Region's MPs claim £1.7m
By Graham DinesPolitical EditorMPs across the region claimed more than £1.7million last year for housing allowances, secretarial and computer costs, travel and postage, official figures published for the first time by parliamentary authorities have revealed,The total for the UK's 659 MPs, including the Prime Minister, Cabinet and other ministers and opposition spokesmen totalled £78m – an average of £118,437, on top of the £57,485 and generous pension benefits.
By Graham Dines
MPs across the region claimed more than £1.7million last year for housing allowances, secretarial and computer costs, travel and postage, official figures published for the first time by parliamentary authorities have revealed,
The total for the UK's 659 MPs, including the Prime Minister, Cabinet and other ministers and opposition spokesmen totalled £78m - an average of £118,437, on top of the £57,485 and generous pension benefits.
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The backbench MP who clocked up the highest travel expenses from this region was Waveney's Labour MP Bob Blizzard, who claimed £8,942. Two MPs who hit five figures - Tim Yeo and John Whittingdale - are opposition spokesmen who travel all over the UK on behalf of the Conservative Party.
Most MPs either claimed the £20,333 London living allowance, or were within a few hundred pounds of the limit.
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The main exception was Alan Hurst, Labour MP for Braintree, whose accommodation claim was just £2,441. He commutes to the House of Commons from his home at Westcliff on Sea, and if he remains in London overnight, he stays in the Reform Club, of which he is a member.
Colchester Liberal Democrat MP Bob Russell, who shares an address in London with another MP, claimed £13,245.
Publication of the allowances coincided with a report from the Senior Salaries Review Body, which has recommended there should be no increase in salaries in the current year beyond a 2% increase already awarded.
However, MPs' staffing allowances will be increased to give a range of £72,000-£80,460 depending on the number of full time staff based in London.
Yesterday's published figures mean the average backbencher receives £175,922 a year, compared to the national average wage of just over £20,000 and full-time workers on the minimum wage who can take home as little as £10,000 a year.
Details of MPs allowances were released before provisions under the Freedom of Information Act come into effect in January. The figures show that in 2001-2002, MPs claimed a total of £57.49 million in allowances. In 2002-2003 that figure went up to £73.4 million, rising to £78.05 million for 2003-2004.
The total bill for MPs staffing costs - secretaries and researchers - was £43.92m. The individual figure is capped at £71,773 and MPs from this region who claimed the maximum were Simon Burns (Con, Chelmsford West), John Gummer (Con, Suffolk Coastal), Bernard Jenkin (Con, Essex North), Sir Michael Lord (Con, Suffolk Central and Ipswich North), and Tim Yeo (Con, Suffolk South).
Bury St Edmunds' Tory MP David Ruffley welcomed the publication of the figures. "This is taxpayers' money and it should be publicly accounted.
"What members of the public may not realise is that we have to employ and pay our own secretaries and research staff, plus their National Insurance costs. We have to provide the computers and laptops that they and MPs use and our own mobile phones.
"We are billed for postage, photocopying, fax machines and even pencils. Money is not handed out without receipt - every item has to be accounted for to the House of Commons Fees Office."
Former Tatton MP and journalist Martin Bell, who has famously fought sleaze in public life, said publication of MPs expenses was long overdue.
Mr Bell, who stood in the Essex constituency of Brentwood and Ongar as an Independent candidate in 2001 and unsuccessfully tried to become a Euro MP for the East of England earlier this year, claimed: "At the time I was an MP I was invited to sign a cheque to myself every month right up to the limit."
He said publication was "public scrutiny at its best."
Liberal Democrat MP Sir Archy Kirkwood, spokesman for the House of Commons Commission which approved the publication of the figures, said: "This is a significant step towards openness and accountability and I welcome it. The taxpayer can really see how their money is being spent.
"Members are like 659 individual small businesses, working under an ever increasing load and more complex environment. They now deal with issues, and communicate in ways unheard of a few years ago. They require more back-up staff, more computer resources, and more allowances to enable them to travel back and forth to Parliament, living away from home for days at a time, while keeping in touch with the problems and issues of their constituents."
On top of the standard backbench salary a junior minister gets £22,688. A Cabinet minister gets another £72,862, and the Prime Minister Tony Blair gets an extra £121,437.
Mr Blair claimed £15,490 in expenses for the cost of staying away from home on parliamentary business last year. The figure made up part of a total expenses bill of £80,836 for 2003-04 from Mr Blair, on top of his £178,922-a-year salary.
The so-called Additional Costs Allowance paid to MPs to cover the cost of staying away from home is normally used by members from constituencies outside central London to pay for somewhere to stay in the capital while attending Parliament.
But until February this year, ministers were deemed to have their main homes in London and were given the allowance to cover the cost of visiting their constituencies. Mr Blair's £15,490 allowance went towards the cost of keeping a home in his Sedgefield seat in County Durham.
Michael Howard (MP for Folkestone and Hythe), who has been leader of the opposition since November last year, claimed a total of £126,658 in the financial year 2003-04. He is paid £124,277 for his official duties.
Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy's total claim was £121,630 - and although he is leader of the third party, Mr Kennedy receives only a standard MP's salary.