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By Bob Duncan
 
An SNP MP has called for public scrutiny of a little-known allowance paid to former prime ministers which can be worth up to £115,000 a year for life.
 
While MP’s expenses are properly subject to scrutiny by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), claims under the Public Duties Cost Allowance are not published.

Parliamentary questions have revealed that over the last year Gordon Brown, despite poor participation levels in parliament, claimed £114,998.17 in addition to his parliamentary allowances, while Tony Blair – despite reputedly earning millions from business interests – claimed the maximum £115,000 per annum, as did Lady Thatcher and Sir John Major.

Perth and North Perthshire MP Pete Wishart, who tabled the questions, said taxpayers had a right to know that claims are being used to support genuine public and charitable work and not to subsidise former politicians as they cash-in on lucrative lecture tours and directorships.

Mr Wishart said:

“As long as former prime ministers’ draw on taxpayer funded allowances their claims should be open to scrutiny.  People have the right to know that any funds are being used to support genuine public and charitable work and not to subsidise former politicians as they cash-in on lucrative lecture tours and directorships.

“In the case of Gordon Brown, given his poor participation levels in parliament since losing the election, eyebrows will be raised that he is claiming both parliamentary and public duties allowances.

“MPs’ expenses have properly been put under the microscope, and that scrutiny should extend to the public duties allowance as well.  Taxpayers have a right to know how this money is being spent and claims should be regularly published.  It would seem sensible for administration and audit of this allowance to come under the umbrella of the independent parliamentary standards authority.

“David Cameron talks about transparency but, as someone who will benefit from this allowance, will he commit to shedding light on how this little-known allowance is being spent.”

This isn't the first time Mr Brown has benefited from generous expenses allowances.  At the height of the expenses scandal it emerged that Mr Brown had used his Parliamentary allowances to boost his expenses claims by switching his designated second home shortly before he moved into Downing Street upon becoming Prime Minister.

In the aftermath of the MPs expenses scandal, Mr Brown was heavily criticised for the way in which he had made use of the expense system in existence at the time.

Taking advantage of the opportunity presented by the grace and favour apartment at No 10, Mr Brown signed a declaration stating that he wished to transfer his claims under the Additional Costs Allowance (ACA), which MPs may use to fund a second home, to his Scottish constituency house.

By doing this, he was entitled to claim most of the running costs of the detached property in North Queensferry, Fife, including a gardener and cleaner, and carry out extensive repairs and redec­­­oration at public expense .
 
He made the transfer on Sept 17, 2006 – 10 days after Tony Blair announced that he would resign as prime minister the following year.  Until then, Mr Brown had declared a flat in Westminster as his second home for the purposes of his allowances, despite having the use of a taxpayer-funded apartment in Downing Street.

It was there that he and his wife, Sarah, paid his brother, Andrew, a high-flying executive, £241.30 a month for “cleaning services”. The payments later increased to £262.

Mr Brown claimed £9,000 to have his kitchen refurbished in 2005. In common with other senior ministers, Mr Brown claimed public money for a second home even though he is provided with a grace-and-favour home in Downing Street.

When he was Chancellor, Mr Brown also made claims including £372 on subscription fees for satellite television; £723 for “cleaning services”; £650 on food; and £1,396 for painting and decorating. He also claimed £15 for lightbulbs.

The Westminster system of benefits and expenses has proved to be particularly lurcative for many Labour politicians, including another former PM, Tony Blair.

Documents show that Tony Blair remortgaged his constituency home for £296,000, almost 10 times what he paid for it, months before he bought his town house in London for £3.65 million.  Mr Blair was able to claim on his parliamentary expenses for the interest repayments on almost a third of the new mortgage on his constituency home.

The amount loaned was sufficient to cover the deposit on his house in Connaught Square, west London, one of five properties owned by the former prime minister, valued at £10 million in total.

Although Mr Blair did not break parliamentary rules, dozens of MPs appear to have used similar strategies to build property portfolios, which has given rise to suggestions that they "played the system".

Mr Blair dodged possible fire over his housing deals after hundreds of expenses claims were 'accidentally' shredded.  Documents itemising some of the then Prime Minister's receipts for 2001-02 were destroyed by Commons officials 'by mistake'.

The details were only published following a four-year freedom of information battle, but the 'black hole' in Mr Blair expenses claims raised questions over what details the destroyed documents might have contained. To increase suspicions, Westminster officials shredded the files even though they were the subject to an ongoing legal challenge.

The two former Labour Prime Ministers were not the only high profile cabinet Ministers to beneft from the lucrative Westminster expenses system.  Alistair Darling was guilty of 'flipping' – making four separate second home designations covering three different properties in the space of as many years.

That meant that when he became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2007 and moved into a grace-and-favour flat in Downing Street, he did not miss out on lucrative, taxpayer-funded second-home allowances.

The biggest shock came two weeks into the expenses scandal, when it emerged that Mr Darling had charged the taxpayer for the cost of working out his complicated financial affairs, putting his accountant’s fees on his office allowance.

Mr Darling claimed £70,000 in five years for his family home in Edinburgh.  He obtained taxpayer funding for mortgage payments, household bills and furnishings by classing the £1.2million townhouse as his 'second home'.

Before he became Chancellor, Mr Darling had claimed that a small London flat - worth only around £150 a week in rent - was his main home.  He lodged with Lord Moonie - one of the Labour peers in the 'cash for amendments' affair - in a flat in South London.  He lived there from around 2003 until January 2005, listing it as his 'main' home.

This enabled him to claim a total of £45,954 on his 'second home' - the family house he bought with his wife Maggie for £570,000 in 1998. The imposing building stands in the heart of Edinburgh's most desirable area.

Before 2004, all ministers had to declare London their 'main residence'. But even after this rule changed, Mr Darling continued to list the flat share as his 'main home'. In 2004/05, he drew another £15,341 for his Scottish home.

In September 2005 he eventually classed Edinburgh as his 'main home', but only after running up an estimated £9,000 more in expenses.

Designating which are 'main' and 'second' homes can let MPs claim higher sums in expenses.  The second-home allowance - currently a tax-free £24,006 a year - allows for much bigger claims on larger properties.

As well as his rent-free Downing Street flat, Mr Darling, 55, has access to the 21-bedroom grace-and-favour country retreat of Dorneywood, Buckinghamshire and co- owns a family retreat - a croft in the outer Hebrides.

Flipping between his various properties obviously caused something of a headache for the Chancellor, leading to a number of errors in his expenses claims.

He charged the taxpayer for bills relating to his London flat after he had moved out and was renting it to a tenant. The flat had been bought, renovated and furnished with the help of his second-home allowances.

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