontent at his office. Mary famously spent £4,000 on taxis to go grocery shopping, although the couple were not found to have committed any wrongdoing. The total bill for Mr Martin and his officials last year was £445,565. His office spent £1.7m on refurbishment to his grand apartments overlooking the Thames, including £13,000 on art and £148,900 on furniture.

8. Other perks and tax-breaks

The hand just keeps giving. MPs can claim for mortgage interest and council tax on their second homes. And the new rulebook on expenses shows they can also claim back thousands of pounds in stamp duty, removal expenses and valuation fees on that treasured second property. MPs are entitled to claim for first-class travel around the UK. And they have capped price rises at 5 per cent in bars and restaurants in the Palace of Westminster. But here is a chilling warning to MPs. Labour MP for Loughborough Andy Reed said last week he would let the “court of public opinion”, his constituents, decide whether they should foot the bill for a new boiler. Sadly, 89 per cent of readers of his local paper, the Leicester Mercury, said he could whistle for the money.

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