The Speaker of the House of Commons is attempting to block the publication of MPs’ expenses that are believed to show that some rent their taxpayer-funded homes to each other.
By Holly Watt, Whitehall Editor
10:00PM BST 17 Oct 2012
John Bercow has written to the expenses regulator warning him not to disclose official documents that show the identities of MPs’ landlords for “security” reasons.
Publication of the names, which was supposed to take place today, would expose the extent to which MPs are exploiting a loophole in the rules that allows politicians to rent their homes to one another. The loophole means that MPs can still effectively build up property nest eggs at taxpayers’ expense, despite official attempts to stop the practice following the expenses scandal.
Sources at the expenses regulator confirmed that “some MPs” were engaged in the practice.
In a letter released last night, it emerged that Mr Bercow had written to the regulator claiming that publication of details of MPs’ landlords jeopardised their security and had led to “grave concerns” in the House of Commons.
“The processing of the data … could involve causing unwarranted damage and distress,” the Speaker wrote in the letter to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa). “I should be grateful if you and your colleagues would reconsider such a plan.”
The MPs’ fight to cover up the landlords’ names emerged after Dr Julian Lewis, a Conservative MP, disclosed in the Commons that freedom of information laws were being used to bring about the release of the information.
He said: “You’ll remember the long campaign successfully waged three years ago to ensure that Members of Parliament’s addresses would never be disclosed as a result of FoI requests.
“A number of colleagues from both sides of the House have approached me about an FoI request that those colleagues who, unlike me, rent their properties, should have their landlords names disclosed.
“There is concern that this could breach the security of MPs’ home addresses.”
Mr Bercow acknowledged the concerns and assured MPs that he had written to Ipsa because he shared “the very real concerns raised”.
His letter states that the issues surrounding security are backed by the Serjeant of Arms and the Parliamentary Security Director. It was not clear how naming landlords would threaten MPs’ security.
The rearguard action led by Mr Bercow has echoes of the attempt by the previous Speaker, Lord Martin, to prevent the release of addresses on which parliamentary expenses were claimed.
The information was subsequently leaked to The Daily Telegraph, causing the scandal that led to the resignation or prosecution of dozens of MPs.
The former Speaker had to resign after fighting to keep information about expenses secret, a decision that backfired following widespread public anger when the data were finally released.
Last night, John Mann, a Labour MP, said the attempt at keeping MPs’ landlords secret was a “return to the bad old days” and it appeared that attempts to restrict transparency were “beginning to creep in”.
He added: “If MPs are renting from past or current MPs it is right and proper the public is able to know that.
“There is nothing wrong with that, and there is nothing wrong in it being out there in the open. I have no problem in MPs renting it [a flat] out but the public is entitled to know that.”
He added: “There is a way to get the information out to satisfy the general public. The media will want to know if there are any scams going on.”
Ipsa was established in 2010 after the parliamentary expenses scandal. The watchdog banned MPs from claiming back mortgage interest after a transitional period which ended this summer. This followed concerns that politicians were able to build up valuable property empires at taxpayers’ expense.
Its initial rules banned MPs from renting properties from family members, close business associates or “an organisation in which you or a family have an interest”. This was to help to ensure that MPs did not claim the market value for rent from the taxpayer while actually paying far less.
The rules were later clarified to allow one MP to rent from another, provided they were not related or married. It is thought that this rule was specified following requests from MPs.
The Daily Telegraph has previously disclosed the existence of a “property merry-go-round”, with dozens of MPs renting out their previously taxpayer-funded homes and immediately renting nearby homes, claiming the new rental costs from the taxpayer.
David Laws, the Liberal Democrat minister, was forced to resign and repay tens of thousands of pounds after being exposed by this newspaper for paying rent to his boyfriend.
Dozens of MPs have moved into new rented accommodation in the past two years. According to official records, Liam Fox, the former defence secretary, rented out his home in south London in September last year, and is now claiming £1,900 a month to rent accommodation in London.
Chris Bryant, a shadow minister for borders and immigration, has rented out his mansion flat in Bloomsbury and claimed £2,050 for a month’s rent in the last period for which data have been published.
Recent figures showed that a quarter of Conservative MPs were renting out properties.
MPs’ expenses are rising again after the 2009 scandal.
The bill went up by a quarter to nearly £90 million last year, which means that it is only slightly lower than before the scandal.
Politicians spent the money on second homes, staff, travel and office costs, including dozens of iPads.
The total outlay for 2010-11 was £71 million, although Ipsa pointed out that this figure was lower because of the impact of the general election.
A spokesman for Ipsa said: “We are committed to transparency as is shown by our regular publication of all claims by all MPs. We have a duty to balance that against the risk of compromising security. We are currently going through the process of gathering all the relevant information to get that judgment right.”