Page last updated at 10:52 GMT, Sunday, 21 June 2009 11:52 UK

Speaker hopefuls face more claims

MPs in the Commons
The MPs named are all standing for the role of Speaker

MPs in the running to succeed Michael Martin as House of Commons Speaker on Monday have come under scrutiny in more allegations over expenses claims.

Details of tax-funded expenses have been published in The Sunday Telegraph.

The paper says Labour's Margaret Beckett claimed more than £11,000 for gardening and Tory MP John Bercow twice claimed for help with a tax return.

Mr Martin became the first Speaker to be forced from office in 300 years when he stood down last month.

MPs are due to choose his replacement on Monday.

The Sunday Telegraph's allegations suggest that former Cabinet minister Margaret Beckett claimed almost £11,000 in gardening expenses over seven years, including £1,380 for plants.

She told the paper that the earlier set of claims were done when the rules were less strict.

My secretary does not do campaigning work during general elections precisely because she is paid from parliamentary allowances
Sir Alan Beith, Lib Dem MP

"We have always tried to make sure we are within the rules and procedures, and clearly what is regarded as claimable has changed over a period of time," she said.

"MPs are not free in the evenings or weekends to work in the garden, and gardening has always been considered a legitimate expense in relation to second home allowances."

'Nothing to hide'

The Telegraph also says Tory MP John Bercow claimed twice for accountants to complete his tax return, which costs the taxpayer £480 each time.

The paper says that Mr Bercow did not return its calls.

It also identifies Liberal Democrat Sir Alan Beith as using office expenses to pay for a secretary to work in his constituency during the 2005 general election campaign, at a cost of £220 a week.

Jack Straw: "We've got to put partisan interests aside"

Sir Alan said: "My secretary does not do campaigning work during general elections precisely because she is paid from parliamentary allowances."

Another allegation is made about Sir Patrick Cormack, a Tory backbencher, who is said to have claimed expenses on both his homes by designating part of his main residence as an office, thereby claiming £9,820 towards heating, lighting, cleaning, insurance and council tax bills

Sir Patrick said his expenses had been published on his website for several weeks and said: "I have absolutely nothing to hide.

"My wife is one of my secretaries and has been since 1970. For years she worked without being paid a penny."

Speaker candidates

The Telegraph also says Labour MP Parmjit Dhanda over-claimed for mortgage interest on his second home allowance at least twice.

Mr Dhanda said: "I believe the Telegraph has got this wrong because this was an interest-only mortgage and the figure that I have claimed is the figure requested by the bank on my statement.

"If anything I have under-claimed my mortgage over the last four years because I haven't updated statements as often as I should have done when the interest rates went up."

All these MPs are among the 10 contenders bidding to become the new Speaker.

James Landale looks at how a new Commons Speaker is elected

The latest expense allegations came after police launched a criminal inquiry into an alleged misuse of expenses by a small number of MPs and peers.

BBC political correspondent Laura Kuenssberg said there may be opposition to some of the hopefuls because several had served on the Commons Commission - the authority which runs the House and had tried to block publication of expenses.

'People's Speaker'

Justice secretary Jack Straw told BBC One's Andrew Marr Show that the new Speaker would have to restore public trust in Parliament.

He said: "We've got put partisan interests aside and elect a Speaker who is best placed to lead the House of Commons to a restored position of authority and trust."

Mr Straw added that the amount of information about MPs' expenses which had been blacked out when they were released on Thursday had left a "terrible impression".

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg called for a "people's Speaker" who would open up Parliament for the 21st century, but warned that whoever landed the job faced a tough task.

He said: "Even if we get the best speaker in the world, he or she is really going to have their work cut out.

"The vested interests at Westminster are already manoevering to water down reform."

Meanwhile, Mr Martin has told the Observer he had been "hurt" by attacks on him but insisted he could have held onto his post if he had chosen to do so.

In an interview with former Labour Deputy leader Lord Hattersley, Mr Martin said working-class Glaswegians were "too good to wipe the boots" of critics who made reference to his accent and background.



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