Page last updated at 13:50 GMT, Wednesday, 2 April 2008 14:50 UK

MPs 'halls of residence' pondered

Mandela House in BBC's Only Fools and Horses
TV's Trotter brothers lived in a block of flats three miles or so from Parliament

Housing all MPs near Parliament in what amounts to an upmarket student halls of residence is one of four options raised by the Commons review of MPs' expenses.

The review was prompted by criticism of the amount MPs can claim to cover the costs of a second home in London.

Committee member David Maclean said buying a block to house 630-plus MPs was not ruled out - but was "unlikely" given London's high property prices.

Other options includes tighter auditing or hiking salaries and axing expenses.

Mr Maclean, a Conservative MP, said nothing had been ruled in or out of the Commons Estimates Committee review.

Not too posh, not One Hyde Park, which will have single-bedroom flats and two-bedroom flats for those who have children here
David Maclean on possible accommodation

But he pointed out that Chelsea Barracks, for instance, had just gone on the market for 10bn, he said.

"We are happy to let you do some research of property ... within reasonable striking distance of Westminster - you don't want us claiming excessive travel allowances," he told reporters, adding that there would need to be more than 630 properties.

"Not too posh, not One Hyde Park, which will have single-bedroom flats and two-bedroom flats for those who have children here."

Lib Dem Nick Harvey added: "I see that Taxpayers' Alliance are advocating this - I'd like to see their attitude when it was costed."

Audit regime

He said the committee had been working "flat out" to address concerns over MPs' expenses.

Under particular scrutiny is the 22,100 "additional costs allowance" (ACA), that MPs can claim for staying overnight away from their main home as part of their parliamentary duties.

The committee said in future MPs' expenses could be subject to a "robust" audit regime, with their books looked at by outside auditors in the same way as small businesses.

The proposal is one of a number aimed at creating a system that is "above reproach and transparent".

The options under consideration are:

  • Keeping the ACA, but with a tighter, more transparent regime for claims and audit
  • Giving MPs accommodation in London, owned by the Commons, for weekday use
  • Providing a new budget for food and accommodation costs of working away from home
  • Making overnight costs part of salary

Mr Harvey indicated that the most popular plan was to tighten up the current ACA.

He said adding the costs to an MP's pay would initially be seen as a "huge salary increase", when infact the member would end up being "worse off".

"Our intention is to be radical. I have described this as a root and branch review. Nothing is ruled in and nothing is ruled out," he said.

"We have been talking to members on all sides of the House. There is a widespread acceptance of the need for change. We must create a system above reproach and transparent.

"We're also look at creating something that will endure and stands comparison with relevant best practise elsewhere and does not involve over all an increase in total cost."

'John Lewis' list

Mr Maclean said the new regime could have an element of "rough justice" - with some MPs losing out and others gaining.

"The additional cost allowance is mired in controversy, but there has to be some system that reimburses members of Parliament for the necessary costs of living and working in two locations," he said.

"A more robust control regime over claims is urgently required."

He said the current arrangements fell "well below the standards" MPs had been used to in previous jobs.

And he admitted MPs had been made to feel "a bit silly" by the reporting of the so-called "John Lewis List" - used by Commons officials to determine whether an expenditure claim submitted by an MP is reasonable.

Food claims

But he said it was a "very sensible" way for officials to ensure MPs did not buy "top of the range goods" for unfurnished flats.

Also being looked at are: claims for food under the ACA; whether MPs' staff should be employed directly by the House of Commons, rather than the MPs, and the possibility of travel grants, based on the size and nature of the constituency.

From 1 April, all claims for items worth 25 or more need a receipt and family members employed by MPs have to be registered.

The committee's proposals form part of a discussion paper ahead of a final report, which is due to be published before MPs break for the summer in July.

Meanwhile, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards has begun a probe into whether Commons Speaker Michael Martin has breached expenses rules.

John Lyon is investigating reports Mr Martin's wife spent 4,000 of public money on taxis for shopping trips.

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