Expenses fraud MPs face up to year in jail

ERRANT MPs could face up to a year in prison under tough measures unveiled to clean up parliament.

The House of Commons heard yesterday that new criminal offences were to be created.

MPs could face an unlimited fine or 12 months in prison for purposely making a false expense claim.

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Anyone caught failing to register outside interests and receiving money to lobby for outside interests would face a fine of up to 5,000.

Ahead of publication of the new Parliamentary Standards Authority Bill, Prime Minister Gordon Brown vowed to push the legislation through before MPs departed for their three-month summer recess at the end of July.

"We are determined to do everything in our power to clean this up and I am not going to rest until we have got this legislation through," he told BBC Radio 4's The World at One. "This reform is the biggest you have ever seen in parliament. You have not seen this in any period of the history of parliament.

"I am determined that it is cleaned up in such a way that we can say to the people of this country: 'We listened, we heard, we knew something was wrong, we have now dealt with it'."

Mr Brown added that if an MP "misleads deliberately or if an MP does something like, without reasonable excuse, fails to register a relevant interest, that is a criminal offence and that would then be investigated by the police".

He went on: "The mistake of the past was simply to leave everything to the House of Commons to do it on an all-party agreement basis, so that you got to the lowest common denominator. That has proven to be wrong. It wasn't acceptable."

The new outside body – the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) – will be able to order MPs to repay any cash to which they were not entitled and it will also be able to recommend they face fines, suspension or expulsion.

In the most serious cases, the Ipsa will be able to refer matters to the police.

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Unveiling the proposed new legislation, Justice Secretary Jack Straw said: "This bill will ensure that accountability and transparency are placed at the heart of the new system.

"This is vital if we are to restore the public's trust in MPs, politics and parliament."

The tough new rules will cause constitutional upheaval, giving courts the power to scrutinise the work of parliament for the first time. It will be up to police and prosecutors to determine whether an MP faces charges.

Under the current system, rogue MPs face a rebuke from the parliamentary standards watchdog, with no right of appeal. However, the proposed reforms will allow members to instruct lawyers to try to have their punishment overturned.

Both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats expressed concern about elements of the bill, which will, for the first time, place the MPs' Code of Conduct on a statutory footing.

Shadow Commons leader Alan Duncan said a number of MPs had expressed concern that the rules requiring the declaration of all outside earnings were "unworkable".

The Liberal Democrat front-bench spokesman David Heath said: "I don't want to be in a position where no member in this House can visit a factory in their constituency and accept a cup of tea and then come back and say something in this House about the industry or their own constituency".

Commons Leader Harriet Harman said the authorities at Westminster were "looking again" at the thousands of pages of blanked-out receipts that accompanied the publication of MPs' expenses. "This is public money that is paying towards the allowances. The public needs to know which MPs have spent how much and on what," she said.

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Meanwhile, communities minister Shahid Malik faced fresh embarrassment after it emerged he had over-claimed 1,000 for his council tax. The Dewsbury MP has pledged to pay back any money he had mistakenly claimed.

He reportedly claimed 2,999 in expenses for his band-C property in Southwark, London, over two years, when the payments should have totalled 1,984.