Page last updated at 21:58 GMT, Monday, 30 March 2009 22:58 UK

Scrap second home allowance - PM

House of Commons chamber
There have been calls for reform of the allowances system

Gordon Brown has suggested scrapping the controversial second home payment for MPs in a shake-up of allowances.

Mr Brown has told a committee looking at MPs' expenses the £23,083 annual allowance could be replaced with a flat-rate payment for overnight stays.

He also urged the committee to begin its review as early as possible after a series of rows over allowance claims.

Parliamentary authorities are investigating claims that expenses details are being offered for sale.

Labour MP Sir Stuart Bell, who sits on the Speaker's Commons Estimates Committee, told the BBC it was looking into reports that details of expenses receipts - due to be released this summer under Freedom of Information regulations - were being offered for up to £300,000.

"All of the receipts of 650-odd MPs, redacted and un-redacted, are for sale at a price of £300,000, so I am told," he told BBC's Newsnight programme.

"It is a breach of trust. It may be a theft but we will get to the bottom of it."

Newspapers have reported a string of allegations about MPs' expenses in recent weeks, fuelling speculation that information might be being leaked by officials within Parliament.

The prime minister's intervention came after rows over allowances claimed by ministers including Employment Minister Tony McNulty and Home Secretary Jacqui Smith.

Controversies

Ms Smith was criticised for claiming more than £116,000 in allowances for her family home in the West Midlands after nominating her sister's property in London - where she said she stayed several nights a week - as her main residence.

This and other cases prompted calls for reform of the additional costs allowance, which covers the cost of an MP staying away from their main residence to perform their parliamentary duties.

MPs can claim a maximum of £23,083 in such costs every year, including those who live in outer London.

I would be grateful if you could look to both start and conclude the review earlier than previously indicated to allow us to make progress on the issue as soon as practical
Gordon Brown

It recently emerged that Employment Minister Tony McNulty claimed the allowance towards his parents' home in Harrow which he used in addition to a flat in central London.

In a letter to the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life, which is looking into MPs' pay and expenses, Mr Brown has now urged it to consider replacing the existing payment with a "simpler overnight allowance" that would be independently determined.

He also suggested that all London MPs should receive the same allowance, ending the current distinction which allows those in outer London to make the additional claim for a second home.

"In each case you might consider the international experience on these issues to bring the UK in line with best international practice," Mr Brown said.

'Making progress'

Opposition MPs have criticised the fact the review is not due to start until the autumn, and unlikely to report before the next election, and called for it to be brought forward.

In his letter to the committee's chairman, Sir Christopher Kelly, Mr Brown said: "I would be grateful if you could look to both start and conclude the review earlier than previously indicated to allow us to make progress on the issue as soon as practical."

A spokesman for the committee told the Press Association it was "minded" to bring forward the review but was wary of the process being rushed and done in a piecemeal way.

The Conservatives said they would be pleased if the review were speeded up, saying allowances needed to be fully transparent and the cost to the public purse reduced.

The BBC's political correspondent Carole Walker said the PM's proposals, if enacted, would mean far-reaching changes.

At an earlier news conference, Mr Brown said he wanted to ensure the allowances system was improved, stressing that public scrutiny was a "necessary element" of democracy.

HIGHEST MPS' CLAIMS - 2007/8
Eric Joyce (Lab: Falkirk) £187,334
Michael Connarty (Lab: Linlithgow & Falkirk East) £183,466
Alistair Carmichael (Lib Dem: Orkney and Shetland) £176,190
Ben Wallace (Con: Lancaster & Wyre) £175,523
Mohammed Sarwar (Lab: Glasgow Govan) £174,882

He also defended Jacqui Smith, who came under fresh pressure after it emerged she had claimed on expenses the cost of two adult movies watched by her husband.

Details of MPs' allowances published by the Commons authorities on Monday show that Jacqui Smith claimed £22,948 towards her second home in 2007-8.

In total, she was reimbursed for £157,631 towards the cost of accommodation, travel, office and staffing.

Mr McNulty, who said he stopped claiming the second home allowance in January, claimed £12,600 for this in 2007-8.

Mr McNulty is having his expenses claim investigated by Parliament's standards commissioner, as is Ms Smith.

Claims details

Both Mr McNulty and Ms Smith have said their second home allowances were approved by the parliamentary authorities although Mr McNulty has said there are "anomalies" in the system that need to be looked at.

Ms Smith's allowances claim included £2,531 to reimburse journeys made by her husband Richard Timney, who works as her parliamentary assistant.

LOWEST MPS' CLAIMS - 2007/8
Philip Hollobone (Con: Kettering) £47,737
Tony Blair (Lab: Sedgefield) £64,064 *
Dennis Skinner (Lab: Bolsover) £66,933
Michael Martin (Speaker Lab: Glasgow North East) £74,522
Alan Williams (Lab: Swansea West) £80,526
Richard Taylor (Ind: Wyre Forest) £86,484
*Stood down in June 2007

Mr Timney was forced to apologise on Sunday after newspapers reported that he had paid for two adult films which Ms Smith had "inadvertently" claimed for on expenses.

Ms Smith has paid the money back and has been backed by the prime minister who said the issue was a "personal matter".

The allowances claims published on Monday show Gordon Brown claimed £124,454 last year while Conservative leader David Cameron claimed £148,829.

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, who wants all three party leaders to meet in the next few days to discuss the need for speedy reforms, claimed £149,026.

Communities secretary Hazel Blears has asked the Commons authorities to correct what she says is a "discrepancy" in money claimed for journeys taken by her husband Michael Halsall.

The figures suggest she claimed £2,953 for six single journeys -equivalent to nearly £500 a trip - while she maintains she claimed for 17 trips worth £2,615.85

MPs are allowed to claim for up to 30 single journeys for their spouse between their constituency and parliament.



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