Saturday, 15 August 2009

Snouts back in trough

The Daily Telegraph has disclosed that MPs have started a new scheme which allows them to claim a £25 a night subsistence allowance when staying away from their designated main home.

MPs have ignored public anger over their expenses by quietly introducing new rules which allow them to claim up to £9,125 a year without having to produce any receipts.

The payments for MPs have been approved despite widespread anger over MP’sexpense claims following recent disclosures in the Telegraph.

The allowance, which is nearly double the previous £4,800-a-year limit for unreceipted claims, will be paid in addition to expenses for mortgage interest, rent, council tax and utility bills.

The new allowance has been approved without any public announcement or debate in Parliament by a small committee of MPs chaired by John Bercow, the new Speaker, and including Harriet Harman, the Labour Leader of the House and Alan Duncan, the Tory frontbencher at the same time as MPs leave for their summer holidays.

Gordon Brown and David Cameron have both promised to clean up the parliamentary expenses system. Mr Bercow had campaigned to replace Michael Martin by promising reform, and Miss Harman and Mr Duncan had both said that expense claims which were not backed up by receipts would be unacceptable, but the new rules state that no receipts are necessary for the subsistence payments, and that it is “for members to decide” how the money is spent.

MPs will simply have to say how many nights they have spent away from their main home “on parliamentary business” to receive the flat-rate sum, and there is no way for the information to be independently verified.

The Telegraph has featured MPs who spend hardly any time at their designated main home, and who would be ableto claim thousands of pounds a year. Before this, MPs could only claim up to £400 a month without receipts for food when away from their main home.

Under the new system they could theoretically claim £775 if they said that they had stayed away from their main home for an entire month.

An MP who stayed away from their designated main home for an entire year, like Ann and Alan Keen, could claim £9,125 a year on top of mortgage interest payments under the new system.

The fact that such a substantial amount has been agreed by MPs without public debate is certain to anger voters.

The introduction of the new Green Book is one of Mr Bercow’s first acts as Speaker, and may undermine his claims of reforming Parliament.

The Changes to the House of Commons regulations have been decided upon by a small committee of six MPs including Miss Harman and Mr Duncan. Both MPs have publicly stated that it is unacceptable for expense claims to be paid without receipts. Miss Harman said in the spring:

“There would need to be receipts for all claims. I really do think that that is something sensible which we could decide for ourselves now.”

Mr Duncan previously said:

“The second home allowance was often just paid once a month without receipts, which is an unacceptable system in the modern age.”

The subsistence payments are likely to raise concerns that MPs are seeking to limit public exposure of how they spend their allowances.

The House of Commons, Miss Harman and the Tories have all declined to comment.

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