In the Media

MPs' expenses: the legal view

PUBLISHED May 11, 2009

Former minister Keith Vaz buys and furnishes a London flat on expenses just 12 miles from his main home, flips his designation to a silk-cushioned leather-armchaired property in Leicester and lets the London flat. His spokesman says he has acted within the spirit of The Green Book.

Phil Hope, care services minister, claims more than ?37,000 in just over four years to furnish and refurbish a tiny one bed-room flat and says he has acted entirely within the rules laid down by Parliament.

Shadow climate change minister Greg Barker makes over ?320,000 in just over two years buying and selling a Chelsea flat bought with the help of expenses. His spokesman says ?all claims were entirely legitimate and within the rules?.

Labour backbencher Margaret Moran spends ?22,500 treating dry rot at her seaside house a hundred miles from her Luton constituency days after switching - or flipping - her second home there. She has failed to comment.

The Green Book, the spirit of which these expenses claims are apparently within, states clearly that the fundamental principles underpinning the allowance regime to which MPs must adhere are based on the concepts of honesty, integrity, selflessness, accountability, openness and leadership. Claims should be above reproach, must only be for expenses necessarily incurred in the performance of parliamentary duties and must not give rise or appear to give rise to improper personal financial benefit.

The allowance for Personal Additional Accommodation Expenditure (PAAE) is silent on the question of ?flipping?, but spells out that all claims are limited to expenses necessarily incurred in staying away from an MP?s main home for the purpose of performing their parliamentary duties. Unsurprisingly, many tax-payers are having difficulty reconciling the spirit and the principles with the expenses claims that are now emerging. As Martin Bell has said, ?If any one of these people worked for a private company or corporation and did this sort of thing, they would be out on their ear and probably facing criminal charges.?

The criminal charges out there, carrying a maximum ten-year prison term, are to be found in the Fraud Act 2006 which covers fraud by false representation, by failing to disclose information and by abuse of position. At the heart of each fraud is the concept of making a gain for oneself or another, with the critical element of dishonesty, usually determined by a jury which must first of all decide whether according to the ordinary standards of reasonable and honest people what was done was dishonest, and if it was, whether the defendant must have realised that what he was doing by those standards was dishonest.

Over the coming days, as more details of expenses claims emerge, a measured reflection of the English law of criminal fraud, the ordinary standards of honesty and the fact that those standards are spelt out in The Green Book might encourage the more prudent of our Parliamentary spokesmen to avoid saying anything about acting within the spirit of the rules but resort to the more tried and tested sub-judice response of stating simply ?no comment?.