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MPs' expenses: Parliament watchdog tried to prevent public being told 377 MPs had official credit cards suspended

Parliament’s spending watchdog tried to prevent the public being told that 377 MPs, including nine Cabinet ministers and Jeremy Corbyn, have had their official credit cards suspended for breaking the rules on expenses.

Exactly 10 years after The Telegraph’s original investigation into MPs’ expenses, the body set up to ensure greater transparency in the wake of the scandal has been accused of trying to prevent openness, rather than ensuring it.

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority tried to stop disclosure of MPs’ use of Parliamentary credit cards on the grounds it would have a “chilling effect” on its relationship with MPs and reduce public confidence in the regulatory system.

But a former High Court judge reversed the decision, saying that the risk of “embarrassing” MPs was no reason to keep the information secret.

The Telegraph has established that the rules established in the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal are being routinely broken by politicians who still show a “lax and casual” attitude to the way they account for taxpayers’ money.

The energy minister Claire Perry, who attends Cabinet, admitted wrongly using her Parliamentary credit card to pay for her Amazon Prime subscription.

Stephen Barclay, Amber Rudd, Chris Grayling and Claire Perry have had official credit cards suspended over expenses claim queries

The DUP MP Ian Paisley ran up debts of £1,193 and had his credit card suspended while repaying it. 

Since the 2015 election 377 MPs have all had their credit cards suspended, documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show.

Many are repeat offenders - including Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd - and nine MPs have had their card suspended more than ten times over the past three years, including prominent Tory backbencher Damian Collins and constitution minister Chloe Smith, both of whom have had their credit cards suspended 14 times each.

Other Cabinet ministers, or MPs who sit in Cabinet meetings, who have had their cards suspended include Stephen Barclay, Greg Clark, Chris Grayling, Robert Buckland, Claire Perry, Rory Stewart, Jeremy Wright and David Mundell.

Sir Alistair Graham, the former chairman of the committee on standards in public life, said: “It shows there is either something fundamentally wrong with the system, or we’ve got a bunch of highly incompetent slovenly MPs who can’t keep to the rules. The rest of the nation would only expect to have to comply in similar circumstances.”

Parliamentary credit cards were introduced after the 2009 MPs’ expenses scandal to ensure that MPs’ spending could be closely monitored and accounted for to the penny.

In the past, MPs spent their own money and then claimed it back from the authorities, but they did not have to provide receipts for certain claims under £250, leaving the system open to abuse.

In total, the credit cards were suspended 1,114 times between May 2015 and September 2018.

Jeremy Corbyn Credit: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

Cards are suspended when MPs break the rules on expenses spending, for example failing to provide receipts to justify payments in the required 30 days, incorrect spending which does not comply with the rules, and failing to repay money owed to the taxpayer for claims which were not eligible.  

On 125 occasions since 2015, MPs had cards suspended for failing to pay back money for ineligible expenses. Such suspensions are carried out after at least two formal warnings.

This included shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Gavin Barwell, Mr Collins, who chairs the digital, culture, media and sport committee, Keith Vaz and Mr Paisley.

Ms Rudd had her credit card suspended on five occasions between November 2015 and September 2016.

Mr Corbyn has had his card suspended twice - in August 2015 and September 2017. His deputy Tom Watson, and shadow Cabinet ministers Rebecca Long-Bailey, Richard Burgon and Diane Abbott also had their cards suspended.

After being contacted by this newspaper, Mr Stewart admitted not sending a receipt into Ipsa in time last year, while Mr Buckland, the solicitor general, said he will be “keeping a very close eye on the system to make sure we don’t end up with a repeat of it” following the Telegraph’s findings.

Other MPs who have had their cards suspended include disgraced former Labour MP Fiona Onasanya and Tory leadership contenders Boris Johnson and James Cleverly, who has had his card suspended 13 times.

Mr Barwell, Theresa May’s chief of staff who lost his Parliamentary seat in 2017, had his card suspended three times. On one occasion in January 2017 he had to repay incorrectly claimed expenses.

Sir Alistair said MPs have “clearly become lax” and “casual in their approach in meeting the rules” since the expenses scandal. He added: “If MPs can’t deal with this rather narrow sphere of finances, why should we trust them in dealing with the nation’s finances?”

After first rejecting this newspaper’s Freedom Of Information request, and then delaying its response beyond the statutory 20 working days, Ipsa finally decided that disclosure was in the public interest following a review by Sir Robert Owen, a former High Court judge who is part of the Ipsa board and who is the first line of appeal for such challenges.

A spokesman for Ms Rudd said: “Some payment deadlines were missed by the member of staff responsible for these matters. These issues were subsequently resolved.”

Mr Collins said one suspension was related to a claim for removal costs when moving out of his rented flat.

Asked about the other 13 suspensions he said: “It was simply a case of being late in getting the reconciliation of the card payments back to Ipsa.

There can be times when there are other things going on, and priority is taken over other Parliamentary work.”

Mr Paisley said: “These were historic issues that have each been resolved to the satisfaction of the independent auditor. On the majority of the occasions the card was switched off because of lateness in processing the account, once the claims were verified the card was reactivated.”

