By the beginning of October 2009 it seemed that everybody in Britain had forgotten about the MPs' Expense Scandal, after a summer in which the parties had been engaged in a Public Spending Row, at the end of which Prime Minister Gordon Brown had finally been obliged to admit, that yes, his Government would indeed be obliged to cut public spending despite previous statements to the contrary. However, it was over the weekend of the 10th-llth October 2009, that the media suddenly rediscovered its enthusiasm for such matters as duck houses and phantom mortgages, as the issue of MPs expenses once again dominated the front pages of the nation's newspapers.
This development harked back to the decision announced by the Members Estimate Committee (MEC) on the 1st July 2009 that it was commissioning an independent review of all claims made by Members of Parliament for the Additional Costs Allowance during the financial years 2004/05 to 2007/08. (It later decided to include the financial year 2008/09 as well.) This independent review was to be conducted by Thomas Legg KCB QC, a former civil servant, "supported by a joint team" which included House of Commons staff and a small group from PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Whilst no one paid that much attention at the time, Legg and Co and been busy all summer scrutinising the records and let it be known that Monday 12th October 2009 was to be the day on which (almost) each and every Member of Parliament would be receiving a letter setting out his conclusions as to their individual position. As the papers explained, each Member would therefore by receiving a letter which either stated that everything was in order, requested further information, or demanded repayment of a specified sum of money.
Press reports on the Saturday claimed that some 100 MPs would have cause for concern. However the Sunday Telegraph quoted a "senior Whitehall source" as stating that "more than half" of all MPs would be told to "pay up or explain", whilst the Mail on Sunday had their own "Commons source" who told them that "between 20 and 30" Labour MPs had made "preparations to resign" with some 20 Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs believed to be "concerned". No doubt the figure quoted depended on to what extent MPs would face demands for explanations, demands for money, or demands for career-ending amounts of money. The Mail also tracked down an "official close to Sir Thomas" who claimed that there were a number of "large unexploded bombs" about to "go off" as they explained that apparently it was felt necessary for the review to claim "a few quite sizeable scalps" in order to justify the £1 million it had cost, and that between twelve and twenty MPs would be asked to repay "spectacularly large sums".
This all came as something of a surprise as the MEC had instructed Legg to examine all payments "against the rules and standards in force at the time", an instruction which should have absolved most MPs of any impropriety. However it appeared that Thomas Legg had interpreted that instruction in his own fashion, and had decided to set retrospective annual limits for some items, such as £1,000 for gardening and £2,000 for cleaning. It seemed that Thomas Legg had decided that members of Parliament should have acted under "a general requirement of propriety" as far as their expense claims were concerned, and since the Green Book failed to specify what was proper, then it was his duty to remedy the omission.
Legg was asking some uncomfortable questions regarding certain housing arrangements, and was arguing that any member who rented a second home from a close relation or a connected company should have to repay the lot, and was also threatening that the failure to produce mortgage statements would also result in the demand for a large payback.
Details of the practical application of Legg's new expense rules became apparent during the course of the Monday as a number of MPs came clean regarding the contents of their letters. Gordon Brown was asked to repay the sum of £12,415.10, Nick Clegg was requested to refund the £910 he had spent on his roses, and David Cameron was asked to provide more information about his mortgage. (Having already repaid £218 that he had over-claimed on his mortgage, Legg had requested a statement presumably to double check Cameron's arithmetic - it turned out that he owed the sum of £18.16.) By the end of the day the Conservatives had released details of most of the Shadow Cabinet's letters, whilst most of the Cabinet - with the amounts ranging from the tens of thousands to the £27 that Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper were jointly asked to repay because of a 'miscalculation' in their mortgage interest claims.
Even Peter Mandelson was asked to repay the £800 he'd claimed for tree surgery back in the days when he was the member for Hartlepool, whilst irony of ironies, no further action was required by one Derek Conway, the man who might be said to have started it all off in the first place.
