Counting the cost of MPs’ expenses

Friday 18th December 2009 12:00 am
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A NEW toilet, boiler, bedding and dry cleaning were among the items claimed on expenses by West Somerset's two local MPs over the last 12 months.

While Taunton MP Jeremy Browne underclaimed on his £24,006 second home allowance, Bridgwater and West Somerset MP Ian Liddell-Grainger overclaimed and was told there was insufficient cash left in the pot to meet all his demands.

Figures for the pair's 2008/09 Additional Costs Allowance for their second homes in London were published by Parliament last week.

They reveal the amount claimed by the MPs for their London pads and the bills paid for by taxpayers, including mortgage payments, Council Tax, utility bills and even TV licences.

Both Mr Liddell-Grainger and Mr Browne also had insurance and service charges for their flats paid for under the allowance.

And while Mr Browne's monthly food claims varied between the £180 and £250 mark each month, Mr Liddell-Grainger claimed £375 for his food every month.

MPs are allowed to claim up to £400 a month on food and do not need to produce receipts to prove their claims.

Among the pair's individual claims for the second homes was £600 for a new "push button toilet" to be installed at Mr Liddell-Grainger's Lambeth flat.

He also successfully claimed for a £2,000 boiler and had his flat cleaned at the taxpayers' expense for £50 a week.

Mr Browne claimed just over £1,000 for bedding, rugs, cushions and a desk and chair from John Lewis and a further £100 to frame a wall hanging.

He also submitted a trio of receipts totalling almost £45 under the heading "cleaning" for his Southwark home, although the receipts were from a Taunton-based dry cleaners.

Mr Liddell-Grainger defended his claims and said £50 a week was the "going rate" for a cleaner in London.

He declined to comment on his food expenses and said the cost of his new toilet included plumbing work and the removal of the old system.

"The toilet bowl was broken so it had to be changed," Mr Liddell-Grainger said.

"While the plumber was here he told me the boiler was dangerous so I got it checked out and had several quotes before getting that done as well," he said.

Mr Browne did not want to comment on individual claims within his own expenses but said he had tried to act within the guidelines of the system.

"The allowance exists to pay for a furnished flat in London and I spent it on paying for a furnished flat in London, with the contents being the equivalent of a reasonable hotel room," he said.

"If I had been seeking to maximise the benefits from the second home allowance I would not have underclaimed by £2,630 in the last financial year."

Meanwhile, both Mr Liddell-Grainger and Mr Browne revealed they have each been asked to repay some of their expenses - and are both planning to appeal against the rulings.

Mr Browne has been asked to repay £17,894 in mortgage interest payments dating back to 2005 by the review team which was set up to appease public anger in the wake of the MPs expenses scandal.

Headed by Sir Thomas Legg, the House of Commons team focused solely on the Additional Costs Allowance as it was seen as the one most open to potential abuse.

Mr Liddell-Grainger confirmed he had been asked to pay back £3,200, most of which he accepted he had claimed incorrectly.

While £740 of the figure related to a "double claim" in 2004, the majority was for mortgage payments.

Mr Liddell-Grainger said: "I claimed at the wrong level at a time when the interest rate was dropping extremely quickly, but I knew I'd done it after the event and I had already arranged with the fees office to repay it.

"But Sir Thomas stepped in and said I wasn't allowed to do that and it had to go through him.

"The methodology of this is completely wrong and although I have no problem paying the money back, I will be appealing against the way this was done."

Mr Browne maintained he had been made a scapegoat by the review team, which ruled he was wrong to use money he had saved before being elected as an MP in 2005 to buy his home in Taunton.

Instead, the team believed he should have put the cash towards the cost of his London flat.

Mr Browne told the Free Press he would appeal against the team's decision and said they had simply introduced "retrospective new rules to show that they are punishing all MPs for the expenses scandal".

He said four out of Somerset's five MPs had been asked to repay cash.

"The money that I used to buy my home in Taunton pre-dates my election as the MP and has nothing to do with expenses," said Mr Browne.

"The review team is saying that I should not have been allowed to buy a home in Taunton or should have designated the London flat as my main home, but I spend the majority of my time living in Taunton and that is clearly my principal place of residence.

"I have always funded every penny of my Taunton home and maintained a completely clear distinction with the flat where I stay when I am in London.

"I believe I acted entirely honourably and in good faith. I deliberately avoided buying a much more expensive flat in London or 'flipping' between properties, even though both of these were within the rules.

"I seem to have been tripped up on a technicality even though I have lower mortgage claims for my London flat than hundreds of other MPs."

As well as being able to claim expenses for their second homes, MPs also have separate allowances to cover staffing, office, administration and travel costs running into many thousands of pounds.

On top of that, they receive an annual salary of £64,000.

According to figures published by Westminster earlier this year, Mr Liddell-Grainger was the 36th most expensive MP last year, claiming £166,109 in expenses, while Mr Browne was the 84th most expensive with expenses claims for £161,136.

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