UK scandal puts our MKs' spending abuses in the shade

MPs' outlays on tennis court repairs and helipad hedge-trimming make David Levy's espresso machine and Majadle's venetian blinds look quaint.

St Stephens Tower 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
St Stephens Tower 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
LONDON - The mother of all democracies is embroiled in an escalating scandal over the misuse by members of Parliament of taxpayers' money to subsidize outrageous lifestyles and multiple homes. Over the past week, a series of revelations have left many servants of the British crown looking as corrupt as some in the Third World, and made Israeli MKs seem squeaky clean by comparison. MPs are paid an annual salary of around £63,300 ($96,000). They also receive generous allowances for the costs of running an office, having homes both near Parliament and in their constituencies, and traveling between both. It is this allowance system that has been widely exploited. In the past week, The Daily Telegraph newspaper has uncovered a culture of corruption among MPs who have abused the system of parliamentary allowances to pay for an array of items from the bizarre to the absurd - all funded by the taxpaying citizens of Britain. MPs have claimed expenses for items such as light bulbs, garden plants, horse manure, dog food and a toilet paper holder. There have also been claims for home improvements, swimming pool maintenance and repairs to pipes beneath an MP's tennis court. Even Prime Minister Gordon Brown is under scrutiny for allegedly paying his brother £6,577 for arranging cleaning services for his Westminster apartment over a 26-month period. Other bizarre claims on expenses include one from Conservative MP Michael Spicer for expenses to trim the hedges around his helicopter landing pad; one from former Labor deputy prime minister John Prescott for a toilet seat; and one from Liberal Democrat MP Julia Goldsworthy for a leather rocking chair, which she has now promised to pay back. Veteran Labor MP Harry Cohen claimed thousands of pounds on his expenses for redecorating his second home before selling it and charging taxpayers £12,000 in fees on a new property. In Israel, MKs are given an allowance of some NIS 80,000 to spend on their "connections with their constituency" and 50 percent more during an election year. Many use the funding to maintain an office outside the Knesset. In the past, MKs were criticized for using the budget for expensive digital cameras and MP3 players, as well as for unconventional services such as acupuncture, cosmetics and shiatsu massages. In 2006, for instance, MK David Levy spent NIS 2,848 on an espresso machine, and Labor MK Ghaleb Majadle spent NIS 966 on venetian blinds. One of the oddest items purchased was a "chakalaka" blue flashing light for the car of former Shas MK Yitzhak Gagula. After scandals over these MK expenditures, the Knesset House Committee drafted a list of permitted items some five years ago. The British investigation has already led a number of MPs to pay back what they took. Among them is Elliot Morley, a former Labor minister who claimed parliamentary expenses of more than £16,000 for a mortgage that had already been paid off. Menzies Campbell, the former Liberal Democrat leader, has said he will repay £1,500 he claimed for an interior designer to decorate his apartment, and Health Minister Phil Hope said he would repay £41,700 in second home allowances following the revelations. The Telegraph's investigation has led to around £100,000 being paid back to the taxpayer, and claimed its first casualty on Thursday when the Labor party expelled Morley. Also on Thursday, Conservative MP Andrew MacKay quit as a parliamentary aide to party leader David Cameron over what the party said was an "unacceptable" expense claim. MacKay had claimed a full second home allowance on his London address, while his wife, Conservative MP Julie Kirkbride, claimed the full allowance for another home. Cameron said he was "appalled." He declared he would ensure senior Conservatives repaid excessive expenses and warned that he would boot out any MPs who refused. Brown has also promised a full independent inquiry into MPs' expenses. Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.•