The Natives Become Restless
As per usual, in the wake of the news of Legg's repayment demands, Conservative leader David Cameron got in first, as he announced that any of his MPs that refused to pay up "can't stand as Conservative MPs". Similar noises were made by Nick Clegg for the Liberal Democrats, although Labour leader Gordon Brown only promised to "consider" similar action against any Labour MPs who defied the call. This was all very well, but a number of members were apparently unhappy with the conclusions of the Legg Review, and the fact that he was demanding that they repay money on the basis of some new rules that he had just made up.
One member of the MEC, Stuart Bell, told Radio 4's World at One on Sunday that many MPs might feel unhappy with the fact that Legg was "not respecting the decisions that were made by the Fees Office in accordance with the rules at the time", Peter Mandelson said that Legg was "rewriting the rules" which could be seen as "desperately unfair", and even Gordon Brown appeared on GMTV to admit that Legg had "probably created new rules going backwards". Given that some 106 MPs had already announced their retirement by this time, and with many others having "privately made up their mind to go", it appeared very likely that many of these might well tell Legg to take a running jump, particularly since Thomas Legg had no powers to actually do anything other than produce a report. John Mann, the Labour member for Bassetlaw, claimed that there were some "very bitter MPs" who were "hiring solicitors".
By the Tuesday The Times was reporting on the "rebellion" that had "gained momentum in Westminster". Whilst the three party leaders were all instructing their followers to put up with the 'unfairness', pay up and move on, the mood amongst the bankbenches was distinctly unfriendly as one "senior Conservative" was reported as saying "Let's hang all three leaders", and rumours circulated that the Parliamentary Labour Party were about to organise an unprecedented meeting with their counterparts from the Conservative 1922 Committee.
Martin Salter (Labour, Reading West) claimed that the whole thing was "monstrously unfair"; whilst a "furious former Cabinet minister" complained that "He's damning us all as fucking criminals". Bill Etherington (Labour, Sunderland North) was quite clear that he wouldn't be paying anything. "They can take the matter to court" he told the Sunderland Echo. Douglas Hogg, the Conservative member for Sleaford and North Hykeham of moat cleaning fame was of a similar opinion. A friend was deployed to explain to the press that "all his dealings with the fees office are in writing and so have the force of a contract" and that he was also prepared to go to court over the matter. As it was the first to break cover and openly challenge Legg's findings was Alan Simpson (Labour, Nottingham South) who appeared on BBC Radio 4's Today programme on the 15th October to insist that he would not be repaying the requested sum of £500 for cleaning.
By the end of the week they had been joined by Frank Field (Labour, Birkenhead), who had previously been regarded as one of the 'saints' because of his comparatively modest claims under the ACA, but was now understandably rather miffed at being asked to hand back some £7,000, claimed it was nothing more than the "justice of a roulette wheel" and pointedly decided to send Legg a cheque for £117 with a letter "querying his logic" as far as the balance was concerned. Others however took a different view, as James Arbuthnot (Conservative, North East Hampshire) decided to volunteer an extra £1,000 in respect of "repairs to a summerhouse" that he now felt should not have been allowed, and Eleanor Laing (Conservative, North East Hampshire), decided to pay back a whopping £25,000 despite being given a clean bill of health by the Legg Review.
More criticism of the Legg Review came from Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat member for Lewes, who said that he was concerned that the Legg Review had made some "fundamental errors". It must be said that Mr Baker had a point, since he'd asked to provide supporting documentation for his mortgage, despite the fact that he had no mortgage and had never claimed for one. Nadine Dorries (Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire) also complained that her request for repayment was plain wrong, and Julia Goldsworthy, (Liberal Democrat, Falmouth and Camborne) said that she had been asked to produce mortgage statements for the year 2004-2005, which wasn't a particular problem, except that she wasn't even an MP at the time.