A Labour spokesman said: “Our MPs’ offices rectify all such administrative issues as soon as they are identified.” 

10 years ago the Telegraph broke the MPs' expenses scandal

From Amazon Prime subscriptions to incorrectly claimed rent and household bills, expenses claimed by MPs since 2015 have led to the Parliamentary watchdog suspending their credit cards - the toughest punishment it can issue.

Despite Ipsa being founded in the wake of the 2009 expenses scandal with a commitment to transparency, data on suspensions is not publicly available - and the watchdog attempted to block its release to the Daily Telegraph.

Three months after this newspaper submitted a Freedom of Information request, a former high court judge finally ruled that sparing MPs’ blushes was not a good enough reason to stop disclosing how regularly they have had their credit cards suspended.

Sir Robert Owen ruled: “MPs may regard such disclosure as embarrassing; but there is no exemption from disclosure for information that may embarrass.”

The Telegraph had first requested the data on suspended cards through an FOI on 23 August 2018.

The eventual data showed one Cabinet minister, Claire Perry, was sanctioned after paying for her Amazon Prime subscription on her payment card.

Another minister, Chloe Smith, had her card suspended 14 times including for a rental payment which then had to be repaid.

Damian Collins, who chairs the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee, has also had his card suspended 14 times.

Mr Collins said one suspension was related to a claim for removal costs when moving out of his rented flat. Asked about the other 13 suspensions he said: “It was simply a case of being late in getting the reconciliation of the card payments back to Ipsa. There can be times when there are other things going on, and priority is taken over other Parliamentary work.”

Rory Stewart Credit: John Stillwell/PA Wire

Rory Stewart, the International Development secretary, failed to send his receipts for train tickets with the required timeframe while Stephen Barclay, the Brexit Secretary, had suspensions relating to phone and website bills, which he said had been submitted late to Ipsa. Mr Barclay said his card was reactivated within days.

Other suspensions related to domestic bills and council tax payments queried by Ipsa. Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, had his card suspended after a £176 claim for a newsletter in his constituency.

A spokesman for Mr Grayling said: “Ipsa agreed to offset the amount against his next claim and an IPSA official told Mr Grayling that this wouldn’t affect Mr Grayling’s payment card. When it became clear that this information was incorrect, Mr Grayling paid immediately and in full.”

Tory MP Bob Neill, who chairs the justice committee, had to repay a £634 duplicate claim for constituency office services in when his card was suspended in August 2018.

The FOI request followed an investigation into MPs failing to repay debt to the taxpayer after they exceeded their allowed expenses budgets. In one example, Labour shadow minister Khalid Mahmood had taken a year to repay more than £8,000 in overclaimed staff costs – which had been used to fund his legal costs after a staff member filed an employment case against him.

Suspending cards is the toughest measure Ipsa can make against MPs, and, in the case of money owed to the taxpayer which has not been repaid, is carried out after repeated formal warnings.

The FOI was initially rejected on the grounds it would cost Ipsa too much to process, so the Telegraph appealed its decision and asked to narrow its search – first to the past five years, and then to the period from the 2015 general election.

Despite being legally required to respond within 20 working days, Ipsa took another two months to do so.

The delay was caused by the fact the watchdog wanted to exempt the information under Section 36(2)(c) of the Freedom of Information Act, which applies to cases where disclosure would “prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.”

The matter was then passed up to Sir Robert, who said there was “no compelling argument” that section 36 applied in this case. He examined concerns the disclosure would have a “chilling effect on MP’s future use of payment cards, with MPs being unwilling to utilise a method of payment of costs and expenses that could expose them to such publicity”.

He also rejected concerns that reporting the information would “reduce public confidence, however unfairly, in the efficacy of the regulatory system” and “damage IPSA’s relationship with named MPs”.

Sir Robert concluded these were “heavily outweighed by the counterarguments” and said: “There is a strong public interest in transparency and accountability relating to the expenditure of public funds.”

The final data showed 377 MPs, including nine Cabinet members, have been penalised by Ipsa and had their cards suspended.

In total there have been 1,114 suspensions of MPs’ payment cards since the 2015 election. Of these 987 relate to an inability to submit receipts or answer Ipsa’s queries in the required timeframe.

In 125 cases an MP’s credit card has been suspended  because they have failed to repay money spent on the card which was ineligible under the rules.

Among them, Mr Mahmood had his credit card suspended eight times since the 2015 election, including in November 2017 to recover unpaid debt.

Sir Robert had said failing to disclose the information “could serve to undermine confidence in Ipsa’s discharge of its regulatory function, and in the expenses regime established by Parliament in the wake of the 2009 scandal.”

He added that publication of data “is one of IPSA’s principal methods of regulation” and disclosing the information “will have the effect of reducing administrative costs for IPSA, a factor that is plainly in the public interest.”

Ruth Evans, IPSA chair, said: “Ten years ago, the difficulty of having politicians self-regulate their pay and expenses became all too clear.

“It led to the establishment of Ipsa. Since then, Ipsa has established a clear set of rules for MPs to follow and enforced them fairly. The openness and transparency of Ipsa has become a model for legislatures worldwide.”