|'MP WOULD BE ASTONISHED IF ORDERED TO RETURN EXPENSES'|
By Joe Churcher (PA Political Correspondent)
Press Association – 16 May 2009
A Tory MP who claimed more than £7,000 from the taxpayer for redecorating his second home and installing new kitchen appliances denied any wrongdoing today. Julian Lewis admitted the
And he said he would be "astonished" if an internal party audit ordered by David Cameron would judge any of his claims unreasonable and demand he return the cash. The New Forest East MP, who also asked Commons officials if he could claim for a £6,000-plus wooden floor but was refused [see NOTE below – JL], issued his defence after being told by the Sunday Telegraph his would be among the next slew of leaked expenses details to be published.
He published on his website a letter from the newspaper listing items it believed could breach the letter or spirit of rules ruling out reimbursement for "extravagant or luxurious" purchases or for "enhancing" property. They included £2,369.75 for Bosch kitchen appliances, a £4,870 redecoration bill, the flooring and a number of other household items such as a £119 trouser press, a £5 "sweater tidy" and a £4 tin of wax polish. The newspaper also questioned whether he would have considered it "an appropriate use of public funds" if the Commons Fees Office has agreed to fund the flooring.
In his response, Mr Lewis said that when he bought the London flat in July 2004 it did not seem to have been decorated since it was built a decade before and so by 2006 "the time had come" for it to be done. He said he simply submitted the entire £10,000-plus estimate, asked an official which parts could be claimed and accepted the ruling when she said he would have to pay for the flooring himself. The subsequent £98 cost to the taxpayer of two rugs "should be compared to the claim I could have made for carpeting the entire flat, which would have been well in excess of £1,000," he told the newspaper.
Mr Lewis – who suggested he may have been targeted by the newspaper because of his role in the successful campaign to block the publication of MPs' addresses – also firmly defended the case for new appliances. The oven, hob, dishwasher and washing-machine were more than 10 years old and "damaged, worn-out or, in the case of the electric hob, extremely uneconomic", he said. "Their replacements were the exact new equivalents of the worn-out units. They were not an upgrade. It was entirely appropriate to renew the items in this way," he said, suggesting colleagues were less conscientious.
"This is in stark contrast to cases where people have claimed many thousands of pounds for installing complete new kitchens," he said – insisting he had not replaced other working items such as the fridge-freezer. The MP was particularly amazed that the trouser press could be considered anything other than a basic necessity. "Yes I did claim for a trouser press. I need a trouser press," he told the Press Association. "Anybody who wears a pair of trousers or a suit needs a trouser press unless they are going to stay up all night ironing them." [NOTE: This purchase was not found to be inappropriate by any of the subsequent scrutiny processes. – JL]
"If you ask me 'Is the ACA an absolutely rotten system?', I would heartily agree," he added. "But that was the only system we were given to work with." Asked if he expected his claims to be deemed excessive by Mr Cameron's scrutiny panel, he said: "I do not want to prejudge but I would be astonished if any of it did." [NOTE: No claim by me was deemed excessive by the Scrutiny Panel and no repayment was demanded by it. – JL]
Following a campaign led by Mr Lewis, the Government moved to exclude the addresses of MPs, their travel plans, how much they spend on security and the identities of people who deliver goods or provide services to them from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act. "The newspaper which was at the forefront of the campaign was the Sunday Telegraph, which has previously attacked me ... over this campaign," he said. "It was therefore an absolute racing certainty that if one of the 646 MPs were going to have their expense claims crawled over in the minutest detail by the Sunday Telegraph I would have been top of their list."
Mr Lewis said the fact that he bought a trouser press for his main home from his own pocket as well proved that it was a legitimate item to claim under second-home allowance. "I bought two of them, for the simple reason that I need one in my constituency home and one in my
* * * *
[ NOTE BY JULIAN LEWIS: I would dispute only one point in this otherwise accurate report: it is slightly misleading to say that I “asked Commons officials if [I] could claim for a £6,000-plus wooden floor but was refused”. What I did was to send the Fees Office, in advance, the entire list of works I intended to undertake and to request guidance as to which would be claimable and which would not. As stated in my reply to the Sunday Telegraph:
“It was obvious to me that some of the proposed work would be claimable and some would not. I therefore submitted the estimate to the Fees Office with a request for their guidance as to what was appropriate to claim and what was not and I received the response from [the Validation Officer] dated 23 January 2006, which constitutes page 15 of the bundle [of ACA documents]. I did not in any way question or challenge the advice that she gave and therefore did not claim for the biggest single item – namely, the wooden flooring. As you can see on pages 13 and 17, when submitting the claim form I wrote the following on the claim form: ‘NB I have excluded the £5995 plus VAT for the flooring, as discussed in previous correspondence. JL’. And, alongside the reference to the flooring, I wrote the words ‘Exclude – JL’ and underlined this. At no stage did I claim for the flooring and it did not cost the taxpayer a penny.”
For the full exchange of letters between the Sunday Telegraph and me, click here .]
APPENDIX: Expenses – as listed on Julian’s page on TheyWorkForYou.com
NB: THE MOST RECENT SET OF FIGURES SHOW THAT OUT OF 646 MPs (620 OF WHOM HAVE CONSTITUENCIES OUTSIDE LONDON, ENTITLING THEM TO THE ADDITIONAL COSTS [“SECOND HOMES”] ALLOWANCE), 525 MPs CLAIMED A HIGHER TOTAL IN EXPENSES/ALLOWANCES THAN JULIAN LEWIS .
* Regular journeys between home/constituency/Westminster: Mileage £3,014 (294th). Rail £567 (483rd). Other: Mileage £214 (29th). Rail £343 (58th). Air £323 (18th). European £1,399 (30th).
** Car £3,194 (300th). Rail £505 (473rd). Air £846 (121st).