More Bad News Arrives
As it turned out it wasn't only the Legg Review that the House of Commons had to worry about that week, as Monday 12th October 2009 was also the day on which John Lyon, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, produced his report on the complaint that former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, and self-confessed "poster girl of the expenses scandal", had wrongly designated a room she rented at her sister's London house as her main home, so that she could claim the home she actually owned as her second home. His report, published by the House of Commons Standards and Privileges Committee, concluded that she had indeed "wrongly" designated her home, but John Lyon also decided that since she had followed officials' advice at the time, this was "a significant mitigating circumstance", and therefore her only punishment was to be required to apologise to the House of Commons.
But whilst Smith might have appeared to have got off lightly, there was a sting in the tail, as in reaching his conclusion, Lyon had established that there were 'discrepancies' between the police evidence concerning which of her two homes the Home Secretary had slept in, and Ms Smith's own recollection of events. Which was to say she had been caught out being economical with the truth. In the circumstances the Sunlight Centre for Open Politics also announced that it wasn't satisfied with a mere apology, and launched a Bring Jacqui to Justice campaign to raise sufficient funds to bring a private prosecution against her for fraud, an announcement that might have brought some small comfort to her constituents, as according to the Mail on Sunday, 53% of them wanted to see her prosecuted as well.
More bad news arrived on Thursday 15th October when the Daily Telegraph unearthed yet another expenses scandal, this time regarding one David Wilshire, the Conservative member for Spelthorne. Mr Wilshire had featured in the Telegraph's original expose, when it was revealed that he had received thousands of pounds towards the cost of redecorating his flat at "some point in the future", which was embarrassing enough, but now it had succeeded in unearthing a more damaging story.
What the Telegraph discovered was that over the years 2005 and 2008 Wilshire had funnelled some £105,500 worth of his Parliamentary Office Allowance into a business called Moorlands Research Services which was run by his 'partner' Ann Palmer, and her thirty-two year old daughter Sarah-Jane. Wilshire insisted this was a "properly constituted business", which had never made a profit, never paid him a penny, and had been wound up in March 2008 with no surplus available to distribute. However Mr Wilshire appeared unable or unwilling to produce any accounts that demonstrated that this was the case, and after a conversation later that day with the Conservative Chief Whip Patrick McLoughlin, he "reluctantly concluded" that it would be "sensible for me not to seek re-election next year".
Tom the Tormentor
Whilst the political careers of both Jacqui Smith and David Wilshire were clearly drawing to a close, the typical Member of Parliament was clearly more concerned about their own fate as 'Tom the Tormentor', as he was christened by Austin Mitchell, plunged Westminster once more into a morass of "fear, anxiety, anger and dismay". And keen to stick the boot in, the press eagerly noted that some twenty-seven MPs were under investigation by the Inland Revenue, and that a handful of criminal prosecutions were anticipated in due course. And despite the fact that the Sunday Herald claimed that a "handful of Labour MPs" were trying to block investigation by the Metropolitan Police on the grounds that it would breach "parliamentary privilege", the word from Scotland Yard was that they were, if anything, quite undeterred and more than happy to carry on.
However as much as the typical member might complain of the 'arbitrary' and 'retrospective' nature of the Legg Review, or of the 'fundamental errors' that might or might not have been made, the public had little sympathy for their predicament - an ICM poll showed that 81% thought that Legg had "acted fairly" - and as one Jack Dawson noted, in a comment posted on the Times website, if Members of Parliament now felt aggrieved at being the subject of an arbitrary decision made by a civil servant, at least they now knew how the rest of us felt. Elsewhere there were even indications that some MPs had some idea of the public mood, as Keith Simpson, (Conservative, Mid Norfolk) noted that whether it was "fair or not", MPs had "lost that argument with the public"; or as Desmond Swayne (Conservative, New Forest West) noted, "If Legg had found everybody to have been within the rules, that would have driven the voters absolutely mad. This is not for settlement in a court of law, this is for settlement in the court of public opinion."
Once again it seemed that whilst David Cameron was managing to at least keep his party on an even keel, the Labour Party was crumbling away under the pressure. One "senior Government source" described the latest developments as "deeply demoralising" for Labour; the general feeling being that Brown had ballsed it up again.
