Norman Baker, the LibDem MP for Lewes who has been at the forefront of criticism of MPs over expenses claims, has today come under fire in his local newspaper, the Brighton Argus for claiming £7,500 rent for his parliamentary office - a building which he owns.
An MP who led criticism of Parliamentary expenses has admitted claiming about £20,000 from the taxpayer to rent an office he already owned. Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, claimed the cash to rent a constituency office in the building he had bought as his own home.
The 51-year-old has become a regular “talking head” on news programmes in recent days and repeatedly condemned the extravagant expenses claims which have outraged the nation this week.
His political opponents last night branded him a hypocrite after details emerged of his arrangement to claim money to rent the office space at the house he owned in High Street, Lewes.
Mr Baker said yesterday he had checked he was not breaking any rules before buying the house and making the claims. He said he had claimed roughly £7,500 a year for about three years after buying the house for £310,000 in September 2000.
He told The Argus: “I was entitled to claim money from the taxpayer for the rent of an office to carry out my parliamentary office.”...
Julian Lewis, a Conservative MP who crossed swords with Mr Baker when the Liberal made comments to a national newspaper in a story about Mr Lewis's expenses claims, said: “It is utter hypocrisy.”
Jason Sugarman, Conservative parliamentary candidate for Lewes, said: “We need to clean up politics and that means everybody needs to be transparent and clear. He is tarred with the same brush as the MPs he criticises.”
In The Daily Telegraph, which has published fresh revelations about MPs' claims every day since last week, Mr Baker was yesterday reported to have had claims turned down for a bicycle and a computer at the London home he rents.
He also claimed hundreds of pounds for food in periods when the House of Commons was not sitting. He told The Argus: “It is standard practice right across business that when you're away from your home you claim subsistence.” ...
He wrote in a national newspaper on Monday: “The basic problem is this: claims for expenses should reflect expenditure legitimately and necessarily incurred by a Member of Parliament as part of his or her duties – no more, no less. Instead, they have been used by too many MPs as an alternative income stream, as a way of bumping up salary without having to vote through an embarrassing increase. The standard defence trotted out is that everything done has been within the rules. But that does not make it ethically correct, not least because those rules have been written by MPs themselves.”
I don't know if this is related to Mr Baker's behaviour but a leading LibDem Councillor in Baker's constituency, Robert Robinson, the former mayor of Newhaven, is today defecting to the Conservatives. This is quite a coup as Lewes Council is very tight electorally.
UPDATE: Norman Baker has issued a statement explaining his expenses, which I am happy to print below.
1. I have long campaigned for transparency in MPs’ expenses and for the system to be drastically reformed to end unacceptable practices. I intend to continue to do so.
2. I therefore have no objection at all to public examination of my expenses, which for some time have been published on my own website.
3. I have pursued the actions above, not merely because they are right, but because I am confident that my own expenses claims have both met the rules and more importantly are morally justifiable.
4. I would point out that I have, along with only a minority of MPs, never used taxpayers’ money to obtain a mortgage and through that a capital gain, let alone indulged in “house flipping”. I have not used the second home allowance for the acquisition of expensive consumer durables or for property repairs, and maintenance, the costs of which have fallen on my landlord.
5. In respect of today’s article in the Brighton Argus, the facts are as follows:
(a) When I was elected in 1997, I secured a shop for rent in a mixed hereditament in Lewes High Street, with my landlady occupying the rest of the building
(b) When in 2000 she decided to sell the building, I asked the Fees Office for advice on whether or not it was in order to buy the building for our own domestic purposes, and keep the office on site. I did so because
(i) We were in any case very keen to move houses and this house met our needs
(ii) The nature of the property is such that it would have presented operational problems had a new landlord or landlady been hostile politically
(iii) I did not want the upheaval, and indeed cost to the taxpayer, of moving offices shortly before an expected General Election
(c) I did not commit to purchase until I had received clearance, in writing, from the Fees Office
(d) As part of the proper protection for the taxpayer, the independent and external District Valuer was called in to decide the appropriate rent to be paid. His decision was of course accepted.
(e) The rent he decided was, in fact, marginally less than I had been paying to my landlady, so an immediate saving to the taxpayer was realised (along with the savings made by not moving)
(f) Not so long after I had moved to the house, the Fees Office indicated that they had changed their minds and that they had now decided that rent could not be paid to my wife and me, despite the written assurances in clear terms I had been given.
(g) A period of, from memory, about two years followed where no rent was paid and my wife and I provided an office in our house for Parliamentary use at no charge. Given that at that time it was not difficult to rent out shops in the High Street, my wife and I therefore lost well over ten thousand pounds of income as a consequence, while the taxpayer secured an office free of charge, saving the public purse a similar amount. The taxpayer has therefore lost no money as a result of the arrangements, indeed quite the reverse. I was thousands of pounds worse off, as I could have rented the space out for an income and the public purse would have paid for me to have an office elsewhere.
(h) In March 2006, I moved my constituency office to its present address, recommencing claiming for rent.
6. This whole story was subject to a story in the Sunday Times several years ago, followed by a correction the following week...
7. Having said that, I am totally in favour of full disclosure when it comes to matters involving public money, and am happy to provide the facts.
8. If the allegation is that this is somehow an expenses fiddle it must be the only case where the MP accused is thousands of pounds out of pocket, and the taxpayer is better off, as a consequence