Page last updated at 09:01 GMT, Tuesday, 19 May 2009 10:01 UK

How expenses boss defended system

By Emma Griffiths
Political reporter, BBC News

Amid the revelations over MPs' expenses no-one has defended the rules - and nothing has been heard from the man in charge of approving claims over the past 10 years.

But just over a year ago Commons resources chief Andrew Walker was cross-examined at an information tribunal in February 2008 as the authorities sought to halt a Freedom of Information request for MPs' claims to be published.

Television and furniture
TVs and furniture have been legitimate items for "additional costs" claims

Looking back through my notes from the two day hearing provides a fascinating glimpse into how Mr Walker defended what appears now to be the indefensible.

It also casts a fresh perspective on how the ad hoc nature of the system could allow MPs to say in recent days that claims for moats, swimming pools and paid-off mortgages could possibly have been "within the rules".

At the time the big news from the hearing was the revelation for the first time of there being something called the "John Lewis list".

The list, available only at that stage to Fees Office staff, was of commonly claimed items and prices considered reasonable for claims.

The existence of the list was headline news - especially when it turned out that MPs had been "bewildered" to hear there was such a thing.

There was also an understanding MPs could claim up to £400 a month for food, without producing receipts, but it was not contained in the Commons' "Green Book" of rules.

Several MPs have since said they knew nothing about it - others provided receipts regardless.

'Wholly incurred'

Mr Walker told the tribunal the Green Book was not "intended to be a rule book of every last detail and situation which might occur".

He said that rules on expenses could be found "in a number of places", in records of precedents held on computer, in desk instructions. Some had come about due to a "culture of discussions".

Mr Walker, who had been in the job since 1997, said the system had already been significantly tightened up but had been less well scrutinised before 2003 - the year that then Tory MP Michael Trend apologised for wrongly claiming more than £90,000 in expenses.

But the tribunal heard checks were not made on claims up to £250 - or on food claims for up to £400 a month - to see if the money had been spent on what it was claimed for.

Many MPs whose claims have been questioned over the past week have defended themselves by saying they were made within the rules and with the agreement of Commons staff.

Many people may have opinions about whether it is reasonable to spend £200 on a television or not - our job is to look at whether it is within the rules
Andrew Walker

But the interpretation of those rules - which state that claims should be made for costs "wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred from the purpose of performing your Parliamentary duties" - came under question at the tribunal.

Why was it, Mr Walker was asked, that MPs could claim for food - when they would have to eat whether they were in London for Parliamentary business or in their constituencies?

He argued that it was accepted practice in public and private bodies that staff away on business would charge for meals.

What about claims for televisions which would obviously be used for watching all sorts of programmes?

'Going rate'

Such items passed the test of being allowable and were needed "for political purposes" such as watching the news, he said.

He pointed out that MPs would also carry out duties at their designated "main home" for which they would not be reimbursed.

Mr Walker acknowledged that the system of expenses may be considered generous but said it was not his job to question the system.

"Many people may have opinions about whether it is reasonable to spend £200 on a television or not - our job is to look at whether it is within the rules," he said.

In our judgment these features, coupled with the very limited nature of the checks, constitute a recipe for confusion, inconsistency and the risk of misuse
Information tribunal ruling

In fact, under the "John Lewis" list published on 13 March 2008, MPs could claim up to £750 for a television set.

MPs had not been told about the John Lewis list and Mr Walker was concerned that by publishing the "maximum price" allowable that would then become "the going rate" for claims.

Mr Walker pointed out that the National Audit Office had checked 227 claims for individual items the previous year and they had agreed they had been processed correctly.

The Commons authorities checked claims through basic steps like checking the identity of people who claimed, that claims were an "allowable item" and that receipts were provided if necessary.

But ultimately the system of MPs' allowances was "self regulatory", as MPs were accountable to Parliament and their constituents at the ballot box, they argued.

However it was the lack of clear rules that convinced the Information Tribunal that the detailed claims did need to be published.

Ruling against the Commons, it remarked on the "laxity of and lack of clarity" of the rules.

'Risk of misuse'

It pointed to the "gap between theory and practice" which allowed an MP to claim, as an "additional cost", for a personal telephone call made from their second home.

The rule that expenses must be for costs "wholly" incurred on Parliamentary business - a phrase introduced in 2003 - was not "widely understood or enforced" and that "subject to reasonableness limits, all second home expenditure is allowed in full".

It pointed out that MPs could not be left to self-certify, as they did not have access to a "coherent" set of rules themselves.

"In our judgement these features, coupled with the very limited nature of the checks, constitute a recipe for confusion, inconsistency and the risk of misuse," the ruling said.

Since the hearing there have been various changes to the system - some resulting from an internal review by Speaker Michael Martin's committee.

The old £250 threshold for receipts was reduced to £25 last year and is now being reduced to zero. Other changes resulting from the most recent vote in April include stopping MPs with houses in greater London, claiming for another one a few miles nearer to Parliament.

But a move to scrap the "John Lewis list" altogether was rejected by MPs in a controversial vote in July 2008.

The whole system is now being reviewed again - this time by the independent committee on standards in public life - which will bring forward its own recommendations later this year.

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