Flipping scandal

The story has got hotter. The biggest scam, it’s now clear, is entering the property business by switching second homes, doing them up on exes and in some cases, making a profit on the sale. The second home switch has even acquired a homely name suitable for a scam – “flipping.” Sounds like petty crime, doesn’t it? Even if it fell “within the rules.” Upping the anti, the Telegraph’s political editor Andrew Porter accused MPs of being “ on the take” on Newsnight. Stung by the Commons authorities calling in the police to consider whether to investigate the source of the leaks, the paper is now calling for ministerial resignations. Ex-editor Charles Moore goes further and calls for prosecutions and by-elections, and concludes:

I’m afraid that for many people in the European and local elections in June, it will seem perfectly logical to vote for the BNP. The old “they’re all the same” refrain seems true; therefore people will want to vote for a party that isn’t.

Even though the story that “a businessman” was hawking a computer disc with the exes details round the press for a month is well-known, I’d be stunned if the Met, twice burned over “cash for peerages” and then the Damian Green affair would touch this with a forty foot bargepole, particularly as the public interest defence is so overwhelming. I understand the Information Commissioner is holding fire over the likely breaches in the Data Protection Act incurred by publication, for the same reason. As far as both main party leaders are concerned, it’s every MP for him/her self. Gordon Brown has refused to give blanket support to ministers in question. Main allegations below the fold.
• Keith Vaz, the former minister who now chairs the Home Affairs select committee, bought and furnished a flat in central London at taxpayers’ expense despite living just 12 miles away with his wife in a £1.15 million property. He claimed more than £75,000 for the flat.

Mr Vaz also changed his designated second home for a single year to a property he owns in his Leicester constituency. During this year – 2007-08 – he claimed £1,000 for a table and chairs, £750 on new carpets, and £2,614 for a pair of leather armchairs. He also claimed for 22 cushions, including 17 made from silk costing £15 each. During the course of the year he rented out his London flat.

• Margaret Moran, the Labour MP for Luton, spent £22,500 of taxpayers’ money treating dry rot at her and her husband’s seaside house 100 miles from her constituency – days after switching her “second home” there.

The parliamentary authorities were concerned that the work broke the “spirit” of the rules. However, the MP’s claim was not blocked. Miss Moran’s expenses appear to be among the most questionable of any MP.

Over four years she also spent thousands of pounds on three separate properties, switching between Westminster, Luton and Southampton and renovating each home in turn.

• Phil Hope, the Care Services Minister, has spent more than £37,000 on refurbishing and furnishing a modest two-bedroom flat in south London.

• Ben Bradshaw, the Health Minister, switched the designation of his second home to a property he shares with his partner in west London. Although the couple initially split the mortgage costs, Mr Bradshaw now claims the entire interest bill on the property – despite owning only half the property.

• Greg Barker, the shadow climate change minister, made £320,000 after buying a flat with the help of taxpayers’ money, and selling it after only 27 months. He is the first senior Tory to become embroiled in the expenses row, but details of other prominent Conservatives will be disclosed in coming days. Mr Brker denies the accuracy of this statement, saying he put ” a substantial six figure sum”of hos own into the purchase.

• Barry Gardiner, the former environment and NI minister, made a profit of almost £200,000 after buying a Westminster flat and claiming thousands of pounds to renovate the property. Mr Gardiner’s main home is only eight miles from Parliament.

• Phil Woolas, the Home Office Minister, claimed for items of women’s clothing, tampons and nappies. The parliamentary rules only allow expenses which are “exclusively” for MPs’ own use so it is not clear these items were justified. Woolas angrily denies the claims and is threatening to sue the Telegraph. The Telegraph is sticking by its story.

Only one commentator the ex-MP Matthew Parris, shows much sympathy for MPs today:

I’d go for (a). I’d add £30,000 to their salaries (half of which would come straight back in tax) and abolish all their housing and living expenses. And I’d do it before the next election, having secured the tacit agreement of the Opposition not to make too much of it. And do you know what? After the most almighty hoo-hah for about a week, MPs would still be paid less than many GPs and everyone would lose interest.

Wishful thinking I’m afraid Matthew, to up salaries by 30k in a recession. Particularly after such scammy behaviour.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London