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Speaker in £100,000 court bid to keep MPs


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Shameless: Speaker in £100,000 court bid to keep MPs' expenses secret, and YOU pick up the bill

linked-imageSpeaker turns censor: Michael Martin wants expenses to be kept secret

MPs launched a "shameless" last-ditch legal bid yesterday to keep how they spend millions of taxpayers' money secret.

Commons Speaker Michael Martin will spend another £100,000 or more on a High Court attempt to block publication of their second homes allowance.

To the astonishment of many at Westminster, he announced he would challenge an order by a Freedom of Information tribunal that 14 prominent current or former MPs should provide a detailed breakdown of their expenses.

Mr Martin said he would appeal against the decision that their addresses should be published.

The 14 MPs include Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Tory leader David Cameron, who have already said they are happy for the publication, receipt by receipt, of how they spent their £22,000 a year Additional Costs Allowance.

The information tribunal heard that none of the other 12 has objected. But Speaker Martin told a hastily-convened meeting of the House of Commons Commission - himself and five other MPs - that the disclosure could raise security risks.

The shock twist in a three-year battle over making payments public brought a flood of criticism.

Freedom of Information campaigner Heather Brooke said: "This is a shameless attempt to keep the expenses shrouded in secrecy. MPs seem to think there is one rule for them and one for everybody else.

"They complain that they get bad publicity, and then they are an utter shambles where they can't even seem to get their legal advice straight.

"The public has a right to know how public money is spent, and wasting even more money on legal bills is just delaying the inevitable. They are dragging themselves deeper into disrepute."

Former anti-sleaze MP Martin Bell said: "This is extraordinary. I can only assume that, seeing exactly what was in the expenses accounts, the Speaker decided that discretion was the better part of valour.

"The House of Commons does not understand the depth of feeling in the country about this issue."

A senior legal source said a High Court challenge using top barristers would cost the taxpayer a six-figure sum.

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linked-imageThe expense claims of Gordon Brown and David Cameron, and 12 other MPs, should be revealed, according to a Freedom of Information tribunal

He said the commission - the body which oversees the rules regarding MPs - had little chance of winning and suggested it was a "delaying tactic".

The £22,100-a-year Additional Costs Allowance is used to furnish second homes so MPs can have a base in London as well in their constituency. It costs taxpayers £11.7million a year.

The information tribunal had ruled that all statements and receipts covered by it should be disclosed. This would include mortgage and rent statements, phone bills and receipts for food and furniture.

Bank details and sensitive personal information such as medical and security bills would be exempted.

Mr Cameron is understood to be deeply frustrated at the delay in the publication of his expenses. Sources close to him said 95 per cent of his claim related to mortgage interest on his second home in his Witney constituency, with the rest accounted for by small bills.

Before Speaker Martin's shock move, Mr Cameron had said: "The details are all about to be published, and I'm happy with that because I've got nothing to hide."

Campaigners say omitting MPs' addresses would make it more difficult to expose those who exploit loopholes in the allowance.

For instance, in 2004 the then Tory MP John Wilkinson cashed in on lax controls by designating a seaside flat on the Isle of Man as his "main home" and claimed £14,500 for a "second home" in his London constituency.

MPs' addresses are also on the electoral roll, say campaigners, so they are already in the public domain.

The tribunal ruled that the addresses should be published unless there were security grounds, such as a stalker or a terrorist or criminal threat.

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linked-imageTory MP David Conway was suspended from the Commons after being found to have his two sons and one of their friends, Michel Pratte (above), on his Parliamentary payroll

But Speaker Martin has now declared that this could put MPs at risk and "inhibit democratic debate".

They would be concerned about speaking out on sensitive issues, such as abortion or animal rights, because their addresses would be available to extremists.

His spokesman said last night: "The threats that MPs can face are unpredictable and subject to change. He's concerned that the information tribunal may have misdirected itself in law."

The other MPs on the Commons Commission are Leader of the House Harriet Harman and backbencher Sir Stuart Bell for Labour, Tories David Maclean and Theresa May and LibDem Nick Harvey.

The High Court bid is the latest twist in a long-running battle over MPs expenses.

Speaker Martin has already spent £52,000 of public money trying to keep their travel and second home allowances secret.

The row comes amid heightened awareness of expenses in the wake of the Derek Conway affair. He was stripped of the Tory whip and barred from the Commons for 10 days for paying his son nearly £50,000 out of his staffing budget - even though he was a full-time student in Newcastle.

It emerged earlier this month that MPs can claim up to £10,000 for a kitchen, £6,000 for a bathroom and £750 for stereos and televisions, as well as dozens of other household items.

The most recent figures show the average MP claims more than £135,000 a year in allowances.

On top of this, they earn more than £67,000 a year - a figure they set themselves - and have what has been called the most generous pension scheme in the world.

Mr Martin himself faced questions when it was disclosed he has claimed more than £75,000 under the Additional Costs Allowance despite not having a mortgage on his second residence.

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