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Sir Christopher Kelly reforms ‘could create Commons of the rich’

MPs threatened to abandon their Commons offices and work from their constituencies as they tried to come to terms with the biggest overhaul to parliamentary expenses since 1971.

London MPs said that they would lose £400 a month while the rest of the Commons counted the cost of selling their second homes because they can no longer claim mortgage interest.

MPs from all sides argued that Sir Christopher Kelly’s proposals, leaked on Tuesday, would mean that Parliament would become the preserve of the very rich. Alternatively, candidates would have to be be young and single, not needing to juggle the commitments of family life with the demands of being a constituency MP.

Several briefed against Sir Christopher personally, arguing that his pension from the public sector would be bigger than many of their salaries.

MPs were trying to calculate whether they would be caught by Sir Christopher’s decision that those with local railway stations within an hour of Westminster will be barred from having a second home. Dozens of MPs could be affected if the rule is applied stringently, although the details of how it would be enforced will not be released until next week.

All 20 outer-London MPs who claim the housing allowance would be caught by the new rule. In addition, a Times analysis using the Transport for London and National Rail websites found that 44 MPs who live on the fringes of the capital could travel to Parliament at peak time within 55 minutes. A further 15 could do the journey in under 65 minutes.

There are indications, however, that Sir Christopher may be working on more generous criteria. He apparently told party leaders that he believed that only 12 living on the fringes of London would be affected. This would suggest that a 20-minute buffer, for late or infrequent trains, will be built into his calculations.

It is this part of the plan that has sparked particular fury among MPs. Sir Stuart Bell, the Labour member of the Estimates Committee chaired by the Speaker, has indicated that the Commons might seek to alter some proposals. He singled out the proposed restriction on MPs judged to live within commuting distance from claiming a second-home allowance as one that could prove unacceptable.

“There may be a hung Parliament after the next election or a very small majority and we could go back to all-night sittings or very late sittings where this would be totally unacceptable and very difficult for a member to continue his duties if he couldn’t actually claim a London allowance,” Sir Stuart said.

One MP told The Times that if the rule were enforced, he would probably stop working in his Westminster office and do all his business from his constituency. He would travel into Westminster only when required to do so by the whips for a vote. This would mean that trips to Parliament would not be classified as travel to a place of work, and therefore might be eligible for expenses or tax relief.

John Mann, the Labour MP who has been at the forefront of demands for the system to be reformed, said: “We have lost the moral authority on the expenses issue, that is why [we have] an independent review by Sir Christopher Kelly.

“We have no choice, we have to accept every last bit of it, and if we don’t, we’ll never be able to draw a line under this problem, and the general public will never trust MPs again.”

Roger Gale, the Tory MP for Thanet, said: “We are in danger of creating a Parliament either of the very rich or those who think it’s a vocation.”

Tony Wright, the Labour MP who chairs the Commons Public Administration Committee, said that MPs would have to bite the bullet and accept the Kelly recommendations. “There will be individual hardship; there will be individual injustice. But I am afraid that is the price we are all going to have to pay for this terrible mess we have got ourselves into,” he said. “Everyone has said we are going to accept the recommendations of this independent committee. There is no alternative now. If we really do want to clean this system up we just have to bite the bullet.”

There is growing concern, however, that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which will administer the new scheme, is not yet operational. A chairman has not been appointed by the Speaker, while the organisation’s website says that it will not be up and running until spring.

•Tony McNulty, the former Home Office minister, could be facing a rebuke from the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee after an investigation into his second-home allowance claims, it was reported last night. It is understood that he will be required to apologise to the House of Commons and repay about £13,000.

An inquiry was launched after a complaint that Mr McNulty was claiming expenses on the house where his parents live.

October 29, 2009