27 Mar 2015

MPs’ expenses: 46 claim in London despite owning a property

Forty six MPs have claimed expenses for London rent or hotels despite owning a property in the capital, a Channel 4 News investigation has found.

Analysis shows the expenses claims cost the taxpayer more than £1.3m since 2012, write Guy Basnett and Paul McNamara.

Our investigation found many of the MPs bought their London properties with the help of the taxpayer when the previous expenses system allowed them to claim back mortgage payments.

But when those claims were banned following the expenses scandal they switched to letting out their properties, in some cases for up to £3,000 a month. They then started claiming expenses for rent and hotels in the capital.

MPs are permitted to claim more than £20,000 a year in London rent, and £150 a night for hotels. The practice is allowed under rules set by expenses watchdog, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa), that oversees what MPs can claim. There is no suggestion of wrongdoing by any of the 46 MPs.

Our investigation raises questions about whether the new Ipsa expenses system allows taxpayers’ money to be used appropriately, and whether MPs can still gain. The list of 46 MPs include 25 Conservatives, 14 Labour, and four from the Liberal Democrats.

Labour’s shadow culture minister Chris Bryant claimed expenses of £35,350 in 2012/13 and 2013/14 to rent a London flat – despite already owning a penthouse in the capital. He bought the property in 2005, claiming around £1,000 a month in mortgage claims. But when the rules changed he let it out. Estate agent brochures show the two-bed apartment with a private lift and porter has since been marketed for rent for around £3,000 a month.

Conservative MP and former health secretary Andrew Lansley jointly owns a flat in upmarket Pimlico with his wife, bought with help from mortgage claims. But since 2013 he’s claimed £7,440 to stay in London hotels. The MP for South Cambridgeshire does not let his flat out, but has instead made room for his daughter who has used the property to launch a business.

Jim Murphy, the Labour party leader in Scotland, owns a property bought with help from the taxpayer just two miles from the Palace of Westminster, which he let out. Over two years from 2012/13 he claimed £39,372 to rent another London flat for himself.

Liberal Democrat former defence minister Sir Nick Harvey bought a house in Lambeth in 2002 and claimed expenses to help him pay his mortgage. However, after mortgage claims were banned he moved out and let the house to tenants. He then rented a separate flat in the same area, and has charged the taxpayer £39,772 in expenses claims in 2012/13 and 2013/14.

Scottish National Party MP Angus MacNeil jointly owns two properties with his wife in Scotland. He also owns a London flat in Lambeth, bought under the old expenses system, just a 15-minute walk from the houses of parliament. But in three years since 2012/13 he claimed £42,177 to stay in hotels in Westminster.

Former chairman of the Committee for Standards in Public Life, Sir Alistair Graham, said MPs should be seen by the public to be upholding the spirit of new expenses rules. The rules state MPs must not “exploit the system for personal financial advantage”.

Sir Alistair told Channel 4 News: “It’s not always just about exactly what the rules say. It is about you taking personal responsibility that public funds are used in a proper and appropriate way that your constituents would be comfortable with. I’m sure we will hear all sorts of sob stories about why it’s justifiable to do what they’ve done. But they must know in their heart of hearts that the public will see this as MPs on the make.”

Last night MPs said new Ipsa rules banning mortgage claims forced them to let out their second home to be able to afford mortgage and associated costs. Others said they switched to renting or staying in hotels to try to minimise costs.

Sir Nick Harvey said: “This situation is not of the MPs’ choosing. MPs have been obliged to let out their own properties since 2010 because the new rules say they cannot claim mortgage interest – only rent. Letting income covers the mortgage and other outgoings and is of course taxed. It is not MPs’ fault that the rules compel them to rent a separate flat to live in.

“In some cases this may even cost the taxpayer more than leaving them in their own home. Changes made with the best intentions sometimes have unintended consequences, as you have highlighted.”

Mr MacNeil said current expenses rules were to blame and that MPs should be allowed to claim for flats they own, as they did in the past. He said: “Ipsa should stand up to media pressures and enable MPs to take up cheaper accommodation alternatives in London, something that they currently do not support in regard of own flats.”

Mr Lansley said he normally commuted from his home in South Cambridgeshire and only stayed overnight in London hotel about once a month. He said he always sought to minimise costs to the taxpayer and his expenses claims are entirely within the rules.

He said: “My expense claims have always sought to minimise the cost to the taxpayer. My relatively few overnight stays in London (barely once a month in the last year) meant that my expenses claims would be lower for occasional hotel stays in sitting weeks than for the costs of maintaining a flat in Westminster. I have not claimed any expenses in relation to our London flat in either of the last two years. Its occupancy during this time is not therefore relevant to parliamentary expenses.

“I live in South Cambridgeshire and commute from there each day. I have only stayed in hotels during parliamentary sitting weeks when I was required to stay very late for business. By staying in a hotel only on the nights required, rather than maintaining a London flat, I have reduced my expenses claims for accommodation (to £5490 in 2013-14 and to £1950 in 2014-15).

“My claims are entirely in accordance with Ipsa rules. As you will have seen from Ipsa’s statement, they have confirmed this to be the case. I have secured no personal financial gain from the Ipsa expenses arrangements. Any suggestion to the contrary is clearly false, unsubstantiated and therefore malicious.”

Both Mr Bryant and Mr Murphy did not respond to a request for comment.