Lib Dems Taught MPs How To Exploit Expenses

Nick Clegg(Telegraph) – The Liberal Democrats tutored their MPs in how to systematically exploit their taxpayer-funded expenses.

Internal party documents obtained by The Sunday Telegraph show Lib Dem MPs being told how they could get the taxpayer to fund ‘material that does not meet [parliamentary] guidelines.’

The MPs were schooled in the use of ‘grey areas’ to get questionable spending through and advised: ‘There is lots of scope… so be imaginative!’

The revelations come only days after Mr Clegg told his party conference: ‘Only the Liberal Democrats will clean up Westminster [and] reform expenses.’

The leaked documents were produced as late as March 2008 by officials at Lib Dem national headquarters, including Hilary Stephenson, the party’s director of campaigns and elections, who will be running its next general election campaign.

By that stage, the issue of MPs’ expenses had already become highly controversial and Mr Clegg was vocal in calling for reform.

However, the documents show that behind the scenes the attitude was different. One, entitled ‘The Seamless Web,’ an extract from the ‘Liberal Democrat Best Practice Manual,’ deals with the common practice of sending unsolicited ‘MP reports’ to all local voters at public expense.

Under Commons Fees Office rules, such taxpayer-funded material must be confined to factual accounts of the MP’s activities. Party political ‘propaganda,’ campaigning or fund-raising at public expense is banned.

However, the document then goes on to outline how MPs can get around this restriction: ‘Many MPs will wish to include material that does not meet the Fees Office guidelines, for example… appeals for help or money,’ it says.

In this case, advises the document, MPs should take out adverts – paid for by public funds – in their own party propaganda material. Although the ads themselves will be politically neutral – giving, for instance, the MP’s contact details or surgery times – the taxpayer-funded income from them will subsidise the party-political content of the rest of the leaflet.

As the document advises MPs: ‘You can pay for the report by other means and then pay from the [taxpayer-funded] incidental expenses provision for advertising space.’

Mr Clegg himself is among the Lib Dem MPs to have done this.

Another briefing, ‘MPs’ allowance rules,’ tells MPs to ‘be imaginative’ to get a party-political message across at public expense.

The ‘divide between party political campaigning and MP campaigning’ was described as a ‘grey area’ which could be exploited. Other ‘grey areas’ included the use of the party logo on taxpayer-funded material, the use of ‘party slogans’ and the ‘use of election candidates’ outside the immediate few weeks of the election campaign itself.

Officially, the document says, party logos can be used only ‘a bit’ in taxpayer-funded material, and in a ‘proportionate and discreet’ way. But MPs are advised that this another ‘grey area’ which can be manipulated.

The document also advises MPs that they should ‘spend up to the limit’ and ‘should be making full use’ of the various allowances. It points out that the total available for staffing, communications and ‘incidental expenses’ added together is as much as £125,000 and advises MPs to ‘vire’ or transfer money between the categories for maximum impact.

It adds: ‘Planning will mean that £125,000 of resource will be used to best effect.’

However it fails to mention some restrictions on transfers in the rules – for instance, the stipulation that only 10% of the staffing allowance can be transferred into communications.

Last year MPs of all parties spent almost £5 million under the communications allowance for material sometimes barely distinguishable from their election leaflets.

Most of the highest-claiming MPs under the allowance are in marginal seats, suggesting that taxpayers’ money is being widely used for political campaigning.

Claire Ward, Labour MP for marginal Watford, has produced at public expense a ‘parliamentary newsletter’ posted or delivered to all constituents which appears almost indistinguishable from Labour election leaflets. The newsletter uses the Labour Party’s standard typeface. The layout and colours are the same as a Labour leaflet.

Although the word ‘Labour’ does not appear, the newsletter contains nationally-used Labour campaign slogans such as ‘Working hard for…’ and boasts of ‘record investment in the NHS,’ ‘continued investment in education,’ help for ‘hard-working families’ and a ‘tax cut of £120 for 22 million basic-rate taxpayers.’

Ms Ward said her use of the communications allowance was ‘completely in line with the rules’ and the content was approved in advance by the Commons authorities. There is no suggestion that any MP has abused the communications allowance for personal gain.

A Lib Dem spokesman said the party’s ‘best practice’ manual had now been superseded and was ‘commenting on a system that no longer exists.’

He said: ‘Everything in these documents is designed to make sure that MPs follow the rules and is about helping MPs communicate more effectively within the rules.’

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