Saturday, May 30, 2009

Scottish Parliament MSPs 'as crooked Westminster' claimed expenses for funeral wreaths

Despite recent claims of transparency at Scotland’s Parliament over MSPs expenses, revelations are emerging that our politicians have their noses as firmly in the expenses trough as MPs at Westminster.

Despite getting about 70k a year, it seems the cost of a wreath must also be claimed for, as well as second homes, mortgages etc … all of which we were told did not happen at innocent Holyrood ..

The Scotsman reports :

15 MSPs forced to pay back cash for wreaths

Published Date: 30 May 2009

FIFTEEN members of the Scottish Parliament have been shamed into repaying expenses they claimed for Remembrance Day wreaths.

The MSPs – from the SNP, Labour and Liberal Democrats – reclaimed money that was paid to Poppyscotland and the Lady Haig Poppy Factory for the wreaths. Both charities raise funds for veterans.

It came as their actions were last night described as "immoral" and "dishonourable", although it was pointed out by officials that they fell within parliament's rules. MPs have been banned from claiming the cost of Remembrance Day wreaths since 2004.

The row has shifted the expenses focus on to Holyrood, which has been regarded largely as "clean" in comparison with Westminster, where MPs have been under siege over their claims. And last night, the scandal forced another MP to quit, with former Labour minister Elliot Morely announcing he would not seek re-election after claiming £16,800 in taxpayer-funded allowances for interest on a mortgage already paid off.

Mark Wallace, from the Taxpayers' Alliance, said he was astounded MSPs would even consider claiming back money given to a veterans' charity. "It is disgraceful that so many MSPs have claimed Remembrance Day wreaths on expenses and that it is allowed under Scottish Parliament rules," he said.

"No honourable human being would even think it as morally acceptable to do so." He demanded that Holyrood change its rules to stop such claims.

Lothians Tory MSP Gavin Brown said: "Remembrance Day wreaths are a tribute to people who put their lives on the line and the idea of claiming back the cost does not sit easily with that. I think a rule change would be appropriate."

The expenses emerged in the claims made for October to December last year, which were published online this week. While the Scottish Parliament describes itself as being transparent, the wreaths were hidden under "running costs".

When the claims first came to light yesterday, there was reluctance among some MSPs to return the money.

Lothians SNP MSP Angela Constance, who claimed £17.80, immediately offered to return the cash, but her colleagues were not as quick to respond. The initial SNP response said: "Members lay wreaths in their official capacity on behalf of the Scottish Parliament. As the parliament supports Poppyscotland, the cost can be met from parliament resources, and it is for each elected member to determine if they wish to reclaim the cost."

But within an hour, the party leadership had intervened and all its MSPs were told to pay the money to the charities, Poppyscotland and Lady Haig Poppy Factory, which sold the wreaths. The two charities are the only ones that MSPs are allowed to claim back money for.

A spokeswoman said: "SNP MSPs will either be reimbursing the money or making donations equal to the cost of the wreaths to Poppyscotland."

The SNP MSPs who claimed were Ms Constance, Alasdair Allan (£21.30), Roseanna Cunningham (£63.90), Michael Matheson (£63.90), Stuart McMillan (£42.60), Gil Paterson (£17.80) and John Wilson (£35.60).

Labour MSPs decided to pay their money back to the parliament, but not before a spokesman insisted they had been right to reclaim the money as representatives of the parliament. Helen Eadie claimed the most, at £170.42, to cover wreaths for different villages in her Dunfermline East constituency. Rhona Brankin claimed £42.60, Trish Godman £113.22 and Cathy Jamieson £42.60.

A party spokesman said: "MSPs lay wreaths on behalf of the Scottish Parliament. The money for the wreaths goes to Poppyscotland that funds care for veterans. Some MSPs have many remembrance ceremonies in their constituency and it has been traditional for the local parliamentarian to send a wreath for them.

"These funds have been claimed legitimately, but Labour members have decided to pay the money back to avoid any embarrassment to Poppyscotland."

Ms Brankin said: "While I have acted in accordance with Scottish Parliament rules, the last thing I would want to do is cause offence to the Scottish Poppy Appeal, the Royal British Legion or my constituents."

