Page last updated at 16:27 GMT, Monday, 23 March 2009

MP expenses rules back in focus

By David Thompson
Political correspondent, BBC News

If it's Monday, it must be time for another story about MPs' expenses...

Tony McNulty
Tony McNulty says he was "compliant" with the rules

The amount they claim, what they do with the money - and whether it's justified - has become a hardy perennial of the Westminster working week.

This time it's the employment minister, Tony McNulty, who is in the firing line.

Questions are being asked about whether, since 2002, he was entitled to claim a figure, believed to be around £60,000, for a house which he owns, but is used by his parents, in his Harrow East constituency.

Mr McNulty claimed the money, known as the Additional Cost Allowance, because he said it was his constituency home.

What is at issue is whether he stayed there frequently enough for the house to be classed as a second home.

MPs can claim up to £24,006 this year
Cannot be claimed by 25 inner London MPs
Covers rent, mortgage interest payments or hotel expenses
Can cover repair and utility bills, furnishings, insurance
Includes £25-a-night subsistence allowance, including food, for nights spent away from home
In 2006/7, 23 of the 49 MPs representing outer London seats claimed the allowance

That's not entirely clear and the Conservative MP Greg Hands has asked the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life, to investigate.

What's not at issue is that even though Harrow East is only a Tube ride away from Westminster, even though the house is only a few miles from his "London" home, the current rules mean that if Mr McNulty stayed there often enough, he was entitled to the money.

Even Mr McNulty - who stopped claiming the cash in January this year - has suggested the system needs to be reformed, perhaps with MPs like himself, who live within a 60 mile radius of Westminster, prohibited from claiming for a second home.

He has been joined by Alan Duncan, the Shadow Leader of the Commons, who has said that in time, he believes these allowances will all be rolled up into an increased basic salary for MPs.

And that is the tricky bit.

'House in order'

Many of the perks and expenses which baffle and enrage the public in equal measure were introduced by governments who thought MPs should be better paid, but didn't have the political nerve to give themselves a mammoth wage rise.

In these troubled financial times, the idea of a politicians giving themselves a lot more cash is even more of a non-starter.

But what is equally clear is that MPs are beginning to realise that voters are heartily sick of a system which even those who benefit from it find well nigh impossible to justify.

Tony McNulty won't be the last politician to run the gauntlet over what he has claimed - whether it is within the rules or not.

But this latest episode will increase the pressure on MPs to put their house in order - before the public lose faith in them once and for all.

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