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British Parliament spins in expense row

A whirlwind swept through the British Parliament this week as the main political parties ordered their MPs to pay back excessive expenses and promised to end the worst abuses of the system immediately.

On a dramatic day when the parties finally responded to popular anger, it was Tory leader David Cameron who moved quickly, directing eight shadow Cabinet members, including his closest political allies, to write cheques to refund the taxpayer for improper claims or face the sack. He also ordered backbenchers, including senior figures in his party, to follow any payback instructions from a newly established party panel or face expulsion.

Cameron said he was shocked by revelations that party grandees have claimed for chandeliers, moats, removal of horse manure and the cleaning of swimming pools.

Labour, one step behind Cameron for most of the day, convened a meeting of the cross-party members allowances committee to start agreeing which claims could be repaid if they were ”out with the rules at the time”.

Harriet Harman, the leader of the Commons, called for an end to the practice of flipping, whereby MPs switch the identity of their second home to maximise their claims.

She also called on the committee to impose an immediate moratorium on claims for furniture, fixtures and fittings pending the outcome of the independent review by Sir Christopher Kelly, chairperson of the committee on standards in public life.

Harman also proposed a cap on the mortgage tax relief MPs could claim on their second home.

Later in the day, Nick Brown, the chief whip, began meeting Labour MPs identified as making excessive claims and ordered them to consider refunding the taxpayer.

Among those agreeing to do so was Margaret Moran, Luton South MP, who had repeatedly switched her second home to maximise her claims and then filed expenses of £22 000 (R280 000) to cover the cost of removing dry rot from her partner’s home in Southampton.

After meeting Gordon Brown, Hazel Blears, the communities secretary, also wrote to Inland Revenue setting out how she planned to pay capital gains tax on the £45 000 (R500 000) profit she made in August 2004 for the sale of her one-bed flat in south London.

In her letter, she admitted telling the service that the flat was not her primary property, while telling the parliamentary authorities it was. If the Revenue suggests she should pay capital gains tax, she will have to pay as much as £7 000 (R80 000).

Labour MP Harry Cohen also agreed to pay back claims he made on his caravan in Essex.

Harman said it was right to address the issue on a cross-party basis and denied being outmanoeuvred by Cameron, saying: ”We don’t have to see this in terms of a party political competition.”

By Thursday, after a day of heated exchanges, Michael Martin the speaker of the Commons, was to be told by senior Labour figures that he should stand down by the next general election or risk a humiliating ”mess” at the end of a political career spanning three decades. —

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