MPs Threaten To Defy Expenses Enquiry

(Telegraph) – MPS HAVE THREATENED to defy an official inquiry into the Commons expenses scandal led by Sir Thomas Legg by refusing ‘unfair’ demands to repay questionable claims.

Independent auditors will on Monday write to up to 500 past and present MPs to highlight concern about their use of parliamentary allowances, before inviting them to refund the public purse.

But in an astonishing act of defiance, a spokesman for the MPs complained that many would not accept orders to repay claims which were approved by the Commons fees office.

Sir Stuart Bell, who sits on the Members Estimates Committee — which will rule on whether to accept the Legg inquiry’s findings — said that if the investigation asked MPs to pay back approved expenses, it would amount to a change in ‘criteria’ and would be unfair.

He suggested that if the audit, led by Sir Thomas, a former civil servant, strayed outside its ‘remit’ in this way, then MPs would be justified in refusing to pay the money back.

The threat to defy the Legg inquiry risks reigniting public anger over the expenses scandal and is likely to overshadow the return of Parliament today after the summer break and party conference season.

The public has already made clear its dismay at MPs who tried to excuse their questionable claims by explaining that they were ‘within the rules’ that existed at the time. However, some are said to be poised to call in their solicitors in an attempt to avoid repaying any money.

The prospect of MPs challenging the inquiry will alarm Gordon Brown and David Cameron, who are keen to draw a line under the affair.

Sir Thomas and his team began scrutinising MPs’ expenses claims dating back five years in the wake of The Daily Telegraph’s disclosures about widespread abuse of the system.

He is said to be applying a ‘reasonableness test’ to the task and is thought to be taking a critical view of claims, such as excessive bills for cleaning or gardening, even where they were approved by the Commons fees office.

He is writing to MPs who he feels should either repay money to the taxpayer or provide further information about questionable claims.

His inquiry, which was ordered by the Prime Minister, will ultimately report to the Members Estimates Committee, which will decide on whether to accept the inquiry’s recommendations.

But speaking on Radio 4’s World at One, Sir Stuart suggested that Sir Thomas might have ventured beyond his remit.

‘The MPs will have in their breast pocket a letter from Sir Thomas dated July 2, saying that his review will be carried out in accordance with the rules at the time and the standards that applied at the time over the past five years,’ he said.

‘I think many MPs, if they read the newspapers, may feel he’s not staying within that remit, he’s not respecting the decisions that were made by the fees office in accordance with the rules at the time.’

As the Members Estimates Committee has the final say over whether the Legg review should be implemented, Sir Stuart’s words raise the prospect of MPs refusing to repay money on a wholesale basis.

Even if the Legg recommendations are accepted by the committee, a number of MPs — including many among the 100-plus who have announced their retirement at the next election, and others who have privately made up their mind to go — are said to be planning to call in legal advice to challenge the rulings.

As Sir Thomas has no legal powers, MPs who refuse to accept a recommendation that they repay expenses cannot be forced to do so.

While it would be possible for reluctant MPs to be referred to the parliamentary watchdog, the worst sanction open to the Commissioner for Standards is suspension from the House.

And with any sleaze inquiry likely to last many months, certainly beyond the election, there is little incentive for retiring MPs to pay any money back to the public purse.

John Mann, the Labour MP for Bassetlaw, said: ‘There are going to be some very bitter MPs who feel that Legg is being unreasonable.

‘I’ve heard that some are hiring solicitors. They will argue that they made decisions based on advice from the fees office. If people are asked to repay the profits made from renovating their properties, they will be pleading poverty. But if people are standing down you won’t be able to force them.

‘For those who are not staying on in the Commons or who want to become a Lord, there will be some who will refuse to pay altogether.

‘They will say that the system wasn’t a good system, the system didn’t require them to keep receipts, and it may be unreasonable in their eyes to pay up.’

The row over Legg’s findings is likely to rumble on well into the new year, at a time when tension among MPs over expenses is already high as they wait to hear the recommendations of the review being conducted by Sir Christopher Kelly, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, into the future system for parliamentary allowances.

Many are concerned that he could propose banning MPs from claiming mortgage payments, or even force them to live in rented communal accommodation.

And there will almost certainly be more expenses furore when the latest round of claims, relating to the financial year 2008-09, is made public in November.

So far, 106 MPs have announced their retirement from the Commons; but dozens more are expected to stand down before the election, which must come by June.

The row over the Legg review increases the likelihood that some of those with the most questionable claims will avoid refunding the taxpayer simply by opting to bow out of Parliament.

Sir Thomas has not examined the expenses of MPs who are undergoing police investigation, such as Labour’s Elliot Morley, who announced he would stand down over allegations he claimed for a ‘phantom’ mortgage.

Members subject to a parliamentary sleaze investigation, including the Conservative backbencher Anne Main, who submitted allowances for a flat in which her daughter lived, will also not be covered by the review, meaning repayments in both categories are unlikely for some time.

… (Daily Mail, 13/10/2009) – With the connivance of this wretched new Speaker, MPs are trying to destroy an honest man for daring to expose their greed

… (13/10/2009) – MPs’ Expenses Place Browns Authority In Crisis

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2 Responses

  1. And no doubt all the cost of hiring solicitors is being done at public expense – just like Spink.

    This is just so dreadful that words fail me.

    Looks like the public stands no chance of getting their money back and the sleazy politicians will no doubt try to make a comeback after sidestepping the next election.

    I just hope the electorate does not forget who the culprits are so we can ensure they never return to office.

    • That would not surprise me at all, Cynical. And no doubt the receipts, like Spink’s, will be fully redacted before their publication.

      What will be interesting to see is if Legg investigated IEP and CA claims – in addition to the home allowances, which all the fuss was about. If he did, then there is a good chance that slam-dunk criminal charges could be brought and those convicted could then never stand for parliament again.

      Personally, I am not going to hold my breath. I think that those claims will have to wait until November when local newspapers will pounce on their published MP’s expenses, together with their company’s accounts department, to undertake a full audit.

      Then it will be up to the public, as it has been in Spink’s case, to hand the published evidence to the local police.

      You can be sure that the press will not let this matter drop…

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