McNulty: will Standards Committee act now?
Another questionable use of ministerial expenses has led to more calls for a wide-ranging inquiry into MPs' perks and standards in public life
The whiff of sleaze emanating from Westminster grows ranker by the day. Six weeks after the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, was forced to explain why she had claimed £116,000 in allowances for her family home in the West Midlands, after declaring her sister's property in London as her main residence, another Labour minister has been exposed for claiming £60,000 in second-home expenses on questionable grounds.
Just as Smith proclaimed her innocence, so employment minister Tony McNulty has said he did nothing wrong - even though the house in question is only nine miles up the road from his own home in Hammersmith, west London, and is where his parents live.
McNulty, whose second-home arrangement was exposed by the Mail on Sunday, was making use of the system that allows all MPs - apart from 25 with inner-London constituencies - to claim up to £24,000 a year to help with the costs of a second home.
McNulty is the Labour MP for Harrow East, which is far enough out of central London - 11 miles - not to count as one of the 25. Until 2002, he lived in the Harrow house, sharing it with his parents James and Eileen McNulty. When he married his second wife Christine Gilbert, the chief inspector of schools, in September 2002 he moved into her Hammersmith home, leaving his parents in the Harrow house.
On the basis that he has occasionally stayed there when visiting on constituency business, he has since claimed up to £14,000 a year in second-home allowances on the Harrow house.
This is, the MP insisted yesterday, perfectly within the rules. But even McNulty admits that he has felt "uneasy" about the allowance and so, in January this year he stopped claiming it. "I have always felt some discomfort in claiming the money, to be frank," he told Sky News yesterday.
As well as owning up to his "discomfort", McNulty went a step further: he said it was time all the 130-odd MPs whose constituencies are beyond inner London but within 60 miles of Westminster lost their rights to the second-home allowance.
Which brought an immediate accusation of inconsistency from Greg Hands, the Conservative MP for the constituency where McNulty really does live, Hammersmith and Fulham. Hands said: "The minister can't seem to get his story straight. He admits that the arrangement looks odd and that he stopped it in January, but won't repay the £60,000 he took from taxpayers to fund it.
"Now he says that MPs in the south-east shouldn't be claiming housing allowances when he voted against a similar proposal less than a year ago. Once again, the position of one of Gordon Brown's ministers looks indefensible. It clearly needs to be investigated."
It may well be: the BBC reported this morning that the Committee on Standards in Public Life is considering a wide-ranging inquiry into MPs' expenses and allowances. The last time it considered holding such an inquiry it backed off after a meeting with Harriet Harman, the leader of the House of Commons. But with the conduct of both Jacqui Smith and Tony McNulty raising questions, and with public anger mounting, the committee could now decide to show its teeth.
WHAT THEY'RE SAYING
Melanie Phillips, Daily Mail: "If that's within the rules, then to paraphrase Charles Dickens, the rules are an ass. But by the rules that really count - those of honesty and morality - such behaviour is simply a fraud on the public. It's not even as if these people are struggling to make ends meet. Mr McNulty and his wife have a combined annual income of a third-of-a-million pounds and Jacqui Smith is on a salary of £141,000 per year."
Leader, the Independent: "What the McNulty and Smith affairs go to show is that a gravy train culture still flourishes luxuriantly at Westminster. No party seems immune to the temptation of enrichment at taxpayers' expense. If MPs want to retain any respect, they must grapple with this issue, rather than withdraw into their shells like startled tortoises."