By Bob Duncan
Ex Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown is under pressure to support full disclosure of the secret £115,000 annual expenses routinely claimed by himself and other past UK Prime Ministers.
An SNP MP is pressing Mr Brown to back-up the former PM’s own words in an effort to bring the secretive expenses scheme under the scope of the standards watchdog established in the wake of the Westminster expenses scandal.
Pete Wishart, the MP for Perth and North Perthshire, has written to the former Labour leader urging him to back calls for claims from the Public Duties Cost Allowance to be regularly published – in line with other allowances now administered by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA).
The SNP MP is hopeful of securing Mr Brown’s backing given the former Labour leader’s previous support for transparency on taxpayer funded allowances.
In February 2009 Mr Brown said the public deserved “the maximum transparency possible. I believe there is nothing that we have to hide, and we have got to get all the information out. Anything that maximises transparency is what I support…”
While MP’s expenses are properly subject to scrutiny by IPSA, claims under the Public Duties Cost Allowance are administered by the Cabinet Office and are not published.
Parliamentary questions revealed that over the last year Mr Brown, whose lack of appearance at the House of Commons has raised eyebrows, claimed £114,998.17 in addition to his parliamentary allowances, whilst Tony Blair – despite reputedly earning millions from business interests – claimed the maximum £115,000, as did Lady Thatcher and Sir John Major.
Mr Wishart said taxpayers had a right to know that claims are being used to support genuine public duties and were not being used to subsidise former politicians as they cash-in on lucrative lecture tours and directorships.
In a written answer to Mr Wishart, Francis Maude MP, the Minister for the Cabinet Office stated: “The allowance, which is a reimbursement allowance, is paid to meet the costs of continuing to fulfil public duties associated with the role of a former Prime Minister.
“Claims are processed by the Cabinet Office and form part of the annual audit of Cabinet Office expenditure. There are no plans to transfer responsibility for payment of the allowance to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA).”
In a parliamentary debate on the subject of parliamentary expenses in 2009, Mr Brown said: “I would prefer that we agreed that there be the maximum transparency, and that we will do everything we can to make that happen. We have set up the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to do this. Let it get on with the job of doing it, and let us reach a consensus in this House that the maximum transparency is what we are going to achieve.”
In the letter sent to Mr Brown, which has been seen by Newsnet Scotland, Pete Wishart writes: “I totally agree with you [that we need maximum transparency].
“It is regrettable therefore that the PDCA is not subject to public scrutiny and, in my view, it would make sense for this allowance to come under the umbrella of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority who could publish these claims on a regular basis. I hope you will agree with me and support my calls for IPSA to take on the administration of this allowance.
“In the meantime, I would ask you to make the claims that you have made, and all future claims, available so that the hard-working taxpayers who subsidise this allowance can be certain that it is being spent properly.”
Mr Wishart adds: “On an additional point of clarification, I note from your website that The Office of Gordon and Sarah Brown was established to support your ongoing involvement in public life and that its costs, including salaries and rent, ‘are paid from income received by the Office for paid speaking engagements’.
“However, I would ask you to confirm whether there is any overlap between claims under the PDCA and the administration and workings of The Office of Gordon and Sarah Brown.”
Commenting on the situation, Mr Wishart said: “As the man in charge when the Westminster expenses scandal broke Gordon Brown supported reform of the expenses system to maximise scrutiny – we now need the same transparency on other taxpayer funded allowances.
“This little-known allowance, paid to former prime ministers, is worth as much as £115,000 a year – every year – for the rest of their lives. People have the right to know that any funds are being used to support genuine public and charitable work and not to subsidise former politicians as they cash-in on lucrative lecture tours and directorships.
“As long as former prime ministers’ draw on taxpayer funded allowances their claims should be open to scrutiny.
“In the case of Tony Blair, who reputedly earns millions from private interests now, eyebrows will be raised that he is still able to claim the maximum level of public duties allowances. At a minimum we should at least receive a list of the public duties that have been undertaken in exchange for these claims.
“MPs’ expenses have properly been put under the microscope, and that scrutiny should extend to the public duties allowance as well. Taxpayers deserve to know how this money is being spent and claims should be regularly published. It would seem sensible for administration and audit of this allowance to come under the umbrella of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority.
“The current Prime Minister talks about transparency but, as someone who will benefit from this scheme, will he commit to shedding light on how this little-known allowance is being spent?”
In 2009, at the height of the MPs expenses scandal, Mr Brown found himself and other Scottish Labour MPs under media scrutiny.
It emerged that on Aug 14, 2008, Mr Brown submitted a claim for £3,098.52 for a Fife property, which included £500 under the category of “repairs, insurance and security”. A handwritten decorator’s invoice submitted with the claim and dated April 4 – 2008, stated that the bill was for “summer house (address) paint & painting £500”.
Other claims included in Mr Brown’s 2008-09 expenses were a monthly bill of £35 for mowing his lawn, £126 per month for cleaning and “domestic services”, regular dry cleaning bills, and invoices for his council tax and utilities.
The Prime Minister’s claim for the summer house was first exposed in July 2009 during The Daily Telegraph’s investigation into MPs’ expenses, but at the time Mr Brown refused to pay back the money.
When challenged, his spokesman said: “The claim referred to is for a part of the property in the constituency that Mr Brown uses for work purposes. This is a legitimate claim for its upkeep which was made in good faith.”
Mr Brown subsequently changed his mind and has now repaid the sum in full. This was the fourth repayment Mr Brown has made, following other disclosures in the press about overclaims for a plumber’s bill and for electricity and service charge bills, including Sky TV.
However, despite the former Labour leader’s calls for transparency, it emerged that Mr Brown had also claimed expenses on his constituency home in North Queensferry, Fife, in September, 2006, after he “flipped” the designation of his second home from a flat in London, 10 days after Tony Blair said he was to step down as prime minister.
Several Scottish Labour MPs were also exposed by the investigations into MPs expenses. One other was Jim Murphy, who became Secretary Of State for Scotland in 2008, and claimed almost £2000 of public cash in order to pay private accountants to handle his tax returns.
Expenses documents made available show that the East Renfrewshire Labour MP has claimed over £1 million since 2001/2. Murphy’s claims in 2007/8 included food (£3900) and petty cash (£2284.15), claims for which no receipts were required.
He also claimed £249 for a TV set and a further £99 for a TV stand; £1762.50 of taxpayers money paid for Murphy’s website whilst further claims included Labour party adverts in the local press and a new bathroom costing £4884.
So great were Murphy’s expenses in 2007/8 that he was forced to pay back £3499 of the bathroom costs.
Labour’s Secretary of State for Scotland also designated his constituency home in Glasgow as his second home, for which he claimed £780 per month in mortgage interest payments in 2007-08. His total claims under the additional costs allowance between 2004 and 2008 came to £87,086.
Challenged in a BBC debate in May 2010 that he had ‘flipped’ his address from London back to Scotland, Murphy said: “These are very serious allegations you’re making. Some politicians flipped their homes and tried to make profits. When I became Secretary of State for Scotland, you spent more time in Scotland and as a consequence that becomes your first home.”