`Barmy' expenses feather MPs' nests

Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse, a Labour MP has used his parliamentary expenses to help buy a half-a-million pounds pad in Suffolk. Political correspondent Graham Dines believes recession-hit voters are in no mood for the defence “it's within the rules”WOODBRIDGE is one of the jewels in East Anglia's crown.

Graham Dines

Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse, a Labour MP has used his parliamentary expenses to help buy a half-a-million pounds pad in Suffolk. Political correspondent Graham Dines believes recession-hit voters are in no mood for the defence “it's within the rules”

WOODBRIDGE is one of the jewels in East Anglia's crown. So it's no wonder that an MP looking for somewhere to put down his roots after retiring from the House of Commons should set his sights on the town.

But matching its charm is the price of property - you pay a high premium for a house in Woodbridge.

As more and more stories emerge from the farrago of MPs' expense claims - Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling and Geoff Hoon are now embroiled - it seems there is no end to the bizarre claims which some MPs have charged the taxpayer, blue movies and all.

Labour MP Rudi Vis is the latest - he has used his parliamentary expenses to help buy a �520,000 home for his retirement in Woodbridge.

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As honourable members are swift to point out, they have not broken the law. All claims are passed by the House of Commons authorities.

The handbook of rules for parliamentary allowances published last month states that MPs can claim an accommodation allowance for a second home either in London or their constituency. It confirms they are entitled to claim mortgage interest payments, stamp duty and legal fees, along with furnishings for an extra home.

But even if all expenses and allowances are legal, are they moral?

Mr Vis is 68 and is retiring at the general election after representing Finchley and Golders Green since 1997. With a majority of just 741, it's likely he would have lost anyway.

According to The Times, he has owned his three-bedroom north London home since 1982. In July 2006, he took out a �480,000 mortgage on it, using the loan, along with other funds, to buy a �520,000 home near Woodbridge in Suffolk.

By informing the parliamentary authorities that his main home had moved to Suffolk, he was able to claim the interest payments on the loan secured on his London home. Over the past two years, he has claimed more than �40,000.

He says he had not claimed for any furnishings for either property and was typically abstemious in his expenses claim. “I have never claimed a penny for food,” he said. “I have never claimed for my wife or children to come to the Commons.”

He added: “The rules are questionable. But this is well within the rules and I would have been advised if it wasn't.”

Then there's the case of Harry Cohen. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards John Lyon has accepted a public complaint about the MP for Leyton and Wanstead's expenses and commenced a preliminary inquiry.

Mr Cohen lists a house in Colchester, Essex as his main home, allowing him to claim for the cost of running a house in the east London constituency 70 miles away. Since 1990, he has claimed more than �300,000, regarding it “as part of my salary” which had been cleared by the Commons authorities.

Cabinet ministers who have an official home paid for by the taxpayer - such as grace and favour apartments in Admiralty House, which go with certain jobs - are legally able to maintain a house in London and rent it out and still claim the second home for their constituency properties.

Mr Darling listed a room in a flat shared by colleagues as his main home, allowing him to claim cash for the running of his family home in Scotland. In 2005, he designated Edinburgh as his main home and bought a flat in London that was then registered as his second home, allowing him to claim public funds to run that.

When he became Chancellor and moved into Downing Street, he once again made the constituency residence his second home and started renting out the London flat. Last year, the Chancellor claimed �9,837 in controversial Additional Cost Allowance (ACA) payments and Prime Minister Gordon Brown �17,073, despite both living in Downing Street.

Conservative leader David Cameron said he will give up his second home allowance if he becomes Prime Minister. It's an easy gesture for him to make - he is a millionaire in his own right and his wife is also wealthy. For most MPs, pricey accommodation is necessary in London. It's how that home in the capital is financed that is causing such a rumpus.

MPs can avoid stamp duty of more than �10,000 on second and third homes by claiming it back on their expenses. This is in addition to furnishings, beds, flat screen high definition televisions, and kitchen equipment, which they are allowed to keep after leaving parliament.

It's not just Labour MPs who are caught up in this controversy, but as there have been more of them than the other parties combined in the past 12 years, it's understandable that the media is focusing on them.

MPs are well paid by the standards of most of their constituents, but they have fallen behind matrons, headteachers and senior civil servants in recent years. Until and unless their pay is given a massive boost - and no government dare sanction such a move as the dole queues lengthen and more and more families face hardship in this recession - MPs see no reason why they should not take advantage of the allowances they are legally able to take.

A fresh wave of expenses revelations will come in the summer when all claims that an MP makes are published. Initially, the Speaker of the Commons Michael Martin tried to protect MPs by blocking publication under the Freedom of Information, but has since conceded defeat.

What is so disappointing is that MPs can't see that what they are doing and claiming is viewed as “dodgy” by their constituents. They don't understand why the public is moaning and hostile.

Commons leader Harriet Harman does acknowledge that the reputation of Parliament has suffered “big damage” and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has branded the situation “barmy.”

They can say that again.

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