UK ministers claim for expenses from porn to cookies

Porn movies. Horse manure. A chocolate Santa Claus.
Expense claims by British lawmakers to pay for an array of items were exposed by a newspaper on Friday, stoking public anger over lawmaker excess amid the global recession.

Britain’s Daily Telegraph published details of claims related to 13 ministers and offered examples of hundreds of other bills submitted by lawmakers to Parliamentary authorities.

The documents revealed how some lawmakers used lax regulations to wrack up hefty bills to pay for housing taxes and costs of furnishing homes, while others claimed for trivial amounts—including a packet of ginger snaps worth about $1, two cans of cat food and an ice cube tray.

One lawmaker claimed the cost of servicing the swimming pool of his country home, while another paid for a hunter to catch moles that had invaded his garden, according to the newspaper.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown—then Britain’s treasury chief—paid his brother Andrew £6 500 ($9 800) for cleaning services between 2004 and 2006. Brown’s office said the leader’s brother had handled payments for a cleaner the two men shared.

Figures released to Parliament show that the 646 House of Commons legislators claimed £93-million ($134 million) in allowances and expenses last year.

But lawmakers had long refused to offer receipt by receipt breakdowns of their claims for public money, until a ruling under freedom of information laws ordered them to make the details known.

About two million receipts for claims by legislators will be published in July under the ruling, but the newspaper said on Friday it had obtained the material ahead of its planned release.

Members of the public complain the expenses system is too generous, isn’t independently audited and follows rules drafted by the lawmakers themselves.

“There can be no greater proof of the need for urgent and wholesale reform of MPs’ expenses than the fact that so many people at the top of government have been making such dubious claims,” said Matthew Elliott of the lobby group the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw claimed the cost of housing taxes he’d never actually paid—though later reimbursed authorities. In a handwritten note explaining his mistake, Straw wrote that “accountancy does not appear to be my strongest suit”.

Culture Secretary Andy Burnham urged authorities to speed up an expenses payment. He told Parliament’s fees office “he might be in line for a divorce” if he didn’t receive the money quickly.

“The system doesn’t work,” Prime Minister Brown told the BBC.

“I’ve said it doesn’t work, it’s got to be changed.”

British lawmakers are able to claim public money for office expenses, and those who live outside London can recover costs of running a home in the British capital—so-called second home allowances.

According to the newspaper, some lawmakers routinely changed which house was their primary residence, meaning they could claim second home allowances—such as the cost of furniture, decorating and repairs—on several different properties.

Other bills show how lawmakers were prepared to claim even small amounts, including a carrier bag that cost 5p ($0,07), a chocolate Santa Claus-shaped snack priced at 59p ($0,88) and a tape measure costing 43 pence ($0,64).

In March Home Secretary Jacqui Smith acknowledged she’d claimed the costs of two pay-per-view porn movies watched by her husband.

Smith said she later repaid the money.

“The rules are being stretched to the absolute limit in a way which is allowing MPs to enhance their personal income,” said Alistair Graham, who was in charge of standards in Britain’s Parliament until 2007.

The Telegraph declined to say whether it had paid to obtain details of the expense claims, or specify how it received the information.—Sapa-AP

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