Page last updated at 15:50 GMT, Thursday, 30 April 2009 16:50 UK

'Lunacy' attack over MP expenses

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Alan Duncan: "We seem to be treading rapidly to the realms of lunancy"

Gordon Brown's plans to reform MPs' allowances have been attacked by all parties during a heated Commons debate.

The Tories called it "utter lunacy" for ministers to bow to pressure to delay changes to second homes expenses, while pushing ahead with other votes.

NO 10 dismissed claims this represented a climb-down, and said claims Mr Brown had lost authority were "rubbish".

MPs also raised concerns about plans to make the Commons directly responsible for employing their members of staff.

Lib Dem David Heath said the prime minister's plans had been conceived without discussion, seemingly "on the back of a fag packet".

The votes on expenses come a day after the government was defeated in the Commons over its policies on the rights of former Gurkhas to settle in the UK, increasing pressure on Mr Brown.

'Not sustainable'

Earlier this week the prime minister dropped his main expenses proposal - calling for the abolition of second homes allowances worth up to £24,000 a year, to be replaced by flat-rate expenses for attending Parliament - amid widespread opposition.

But the government had still intended to push through a vote stating the principle that the system needed reform as soon as possible.

As the debate started several MPs questioned the point of making any decisions at all ahead of the publication of an outside report into the system later this year.

Commons leader Harriet Harman said she had accepted an amendment from senior backbenchers, which would effectively delay any changes on the second homes allowance until that inquiry - by Sir Christopher Kelly's standards committee - was complete.

To lose your authority once may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose it twice begins to look like carelessness

But there was much confusion as she went on to state that votes would go ahead on Mr Brown's other proposals, such as stopping outer London MPs claiming a second homes allowance.

Ms Harman said continuing to make payments to MPs living with 20 miles of Westminster for second homes was "not sustainable" and needed reform soon.

Some MPs raised questions about government moves to put their staff on the House of Commons payroll - and the fact that they would not be voting on ministers with "grace and favour" accommodation who claim for a second home.

'Absolutely absurd'

Ms Harman said that would instead be dealt with in the ministerial code, effective from 1 July.

She said much of the criticism of MPs' expenses had been "simply unfair" but they needed to respond with "sensible action".

However, shadow Commons leader Alan Duncan told MPs the House would look "absolutely absurd" if they went ahead with other votes at this stage.

He said successive prime ministers had not wanted to put up expenses and that had led to heavier use of allowances, which was "unacceptable in the modern age".

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The prime minister's official spokesman said it was "complete rubbish" to suggest Mr Brown had reduced his standing as a result of the compromises.

He added that it was "always going to be difficult to change a system that's been in place for many years".

In the Commons, several MPs - including senior Labour backbencher Tony Wright - said they should agree to wait for the independent inquiry by Sir Christopher Kelly's committee and should commit now to accepting its findings in full.

For the Liberal Democrats, David Heath criticised the way the government had gone about bringing forward its proposal.

He said there had been "no sense of leadership from the prime minister" who had announced plans without consulting his own party or other party leaders.

"Then he comes up with his proposals, apparently written on the back of a fag packet," he said.

There was also a surprise intervention from Derek Conway, the ex-Tory MP whose employment of his sons earned him a reprimand last year and started the whole row over expenses.

Dealing with big issues

He suggested investigations by Commons committees tended to shield frontbenchers - making reference to the inquiry into Tory MP Caroline Spelman and suggesting the inquiry into his affairs had been more thorough.

He said he still "bears the scars" of the scrutiny that he was put under and said there were 200 "close family employees" in the Commons - a figure which rose to 250 if lovers and in-laws were included.

He defended MPs who employed relatives - sometimes for "confidentiality and convenience". He added that while the government was trying to use "great haste" to resolve the matter "it will not finish today".

It's a pity that the prime minister wants to play politics on this rather than sort it out
David Cameron

Earlier Mr Brown was asked if his authority had been damaged by the Gurkha vote on Wednesday and the expenses row. He said he was focused on matters like the swine flu alert, adding: "We are dealing with the big issues and we are not going to be diverted."

He said he hoped MPs would "accept and implement immediately" his expenses proposals in votes, which if they happen, are expected at about 1700 BST.

The remaining proposals include more transparency over second jobs, receipts for all claims - not just those over £25 as now - and MPs' staff being employed by the Commons authorities.

Conservative leader David Cameron said the government was "running out of political authority" after "U-turns" on the Gurkhas and expenses.

He said his front bench would be whipped on the expenses vote but backbenchers would get a free vote.

The Tories and Liberal Democrats opposed Mr Brown's plan to replace the second homes allowance with flat-rate daily attendance expenses. They argued it would be less transparent and amounted to MPs being paid for turning up.

The prime minister has said he wants interim reforms in place by July - when details of all MPs' claims under the second home allowance dating back to 2004 are due to be published, after a freedom of information fight.



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