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Jacqui Smith told: apologise over expenses

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 12 October 2009

On the day letters are sent out to MPs raising questions over expenses claims, a report by the Commons standards and privileges committee orders former home secretary Jacqui Smith to apologise for breaching rules on second home expenses.

Jacqui Smith (Reuters)

MPs will return to Westminster after the long summer break today to find the expenses row still raging.

Scores of MPs - including Prime Minister Gordon Brown - are expected to be sent letters by auditors asking them to repay money from the past five years.

The prime minister could be asked to repay more than £5,000 in expenses, including claims for cleaning his London flat and constituency home.

There are signs that many could choose to fight the findings of the review led by former civil servant Sir Thomas Legg, with a senior MP warning that his colleagues will not tolerate being treated "unfairly".

Commenting on the likely response by MPs to the Legg findings, Channel 4 News's political editor, Gary Gibbon, writes: "What particularly annoys MPs is that Legg has put what they think are arbitrary numbers on what constitutes breaching the spirit of the rules and what doesn't."

"So Gordon Brown’s cleaning bill, to take a high-profile example, is deemed excessive. One minister who was off to check his post and emails and see if he had to pay back more money was as furious as a Tory frontbencher I just met.

"The minister wondered if Legg had taken any account at all of the minimum wage when he was deciding thresholds, and whether he may end up penalising MPs who paid above the minimum wage and paid national insurance with the meaner ones (always assuming they exist) getting off Scot-free."

Meanwhile the parliamentary sleaze watchdog has also recommended this morning that "no further action" should be taken against former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith whose case was among the first to provoke the public's fury.

The Commons standards and privileges committee also said that Ms Smith had "clearly" breached rules by wrongly designating her main home and ordered her to apologise to the House on this issue.

The ex-Cabinet minister was accused of abusing the system by designating her sister's property in south London as her "main" home, allowing her to receive allowances on the house where her family live in Redditch. The probe has focused on whether she was spending enough time at the London property for it to qualify as her primary residence.

Ms Smith was also embarrassed in March when it emerged that she had inadvertently claimed for two adult films watched by her husband. She stood down from the government in June, blaming the stress her job was placing on her family.

Sir Stuart Bell - who sits on the ruling Commons Members Estimate Committee (MEC) - said: "The MPs will have in their breast pocket a letter from Sir Thomas dated the 2nd of July saying that his review will be carried out in accordance with the rules at the time and the standards that applied at the time over the past five years...

"I think many MPs, if they read the newspapers, may feel (Sir Thomas) is not staying within that remit, he's not respecting the decisions that were made by the fees office in accordance with the rules at the time."

The Labour MP also hinted that the MEC could overturn any punishments that were not "fair and just".

"If there is suggestion that Sir Thomas is not abiding by the rules and standards at the time, I think the public would accept that some breach of fairness there is not actually proper for our Members of Parliament," he said.

Downing Street is braced for the prime minister to be asked to return some of the money spent on a cleaner for his private flat in London.

Although there is no suggestion of impropriety, the move would be particularly embarrassing as Gordon Brown personally insisted on the re-examination of all claims. Aides to the premier indicated he would abide by the findings.

Sir Thomas is believed to have been examining cases where MPs have used parliamentary expenses to improve their second homes and make a profit, rather than just maintain them.

He has also apparently uncovered more examples where taxpayers' money has been used to pay off the capital element of mortgages, instead of just interest on the borrowing, as is allowed under the rules.

Controversially, in some instances he is said to have criticised MPs for overspending on areas such as gardening, suggesting they should have taken responsibility for setting a cap on the outlay.

The letters will be sent out privately, and Sir Thomas is not expected to deliver his final report until December.

David Cameron will also come under pressure over expenses this week. Over the summer he announced that more than 90 Tory MPs had agreed to pay back a total of around £250,000, regardless of the independent review.

However, questions were raised today over how much of the money had actually been handed over.

A Conservative Party spokesman said: "We expect all MPs who said they would pay back money to have done so over the summer, and now that the recess is over we will be checking to see that they have done so."

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