Grace and favour fury

by TIM SHIPMAN, Daily Mail

Last updated at 16:05 28 October 2005

Tony Blair and his senior ministers pocketed nearly £130,000 of taxpayers' money in housing allowances last year despite being given the run of lavish grace-and-favour homes paid for by voters.

David Blunkett, who enjoyed the use of a free apartment in Belgravia even when he was not in government, claimed more than £20,000 last year to cover his housing costs back in Sheffield.

Mr Blair claimed £16,417 for the upkeep of his home in his Sedgefield constituency on top of 10 Downing Street and the Chequers country residence of which he has sole use completely free of charge.

Anti-sleaze campaigners last night said the ministers were being subsidised twice by the taxpayer and effectively having their mortgages paid from the public purse.

MPs claimed a total of £81million in expenses last year, a rise of £3million over 2004, according to figures released yesterday under freedom of information laws. Each MP claimed an average of £122,000, some £4,000 more than the year before. That means they are pocketing in expenses more than double their £59,000 salary.

The most expensive MP was Labour's Geraint Davies, who lost his Croydon Central seat at the General Election. He claimed an astonishing £176,026 in housing, travel, postage and staff costs. The worst sitting MP was Margaret Moran from Luton South, who racked up £168,569.

Eight of the top ten were Labour MPs, including former minister Alan Milburn who has twice received lucrative payoffs for leaving the Cabinet. But Labour stalwart Dennis Skinner gave best value to his constituents, claiming just £75,487.

Tax-free payments

The seven ministers, including Mr Blair, who are given grace-and-favour homes for free claimed a total of £129,246 in Additional Costs Allowance - helping them to pay their council tax and utility bills at their second and third homes.

The money is paid to MPs for costs incurred when staying overnight away from their main home. The payments are tax-free and senior ministers also profit by renting out the London homes they occupied before they moved into their grace-and-favour homes.

Most surprising was Mr Blunkett's claim of £20,608. In addition to the Belgravia apartment gifted by the state, he gets a rental income from a house in Southfields in South-West London and has the use of a property on the Chatsworth estate owned by the Duchess of Devonshire.

Downing Street excused the payments to Mr Blair on the grounds that his Sedgefield home is used as an office. But he and wife Cherie are also claiming rental income from the two flats they own in Bristol and their £3million townhouse in London.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw claimed £17,780 despite enjoying two grace and favour homes.

Gordon Brown, who rents a separate flat in Central London and only uses his Downing Street residence for official receptions, claimed £20,285 in Additional Costs Allowance.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who claimed £14,166 in housing allowance, has the run of the 214-acre Dorneywood estate in Buckinghamshire. He also has a flat in Admiralty House, along with Geoff Hoon, who claimed £20,902 and Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett, who claimed £19,088 for her home in Derbyshire which she already owns outright.

Within the rules

Both Mr Hoon and Mrs Beckett supplement their income by renting out their old London flats. Mrs Beckett also pocketed £91,136 in staff costs, which include money paid to her husband Leo who runs her parliamentary constituency office.

All the payments are within the rules, but Lib Dem MP Norman Baker said: "It looks like ministers are ripping off the system. We have come a long way from homes fit for heroes from the socialist government after the war to third homes fit for Cabinet ministers from this Labour Government."

Martin Bell, the former independent MP and anti-sleaze campaigner, said: "It is reasonable for MPs to have a home in London and a home in the constituency but if you're a government minister and you've got a grace-and-favour home there's no justification for making any further claim.

"I think MPs do damage to themselves by the way some of them abuse their positions."

Matthew Elliot of the Taxpayers' Alliance said: "It's ridiculous that Ministers get both a housing allowance and a free house. People who receive such a package in the private sector normally pay tax on the perk. It's outrageous to have one rule for taxpayers and another rule for MPs. Some MPs are abusing the generosity of taxpayers."

A spokesman for Mr Blunkett said: "There are published rules which Cabinet ministers follow exactly. They do not receive an allowance for a London home but can claim the Additional Costs Allowance for a constituency home if it is outside London. This is agreed by Parliament."

It is not only senior ministers who are cashing in on the second homes allowance. Husband and wife Labour MPs Alan and Ann Keen whose constituencies are side by side in West London came under fire a year ago for claiming for a Central London flat even though they live only nine miles from Westminster.

Unrepentant, they claimed £31,583 last year in Additional Costs Allowance.

One MP has been shamed into partly changing her ways. Claire Curtis-Thomas, Labour MP for Crosby, topped the expenses league of shame last year, spending nearly £169,000. This year she was only the 16th most profligate MP, spending just £153,000.

Nick Harvey, spokesman for the Members' Estimates Committee which released the data, insisted MPs are 'excellent value for money'.

He added: "This money is for the essential expenses of staffing and running their offices in Parliament and in the area they represent."

No comments have so far been submitted. Why not be the first to send us your thoughts, or debate this issue live on our message boards.

We are no longer accepting comments on this article.

Who is this week's top commenter? Find out now