The Lib Dems also promised to repay money claimed by Robert Brown (£20.30), former leadership contender Ross Finnie (£118.13), Jamie Stone (£42) and Jim Tolson (£63.90). A spokesman said: "The MSPs in question attended these important ceremonies in their official capacities but will, nonetheless, repay the amount claimed."

No Conservative or Green MSPs claimed back money for wreaths. However, shadow Scottish secretary David Mundell had been criticised for putting in claims for wreaths before the Westminster ban. Another Conservative, former shadow defence secretary James Gray, also came under fire after he tried to lodge a claim and complained he was "£60 out of pocket" after buying three wreaths to lay at war memorials in his constituency.

The wreaths at the centre of the scandal came mostly from the Lady Haig Poppy Factory, named after the wife of Earl Haig, the commander-in-chief of British forces during the First World War.

The factory makes special wreaths for MSPs with a purple centre to mark them out as being from the Scottish Parliament.

Former army officer Stuart Crawford, who served as a lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Tank Regiment, was also highly critical of the claims, although he said he could see why MSPs might believe they could claim the money back.

He said: "Although MSPs are not the highest-paid people in the land, they get a healthy salary – at least twice the average household income – and a wreath once a year on Remembrance Day should not be beyond their means."

Morely to step down after 'traumatic' mortgage claim row

FORMER Labour minister Elliot Morley is to quit as an MP, after claiming £16,800 in taxpayer-funded allowances for interest on a mortgage he had paid off.

He announced his decision not to fight his Scunthorpe seat at the next general election after a meeting with party activists in his constituency last night.

The move came as Tory leader David Cameron said any MPs who committed a crime by claiming taxpayer-funded cash for non-existent mortgages should "face the full force of the law".

Mr Cameron said Scotland Yard, which is considering whether to launch criminal inquiries into potentially fraudulent claims, should examine them "without fear of favour".

He added: "If people have broken the law in claiming expenses, like mortgage payments for mortgages that don't exist, should they be subject to the full force of the law? Yes of course they should."

Announcing his decision to stand down last night, Mr Morely said: "It is with regret that I have informed the general committee of the Scunthorpe Constituency Labour Party and the party general secretary that I do not wish to contest this seat at the next election.

"The last two weeks have been traumatic for me and I have to think of my family and my health, both of which have suffered."

The former environment minister is suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party pending a sleaze watchdog investigation and a possible police inquiry.

Earlier yesterday, another MP embroiled in the scandal, veteran Conservative Bill Cash – who rented a flat from his daughter using taxpayers' funds – said he would repay the £15,000 if there had been a "transgression", but asked for time for his claims to be scrutinised.

However, his hopes of drawing a line under the affair were scuppered by Mr Cameron, who said the MP faced "serious questions" and needed to co-operate with inquiries.

Mr Cash, a Staffordshire MP, designated a flat owned by his daughter Laetitia, an aspiring Tory MP, as his second home for expenses in 2004 and 2005 – though he owned a home closer to Westminster.

Meanwhile, other Scots MPs also had their expenses scrutinised yesterday.

David Mundell, the only Tory MP in Scotland, paid back £75 for a food and drinks bill for staff. The Shadow Scottish secretary said he had audited his own expemses and decided to repay the funds before being asked.

Brian Donohoe, the Labour MP for Central Ayrshire, was allowed to claim £2,575 for a three-piece suite for his second home although it was £75 over the limit.

Tom Harris, the Labour MP for Glasgow Cathcart, had his claims of £90 for a cot and £50 for a steriliser rejected.

The revelations came as Commons leader Harriet Harman warned that Labour MPs who have done wrong "have got to pay the price for that".

However, Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, condemned the "hasty" judgement of MPs.

The MPs who have announced they are standing down will not do so until the general election, which could be a year away.

This is because anyone who quits parliament mid-term would get much less than a maximum £129,532, depending on length of service.

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, yesterday called for end to the "golden goodbyes".

"I can see no reason why an MP who is sacked or decides to stand down should be rewarded with a big, tax-free, lump sum payment," he said.

• Pensions minister Rosie Winterton claimed £4,690 for soundproofing a bedroom wall and redecoration of the bedroom, bathroom, living room, kitchen and staircase of her London home in February 2007, it emerged last night

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