Brit MPs gravy train stopped

2009-11-04 21:35

London - Drain the moat, tear down the duck house, fire the housekeeper. British lawmakers face strict new allowance rules following a scandal over their outrageous expense claims.

The rules published on Wednesday will ban legislators from using expenses to fund swank second homes and outlaw the use of taxpayers' money to employ family members as staff.

Christopher Kelly, an ex-civil servant, said an advisory committee he leads has drafted a new regime "shorn of the special features which gave scope for exploitation."

Party leaders have promised to adopt all his recommendations, despite some protests from legislators.

Leaked documents showed how lawmakers manipulated housing rules for profit, and attempted to bill the public for items including porn movies, horse manure and an ornamental duck house.

In one notorious case, a lawmaker demanded reimbursement for the cost of cleaning the moat surrounding his country mansion.

"The system in future will be different - it will be open, it will be more transparent, it will be fair," Prime Minister Gordon Brown said.

No free lunches

Legislators will be banned from using public money for cleaners or gardeners and tighter rules will restrict spending on meals and transport.

House of Commons lawmakers claim an average of £135 000 a year in expense payments. The US Congress allots each House and Senate office between $1.4m and $1.9m to cover expenses.

Kelly said expenses will no longer cover mortgage interest payments on second homes. Only claims for rent on modest apartments, or for occasional hotel rooms, will be allowed.

Many legislators have a second home near Parliament, or in the district in which they were elected, but some are accused of profiting personally after selling properties renovated using public funds.

Most new rules will be phased in over five years, meaning lawmakers who employ husbands and wives as office staff won't have to fire them immediately. Some suggest they'll hire relatives of other legislators - effectively swapping family members between offices.

Expense files leaked

Details of questionable claims were exposed when expense files were leaked to Britain's Daily Telegraph by a government worker. He was paid £110 000, but claimed to be angry over soldiers' low pay.

Transparency campaigners, including Pennsylvania-born reporter Heather Brooke, had waged a five-year legal battle to have the details publicly disclosed. Last May, the High Court overturned objections from lawmakers. The newspaper mole was among a team preparing the data for release.

Few escaped the toxic touch of the scandal that followed disclosure of the claims.

Brown saw nine ministers quit and suffered losses in local and European elections as voters deserted mainstream parties. An independent auditor ordered Brown to repay £12 000.

Of the 646 Commons lawmakers, about 175 have so far repaid claims totalling about £300 000. Two legislators have been ousted, and about 100 have confirmed they won't contest the next national election - which must be held by June - as a result of the furore.

Campaigners welcomed the new rules.

"The recommendations are all remarkably good common sense - so I'm fully expecting members of Parliament to fight them all the way," Brooke said. "These changes can and should be adopted immediately."