Un Rendez-vous

2009/10/11

How to win friends and influence voters

Filed under: finance, politics — Tags: , , — simonlecoeur @ 20:09

MPs today began to challenge openly the authority of the independent auditor charged with investigating expenses abuses at Westminster amid claims that the civil servant’s inquiry had strayed beyond its remit.

John Mann, the MP who has led calls for a thorough overhaul of the allowances system, raised concern that Sir Thomas Legg’s audit of expenses had become too broad, and warned that this might trigger lawsuits that could drag on through the “entirety of the next parliament”.

The MP for Bassetlaw, who has been publishing his own expenses in full since 2004, warned that many MPs – faced with paying back sums of up to £200,000 – may “go to ground” rather than pay immediately, and then challenge the legality of the repayment demands.

In early July, Legg initially set out to examine cases where MPs used parliamentary expenses to improve their second homes in order to make a profit rather than just maintaining them, as rules allow. However, he has also looked at exploitation of loopholes which amounted to breaches in the spirit of the law, as well as the actual law.

Mann’s views were supported by Sir Stuart Bell, who sits on the ruling Commons members estimate committee (MEC). Bell yesterday suggested Sir Thomas may have “strayed outside his remit”.

The expenses scandal that dominated the last parliamentary term will kick off the new term tomorrow. Legg has been examining the expenses claims of all MPs over the last four years. Tomorrow morning he will send hundreds of letters to MPs detailing wrongdoing or requesting further evidence. He will send a separate email itemising whether or not the MP flouted the rules of the parliamentary housing allowances.

MPs will either be cleared, told to provide more information, or will be ordered to repay money. Disputes over Legg’s findings must be raised within three weeks to the MEC. When Legg has received all responses his team will publish a report of recommendations to parliament in December.

It is thought Legg has also uncovered more cases where MPs have used taxpayers’ money to pay off the capital element of mortgages instead of just the interest on the borrowing, as is allowed under the rules. His team is also said to have been particularly exercised by claims for gardening and cleaning. One source suggested he was to place a ceiling on claims of this sort; any MPs broaching that limit would have to repay the difference. This would include MPs whose expenses claims of this kind were approved by the fees office.

It is under these tight rules that the prime minister is likely to be asked to pay back some or all of his cleaning expenses. On Sunday, Downing Street said Gordon Brown would repay anything asked of him, adding that up to 500 of parliament’s 646 MPs would also be asked for more information.

Mann predicted legal challenges which could engulf the general election. “The Legg team have clearly got problems, because [MPs] don’t have the receipts for a lot of this stuff. Clearly, if someone has managed to get [a claim] signed off by the fees office then they have a case when asked to repay.

“There could be as many as 200 MPs who refuse to pay anything. If he is going to say to an MP, ‘You have to pay back £200,000’ and that MP is standing down, they are simply going to say ‘No way’. I think there’s a chance that a good number of MPs will not pay up – the repair of a moat may have been bad but it was approved by the fees office.”

–Defiant MPs challenge call to repay cash in expenses row

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