Page last updated at 07:47 GMT, Thursday, 18 June 2009 08:47 UK

Q&A: MP expenses row explained

All MPs' expenses claims for their second homes, communication and office costs for the past four years have been published on Parliament's website - after weeks of Daily Telegraph revelations based on its uncensored leaked version.

WHAT HAS PARLIAMENT PUBLISHED?

Documents and receipts submitted by MPs claiming three different allowances. The first, the additional costs allowance, is worth about £24,000 a year per MP and is for their second homes. It was the expense on which controversial claims for duck houses and moat clearance were made. The second is the £10,400-a-year communications allowance which can be spent on things like reports, websites and newsletters - as long as they are not party political. The last - the incidental expenses provision - is worth up to £22,193 a year and can be spent on office accommodation, equipment and supplies and some staff related costs.

HOW MUCH HAS BEEN BLANKED OUT?

Key details such as addresses, letters between MPs and officials and bank and credit card numbers have all been blacked out for security and privacy reasons.

HOW SIGNIFICANT ARE THE BLACKED OUT BITS?

At first glance it appears that if an uncensored version of the claims had not been leaked to the Daily Telegraph it would never have been known that MPs had "flipped" second homes to maximise claims or reduce capital gains tax, or, say, claimed for a property miles from their constituency. At first glance it also seems that many of the more eye-catching revelations of recent weeks would also never have come to light.

OK, BUT REMIND ME WHAT IS ALL THE FUSS ABOUT?

Most MPs say they have to live in two places - in their constituencies and in London where they attend Parliament. They are allowed to claim expenses to cover the cost of running a second home. But details of what was being claimed had not been revealed until the Daily Telegraph got hold of a leaked copy of all the claims, before their official publication. Many MPs have been accused of extravagance, of over-claiming and avoiding tax on home sales. MP-by-MP: Expenses claims

HOW MUCH CAN THEY CLAIM?

The "additional costs allowance" is worth up to £24,006 in 2008/9 for MPs representing seats outside central London. They used to be able to file claims for up to £250 without providing a receipt but that was reduced to £25 last year and is being cut to zero. It covers things like mortgage interest payments on second homes and utility bills - but officials also allowed claims for items of furniture, electrical goods like televisions, refurbishments and food. Those representing inner London seats were entitled to a much lower allowance, which until 2009 had been worth £2,916. What MPs can claim

SO, WHAT HAVE THEY BEEN CLAIMING FOR?

The most eye-catching claims include ones for clearing a moat, maintaining swimming pools, a £1,645 "duck island" and a claim to fit mock Tudor beams to the front of a house. One MP claimed for a house that was neither in London, nor her constituency. Two MPs continued to claim for mortgage interest payments, after the mortgages had been paid off - they blamed that on accounting errors. Claims for small items have also been ridiculed - including a trouser press, a bath plug and some Hob Nob biscuits. And there is some annoyance at large food bills - some charged even when Parliament was in recess.

DID THEY BREAK ANY RULES?

All MPs had to sign a declaration with every claim to the effect that "I confirm that I incurred these costs wholly, exclusively and necessarily to enable me to stay overnight away from my only or main home for the purpose of performing my duties as a Member of Parliament".

SO THAT'S A YES?

You might think that would be the case but no, all MPs have said they acted within the rules and seem to be basing much of their defence on the fact that their claim was paid out by the fees office. It does seem that the rules were rather vague or lax. But it is also the case that the UK's Parliament has worked for centuries on the basis of MPs being "honourable members" so in most cases the fees office was, perhaps not surprisingly, unlikely to challenge an MP if they had given their signed word that the claim was legitimate. 'Lax' MP expenses rules condemned

WHAT'S ALL THIS ABOUT FLIPPING?

MPs have to tell Commons fees staff which home is their "main home" and which home is their "second home" - on which they can claim expenses. The rule book states "the location of your main home will normally be a matter of fact". But they have been allowed to change it. This means some have claimed for refurbishment or mortgage interest on one property, then changed the designation and proceeded to claim for costs on another one. Some have then changed it back again or on to a third property. In some instances the MP has sold a property shortly after claiming the costs of doing it up - they are allowed to keep any profit. Some MPs have said there were good reasons for changing the designation for example when they moved their families to London from the constituency.

DO MPs PAY CAPITAL GAINS TAX ON THESE PROPERTIES?

Some do, some have not. The tax is usually paid when someone sells a home that is not considered, by HM Revenue and Customs, to be their "principal residence". It amounts to 18% of the profit. However several MPs have not paid the tax when they have sold properties they had designated their "second home" with the Commons authorities. This is not illegal and some have argued that the definition of a main residence by the Commons is different from that by HMRC. But critics say it is wrong to tell the Commons one thing and tax authorities another and benefit from taxpayer-funded expenses without paying back any tax in return. Gordon Brown has said it is "totally unacceptable" and it is being tightened up. Blears will pay tax on flat sale

HAVE THEY PUT A STOP TO ALL THIS?

The whole system is being reviewed by the independent committee on standards in public life, which is expected to recommend sweeping changes. But as that's not due to report back for months, some interim measures have been agreed. "Flipping" the designation of second homes is banned in most cases for 2009/10, claims for furniture, cleaning, gardening etc have been stopped. Mortgage interest and rent payments have been capped at £1,250 a month. Expenses: Options for reform

HOW HAS ALL THIS INFORMATION COME OUT?

