- The Washington Times - Monday, May 11, 2009

LONDON

It has all the makings of a Monty Python sketch - prim British lawmakers caught in a farce over expense claims for everything from X-rated movies to a bathtub plug.

But reality has come home to roost in the often absurd world of Her Majesty’s Government.

Friday’s leaked list of lawmaker expenses has leveled another blow to Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s beleaguered government, which has been blamed for a litany of problems ranging from the Iraq war to the deepening recession.

According to the details published by Britain’s Daily Telegraph, Mr. Brown paid his brother, Andrew, more than 6,500 pounds ($9,800) in two years for a maid whom the two shared when Mr. Brown was Britain’s Treasury chief. The newspaper declined to say how it had obtained expense claims from 13 ministers but promised to roll out more in the coming days.

Home Office Secretary Jacqui Smith expensed two X-rated movies that she says her husband watched, which she later repaid. Housing minister and former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett claimed 600 pounds ($900) for hanging plant baskets. And former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott claimed 300 pounds ($450) over two years to fix broken toilet seats.

The list could also prove damaging to the opposition Conservatives - one Tory lawmaker expensed fertilizer used on his country house garden while a different lawmaker put in for cans of cat food.

Other expenses, categorized only by political party, included a wine rack, rat poison, pool maintenance, piano tuning, a chocolate Santa and a pizza cutter.

“I know people will be angry and it looks very bad,” Harriet Harman, a Cabinet minister, told the British Broadcasting Corp. “We recognize that … public confidence is dented and we want to restore respect for the House of Commons.”

The Telegraph offered more details in its Saturday edition, reporting that Tourism Minister Barbara Follett claimed more than 25,000 pounds ($38,000) over a four-year period for security patrols, CCTV cameras and alarms outside her London home. Mrs. Follett is married to best-selling thriller writer Ken Follett, and the couple have a multimillion-dollar fortune.

The newspaper said Mrs. Follett also claimed 528.75 pounds ($805.78) for a Chinese needlepoint rug to be repaired and cleaned, but only paid back 300 pounds ($457) after the cost was deemed excessive. Mrs. Follett said all her claims were within the rules.

Rules governing British lawmaker expenses are laid out in the 66-page Green Book - a guide sent to every legislator. It sets limits on expense claims, such as a 25-pound ($38) cap on eating out when away from home and how much can be claimed toward a second home, usually a residence in London.

Lawmakers can claim annual expenses, including 24,000 pounds ($36,000) toward running and paying for their second home, up to 90,000 pounds ($135,500) on staff, 21,000 pounds ($31,600) on office costs and an unlimited amount on travel for parliamentary business.

Though the guidelines don’t ban any specific items, the rules say expenses should relate to parliamentary work and shouldn’t damage the Parliament’s reputation.

“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.

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

“I’ve said [the system] is wrong, and it should be amended,” said Mr. Brown. “We want to abolish the present system and replace it with something different and that’s why I made the proposals I did a few days ago.”

Members of the public complain that 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, who claimed housing taxes he’d never actually paid, explained his mistake in a handwritten note trying to correct the matter: “Accountancy does not appear to be my strongest suit.”

British lawmakers, who are paid 61,000 pounds ($93,100) annually, had long refused to offer itemized receipts for their claims on public money, until a ruling under freedom of information laws ordered them to make the details known. About 2 million receipts for claims by British legislators will be published in July under the ruling, but the newspaper said Friday that it had obtained the material ahead of its planned release.

The House of Commons authorities asked police Friday to investigate the leaking of the expenses details. Several newspapers reported that they had been offered computer discs for a three-figure sum by a businessman who said he had access to a duplicate of the scanned expense receipts.

In the U.S., where lawmakers are paid an annual base salary of $174,000, Congress allots each House and Senate office between $1.4 million and $1.9 million to cover official expenses such as rent, equipment and travel. Each legislator manages his or her own office account under long-standing rules that forbid use of the money for personal, social or political purposes.

Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaskan Republican, lost his recent election bid after he was found guilty of receiving more than $250,000 in gifts and home renovations from an oil field services contractor. His conviction was later overturned.

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