Page last updated at 15:38 GMT, Friday, 8 February 2008

'John Lewis' list kept from MPs

By Emma Griffiths
Politcal reporter, BBC News

Receipts are not required on items worth less than 250

A list of guide prices for items commonly claimed by MPs on expenses is to remain secret, a tribunal has ruled.

The "John Lewis" list is used by Commons clerks to check maximum prices deemed reasonable for items like TVs.

Campaigners had asked it be presented at a tribunal into whether more details of MPs' claims should be published.

But Commons resources chief Andrew Walker suggested MPs might take advantage of the situation if they could look at the list.

"My concern would be that if we say what the maximum price we will allow for such an item is, it will become the going rate," said Mr Walker.

Mr Walker said the Commons validations clerks consulted prices of items on the John Lewis department store website when drawing up the maximum amount considered reasonable for MPs to claim.

'Good reasons'

Hugh Tomlinson QC, representing campaigner Heather Brooke said Mr Walker's explanation undermined the argument that MPs could be relied on to use the expenses system "fairly and honestly".

But it was ruled the "John Lewis" list would be examined in closed session after Eleanor Grey, for the Commons, said there were "good reasons" for not releasing it as it was not the official subject of the tribunal.

The Information Tribunal is hearing an appeal by Commons authorities against a ruling that they must publish breakdowns of 14 MPs' claims under the "additional costs allowance" (ACA) under certain headings.

The true concern of the House was...not to have greater public scrutiny of what amounts to a self-certified system of expenses
Hugh Tomlinson QC

The Sunday Times, Sunday Telegraph and freedom of information campaigner Heather Brooke are also appealing against the ruling. They say it does not go far enough and details of claims, with accompanying receipts, should be provided.

MPs can claim up to 22,110 a year to spend on costs incurred while staying away from their main home - including items like televisions, rent or mortgage payments and security equipment.

Receipts are not required on items worth up to 250 and food bills worth up to 400 a month.

'Paper trail'

On Thursday it was claimed the system effectively allowed MPs to "write their own cheques".

Asked whether the amount of ACA claims accompanied with receipts could be as low as 5%, Mr Walker told the tribunal he did not know - but said many MPs supplied receipts even when they were not required.

Mr Tomlinson argued it was a "self certifying system", telling Mr Walker: "You don't check they have actually spent the money on what they say they have spent the money on - you just check the paper trail."

MPs in the Commons
MPs claimed nearly 11.5m in additional costs allowances last year

Mr Walker agreed it "includes self certification by members on the form" but said there was some external auditing of a selection of claims by the National Audit Office.

He was asked why MPs can claim for food, when the allowance was meant for additional costs and they would have had to eat wherever they were.

He argued that it was accepted practice in public and private bodies for staff away on business to charge for meals and said MPs would incur costs while doing work in their constituency homes for which they could not charge.

He was also questioned why MPs' could charge for personal calls made from their second homes, when the allowance was "for the purpose of performing Parliamentary duties".

'Within the rules'

Mr Walker said Mr Tomlinson was "questioning the rules" and telephone calls were "allowable". Mr Tomlinson replied: "I'm not questioning the rule ... what I'm questioning is your administration of the rule."

Mr Tomlinson argued that without leaks to the media it was very difficult to detect fraudulent uses of expenses and said there was no evidence that publishing more details would lead to an unacceptable intrusion into MPs' private lives.

"The true concern of the House ... was not intrusion into the private lives but the house's concern not to have greater public scrutiny of what amounts to a self-certified system of expenses," he said.

Mr Walker said his job was not to question the system but to make sure claims are allowable.

He said: "Many people may have opinions about whether it is reasonable to spend 200 on a television or not - our job is to look at whether it is within the rules."

The tribunal is expected to rule within weeks on whether 14 MPs' claims under the additional costs allowance should be published in greater detail.

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