The Daily Telegraph is remaining tight-lipped about its source, although it has not denied paying for the information. It says it has acted in the public interest. All the receipts were being prepared for publication anyway in July. The Commons authorities had long resisted attempts to reveal the details but were ordered to publish by the High Court, under the Freedom of Information Act. But the Telegraph says many of the key details - such as the "flipping" of second homes - would have remained hidden as addresses would have been blanked out before publication. Police were asked to investigate the leak but chose not to - having concluded that a public interest defence would be a "significant hurdle" to any successful prosecution.

WHAT DO THE MPs SAY?

They say they were acting within the rules and in some cases were encouraged to spend up to the maximum allowed - about £20,000 a year - by the Commons fees office. But they say the system is in urgent need of reform.

ANY LABOUR RESIGNATIONS?

Resignations have mounted as the crisis has gone on and reached the top level of government, piling the pressure on Gordon Brown. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and Communities Secretary Hazel Blears have left the government. Ms Smith was the first cabinet minister to have her expenses questioned by the media while Hazel Blears had to repay £13,000 in capital gains tax on the sale of two properties. Justice minister Shahid Malik stepped down pending an inquiry by into whether his failure to declare a preferential rent deal on his constituency home broke the ministerial code but has since been reinstated as communities minister. Former agriculture minister Elliot Morley and backbencher David Chaytor were both suspended by the Parliamentary Labour Party after reportedly claiming for mortgage interest months after their mortgages had been paid off. Both have apologised and said they will not be contesting the next election. Margaret Moran is to stand down as MP for Luton South after being criticised for claiming £22,500 for treating dry rot at her second home. Ben Chapman will also stand down as an MP at the next election after his own mortgage interest payments came under question. And Ian Gibson has been barred from standing at the next election by his party after claims his daughter lived in his second home and later bought it at a knock-down rate. He was so annoyed at the way he was treated he resigned immediately to force a by-election. Jim Devine has threatened to do the same after he was also barred from standing again. Former Labour Party chairman Ian McCartney has said he will be standing down due to poor health. Other Labour MPs standing down, for personal reasons, are backbencher John Smith , former health secretary Patricia Hewitt and current children's minister Beverley Hughes .

WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER PARTIES?

Andrew MacKay, a Parliamentary aide to Conservative leader David Cameron, quit his post after the party ruled his second home claims were "unacceptable" and later said he would step down at the next election. Mr MacKay and his wife Julie Kirkbride, who is also a Tory MP, had been claiming second home allowances on two properties. Ms Kirkbride is also standing down after questions were raised about her brother living rent-free in her second home and a £50,000 extension to the property. Douglas Hogg has said he will not seek re-election - he repaid the £2,200 of clearing his moat, which was submitted with his claims. Sir Peter Viggers, whose most eye-catching claim was for a £1,645 "duck island" is also to retire "at the direct request of David Cameron". Totnes MP Anthony Steen, said to have claimed more than £87,000 over four years for his country home, is also standing down at the next election. Husband and wife Nicholas and Ann Winterton , rebuked in 2008 by Parliament's Standards Commissioner over their expenses, have also said they will stand down at the next election. And Christopher Fraser , who claimed £1,800 for trees and fences at his second home, is also standing down - citing his wife's ill health.

HAVE ANY MPs PAID THE MONEY BACK?

Yes. MPs from all parties are falling over themselves to write cheques, although none have admitted breaking the rules. Who's repaying expenses?

WHY DID THE SPEAKER QUIT?

Commons Speaker Michael Martin has been seen by many as the driving force behind efforts to stop details of expenses claims coming out - such as by taking the Freedom of Information case to the High Court. His supporters say that is not fair and his committee had proposed reforms in 2008 - which were promptly voted down by MPs. But his angry outburst at MPs who had criticised him over his handling of the issue in the Commons prompted calls for him to go - and his failure to announce a date for him to step down a week later prompted open challenges. He said he would relinquish the role to maintain "unity" in the House. In his valedictory speech he took a swipe at party leaders for not getting their MPs to agree to earlier reform proposals.

DO MPs REALISE HOW BAD IT LOOKS?

Yes. There is genuine concern among MPs that Parliament has never been held in lower regard by members of the public. Even MPs who have done nothing wrong are reported to be considering quitting as they are considered "crooks" by the public. Some fear Parliament may take years to recover from the furore while others warn that voters may take out their anger with the main parties by backing fringe and extremist parties. The expenses row was blamed in part for Labour's poor performance at the local and European elections.

WHAT ARE THE PARTIES DOING INDIVIDUALLY?

Gordon Brown says any Labour MP who "defied" the rules will not be able to stand again. The party's ruling NEC has set up a panel to quiz MPs whose claims have been scrutinised - five Labour MPs have been barred from standing for the party again, although three had already said they planned to step down. Tory leader David Cameron has set up his own scrutiny panel and warned that any Tory MP refusing to return money excessively claimed could be sacked. The Lib Dems say no MP should be able to make a profit on the sale of a home which was subsidised by the taxpayer.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

Gordon Brown has called for an end to the "gentlemen's club" of Parliament and wants an independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to oversee MPs' pay and expenses. Harriet Harman has said she hopes this can be made law before the summer. All MPs' claims over the last four years are being looked at in an independent audit. At the same time, some are urging the police to investigate the claims made by some MPs on the grounds of possible fraud. The Daily Mail has launched a campaign for private prosecutions to be brought against some MPs. Individually, many MPs have been holding meetings in their constituencies to explain their claims.

HAVE ALL MPs BEEN ACCUSED OF ABUSING THE ALLOWANCE?

Not at all. Many take exception to suggestions they padded out their salaries with the allowance. Some MPs who were entitled to claim the allowance because they had constituencies outside inner London, chose not to. Others made modest claims.



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