New row over Norfolk MPs expenses

Norfolk is at the centre of a new row over Commons expenses after one of its former MPs was ordered to refund thousands of pounds and five of its existing MPs were officially listed as having had expenses claims turned down by a new parliamentary watchdog.

An announcement that the ex-Labour MP for Great Yarmouth, Tony Wright, had been reprimanded by a Commons committee came quickly on the heels of the publication by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority of claims it has refused to meet.

The five Norfolk MPs – Chloe Smith, Keith Simpson, Henry Bellingham, Richard Bacon and Elizabeth Truss (all of them Tories) – were among 125 who had submitted expenses claims that it had declined to reimburse partly or at all. And a sixth Norfolk MP, Yarmouth’s Brandon Lewis (also Conservative), was listed by it as having repaid expenses it had agreed to pay him.

But on a day when the leader of the Commons, Sir George Young, said that the new expenses regime is “impeding” MPs in their work and that it must be reformed within two months, some of the named Norfolk MPs stated that Ipsa had made mistakes about them or that it should have obtained clarification from them before exposing them to a risk of public criticism.

Norwich North MP Chloe Smith – who was first elected in a by-election in 2009 after Ian Gibson had resigned in the national storm over MPs’ expenses – was identifed by Ipsa as having had bills totalling �562.03 for “constituency office telephone usage/rental” completely refused. But she said that “this is an error by Ipsa, these bills are entirely legitimate and are being paid”. She had been caught up in “teething problems” of the new system, she added.

Ipsa also refused to pay a �1,230.23 claim for “advertising” from Broadland MP Keith Simpson. But he, too, expressed surprise at his name appearing on one of the watchdog’s lists. The bill was for advertising his constituency surgeries in the EDP and the Dereham and Fakenham Times, he said. Ipsa had requested more detailed information which had been provided, and it had agreed to pay.

There had to be a transparent system, he added, but MPs should be put on lists such as those published yesterday only if their expenses had been rejected finally after an opportunity to explain and give more information. MPs were being “put in the dock” without good cause, he said.

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After having claims for �18.25 turned dowm, Ms Truss (SW Norfolk), said that they related to lunches and travel for a volunteer intern helping her out. A receipt had been lost, she elaborated, and Ipsa had caused surprise by concluding that a list of Oyster card payments on the London Underground was not acceptable.

“We are appealing against all of this,” she emphasised.

Foreign office minister Henry Bellingham (NW Norfolk) said that claims of �302.81 from him for stationery and postage had been turned down because they were ‘out of time’ (having been submitted more than three months after the expenditure).

Pointing out that he is appealing against that, he said that he and many other MPs are finding it “very difficult to work with Ipsa”.

“We have gone from one extreme to another, from a lax system to one in which every obstacle is put in your way, and it is very frustrating,” he continued. His secretary had just spent two-and-a-half hours on his mileage claims that would previously have taken just a few seconds to work out, he said. And he had not been able to claim expenses on his constituency office in King’s Lynn or on his second home in London because Ipsa would not agree valuations on the properties.

Mr Lewis also appeared bemused after being put on a separate Ipsa list for repaying money that it had already paid him. His office had spotted a double-claim (amounting to �833.33), he said, and had notified Ipsa – which had not previously noticed it. He refused to criticise Ipsa for how the issue had been handled.

Mr Bacon (South Norfolk) who was refused claims of �42.90 for rail travel and �14 for a taxi, was unavailable for comment yesterday.

Ipsa declined totally or partly 248 claims from 125 MPs amounting to �15,000. But it agreed to claims of �3.64m for September and October last year.

Sir George Young’s complaint about the new expenses system, which has infuriated many MPs because of its bureaucratic demands, came in a formal submission to the annual review of the arrangements.

“There are some highly unsatisfactory features of the scheme that are at best distracting, and at worst impeding, MPs from doing their jobs,” he said. “In addition, some aspects of the new regime are in danger of deterring people from less affluent backgrounds from becoming – and in some cases remaining – Members of Parliament and are also placing undue pressure on some MPs’ family lives. This is unsustainable.”

He was backed up by a Downing Street statement that David Cameron believed that Ipsa was not working properly and the problems needed to be dealt with. The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “You cannot have a system that costs �6m a year to administer the expenses of 650 people.”