As Guido Fawkes pointed out, it appeared that the Members Estimate Committee had rather mishandled the brief they had been handed by Gordon Brown. The Legg Review was supposed to identify the traditional 'few bad apples' but otherwise announce a clean bill of health; it wasn't supposed to "hose down the whole porcine political class", and it certainly wasn't supposed to put the Prime Minister himself in the frame as an abuser of the expenses system. In particular it seemed that the typical Labour member was unhappy at being asked to repay money and to find themselves being cast into the same pit as the cleaners of moats and acquisitors of duck houses and blamed Gordon for this turn of events.
Such was the level of disquiet that Gordon Brown was heckled during a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party on the Monday, and Nick Raynsford (Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich) felt sufficiently aggrieved to go on record that Brown had displayed "cack-handed incompetence" over the issue, whilst another anonymous Labour backbencher said that he had "never known such venom in the tea-room", and that as far as Brown was concerned no one had a "good word to say about the stupid so-and-so for starting this whole thing". Things were so bad that the Sunday Times was speculating on how there might be a fresh challenge to Gordon Brown, as it claimed that Barry Sheerman (Labour, Huddersfield) was going to stand for the post of chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party on a 'Gordon Must Go' platform, which would, at the very least, be deeply embarrassing for the Prime Minister even if Sheerman didn't win.
Elsewhere Paul Waugh of the Evening Standard alleged that there was a 'Refusenik 5' - five Labour MPs who were ready to resign their seats and force by-elections unless Brown put an end to all this Legg nonsense. As one source put it, "It's Gordon's nightmare - by-elections in safe seats in the depths of winter".
- Richard Kelly, Reassessment of past ACA claims, Standard Note: SN/PC/05123, Last updated: 14 September 2009
- Tom Baldwin, Expenses bills return to haunt up to 100 MPs, The Times, October 10 2009
- Tom Baldwin, MPs back in the duck house as expenses second wave hits home, The Times, October 10 2009
- Melissa Kite and Patrick Hennessy, MPs' expenses: 325 MPs told to 'pay up or explain', Daily Telegraph, 10 Oct 2009
- Press Association, MPs could be forced to repay money after Commons expenses audit, The Observer, 11 October 2009
- Rosa Prince, MPs threaten to revolt over demands for expenses payback,The Guardian, 12 Oct 2009
- Andrew Sparrow, Allegra Stratton and agencies, MPs' expenses: Gordon Brown accuses auditor of creating new rules, The Guardian, 12 October 2009
- Jenny Booth and Sam Coates, Brown tells MPs to pay up in expenses row, The Times, October 12, 2009
- Tim Shipman, 'It's time to clean up politics': Brown tells MPs they must repay expense claims, Daily Mail, 12th October 2009
- Nico Hines, Furious MPs fight back in row over Sir Thomas Legg's expenses review, The Times, October 13, 2009
- Sunderland MP: I won't pay back cash, Sunderland Echo, 13 October 2009
- James Kirkup, MPs' expenses: how Sir Thomas Legg drew up new rules for claims, Daily Telegraph, 13 Oct 2009
- James Chapman and Kirsty Walker, Now mortgage claims are the target: MPs told to produce paperwork or pay up, Daily Mail, 14th October 2009
- Sam Coates and Russell Jenkins, Jacqui Smith's career facing ruin after devastating expenses verdict, The Times October 13, 2009
- Martin Beckford, MPs’ expenses: Alan Simpson leads mutiny against Sir Thomas Legg’s demands with call for court case, Daily Telegraph, 15 Oct 2009
- Jon Swaine, David Wilshire's leafy gateway to £100,000 from public purse, Daily Telegraph, 15 Oct 2009
- Marie Woolf and Steven Swinford, 'Stalking horse' threat to Gordon Brown, The Sunday Times October 18, 2009
- Paul Hutcheon and Tom Gordon, MPs in bid to block police fraud probe, Sunday Herald, 18 Oct 2009
- Paul Waugh, 5 Labour MPs threaten by-elections, 19 October 2009 9:48 AM