Page last updated at 13:01 GMT, Thursday, 4 February 2010

No closure for expenses saga

By James Landale
Deputy Political Editor, BBC News

It was supposed to be the day of reckoning, the day when MPs were finally called to account over their expenses.

The day when some kind of closure was achieved in a controversy that has so damaged politics and Parliament.

Peter Lilley MP
Peter Lilley has had his repayment reduced from 41,000 to zero

The Legg List was intended to confirm in cold print all the leaks, the anecdotes and revelations that have emerged over the last year and then allow the body politic to move on.

Yet instead, there is fresh evidence of how MPs played the system and fresh confusion about the rules against which they should be judged.

The chief scourge, Sir Thomas Legg, dismisses the "culture of deference" within the Commons authorities that led MPs to exploit a "deeply flawed" system of second home expenses.

He also tells 390 current and former MPs to repay £1.3m.

So far, so robust.

Reduced to zero

Yet the man checking his work, Sir Paul Kennedy, tells Sir Thomas that he is being too tough.

The story is still unfolding. Perhaps only a general election will mark the final full stop
James Landale

It is "damaging, unfair and wrong" for Sir Thomas to describe some of the MPs' "genuine transactions" as "tainted or breaching the requirements of propriety".

It is "unfortunate", Sir Paul continues, to suggest that breaches of some "retrospectively imposed limits were lacking in propriety".

As such, Sir Paul says 44 MPs need not pay all or some of what Sir Thomas says they should.

The biggest winner is the former Conservative minister Peter Lilley who sees his £41,000 repayment reduced to zero.

So now the total amount MPs must repay drops by £180,000 to £1.12m. This, it turns out, is just a little less than the £1.16m it cost for Sir Thomas to carry out his inquiry.

In the meantime, it becomes clear that this process is by no means over.

The details of the extraordinary claims continue: Gerald Kaufman's two £240 Waterford grapefruit bowls, Anthony "Balmoral" Steen's £28 for a flagpole rope, John Redwood's £112 for reseeding his lawn.

More than 70 MPs still owe money; if they fail to repay by 22 February, the Commons will begin the process of taking the outstanding cash from MPs' pay and allowances.

Two former MPs have refused to respond to Sir Thomas' letters. Some MPs - such as the Shadow Defence Secretary Liam Fox - have been asked to repay so recently that their appeals are still being considered.

Paul Goggins MP
Paul Goggins voluntarily repaid 20,000 more than he was asked for

And then, absurdly, there are the MPs who have voluntarily repaid more money than it appears they needed to.

The Northern Ireland Minister Paul Goggins has repaid £21,000 when he has been told to hand back just £1,000. Health Minister Phil Hope repaid £42,000 when his final bill was just £4,000.

New rules

So the expenses saga continues. While most MPs have either done nothing wrong or are taking their medicine quietly, some are still protesting their innocence, their supposedly unfair treatment and the errors in Sir Thomas Legg's work.

Ann Widdecombe calls him "lazy and incompetent".

A handful of MPs are awaiting the judgement of the Crown Prosecution Service which is considering whether charges would be appropriate.

The new rules for the next generation of MPs are still being drawn up by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, rules which will inevitably be subject to testy debates and votes in the Commons.

Sir Thomas Legg has tried to write the final chapter in this sorry saga, but the story is still unfolding. Perhaps only a general election will mark the final full stop.



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