Page last updated at 05:11 GMT, Thursday, 28 May 2009 06:11 UK

MP expenses 'ought to be cut'

Houses of Parliament
MPs have criticised the Fees Office for encouraging MPs to make exotic claims

A former head of the Commons Fees Office has criticised the paying of expense claims for MPs under the controversial second home allowance.

The official told BBC Radio 4 some of the more contentious claims would never have been agreed under his tenure.

He said the Additional Costs Allowance should have been cut when MPs' working hours were reduced in 2003.

Current and former members of the Fees Office have refused to talk publicly about MPs' expenses until now.

Late night sitting

In 2003 Parliamentary reforms cut the number of late night sittings.

The official told The Report programme this should have affected the Additional Costs Allowance, which is paid to MPs for the costs of staying away from their main home for Parliamentary duties.

It seems to me you're giving carte blanche to go to John Lewis and get whatever it is at what price
Former head of the Fees Office

"The House used to sit five days a week, four nights a week, two at least went past 10.30 and they were late night sittings", he explained.

The Additional Costs Allowance was calculated on the Commons sitting 36 weeks of the year for four nights a week.

"The raison d'être for this allowance to my mind disappeared and the most it could have been would be two nights a week and 34 weeks a year which I think is the average for the last few years - so that would have been half, but there was no way any government was going to propose that because that would mean taking money away."

MPs have criticised the Fees Office for encouraging members to make exotic claims.

A well-placed source close to the Fees Office admits there was a culture of "collusion" in the past but that the administration had been quite successful in changing this.

Gold rush

But he added the office had been hampered by the poor rules set by MPs over the allowances regime.

The source cast doubt on claims by party whips and senior backbenchers that no one knew what individual MPs were claiming for.

There was, he said, a "tea room chain". Once one member had got a mortgage, for example, the MP would tell their friends and soon there would be "a gold rush".

This was the reason the Fees Office did not want to publish the so-called "John Lewis list", the list of guide prices staff used to decide whether MPs' claims were acceptable, as they were worried it would become the norm.

The former head of the Fees Office who spoke to the BBC scoffed at the idea of the John Lewis list, as under the rules expenses are only meant to be paid out if they were "wholly, exclusively and necessarily" incurred to carry out MPs' duties.

Cosy relationship?

"It seems to me you're giving carte blanche to go to John Lewis and get whatever it is at what price," he told the programme.

He added: "They are certifying it's wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred to do party business. We could never get a definition from the top clerk of what is a party expense.

"Now I've looked at the paper and the reports and the members themselves and just sat here laughing because there's no way any of that could have gone past us under the rules that were appertaining then."

During the recent scandal over MPs' expenses the Parliamentary Fees Office has been criticised for having too cosy a relationship with Parliamentarians.

But the former head told the BBC that in his time the office had always been on the alert for MPs trying to work the system.

Michael Barram
There was if you like an organisational ethos that kept the thing under control
Michael Barram, ex Fees Office employee

"We felt many moons ago that there were two, four, five, members using the same car driving down from the same meeting point but we could never prove it," said the official.

He added: "We also thought that a number of members were claiming for constituency mileage that was virtually impossible, but unless you get the whips on your side helping you to explain 'be sensible man, don't be stupid, you'll kill the golden goose', well I think they've done it. It'll never be the same."

Another ex-employee, Michael Barram said the relationship between MPs and the Fees Office was very informal but it worked well.

"You'd have started alongside some of the junior MPs you would have met a prime minister or a minister going through from being a junior MP through to that, you'd have met them in committees, bars, cigarette on the terrace," he told the programme.

He added: "You tended to have a pretty good working relationship. So there was almost a family thing about it so you'd tend to try and work through problems in the family context so there was if you like an organisational ethos that kept the thing under control."

The Report is broadcast on BBC Radio 4, Thursday 28 May at 2000 BST. You can also listen via the BBC iPlayer or download the podcast.

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