Harman Takes a Softer Line on MPs' Expenses; Deputy Leader Says Sir Thomas Legg's Approach Was 'Arbitrary'

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Byline: Tomos Livingstone

MPs told to pay back expenses claims by aWhitehall auditor may not have to do so after all, Leader of the Commons Harriet Harman suggested yesterday.

Dozens of backbenchers are furious that a review by Sir Thomas Legg has imposed new retrospective limits on claims dating back to 2004, even if the expenses were approved by the Commons authorities at the time.

The former Whitehall civil servant has imposed a cap of pounds 2,000 a year for cleaning and pounds 1,000 for gardening at their second homes - leaving some MPs facing pay-back demands running into five figures.

Both Gordon Brown and David Cameron have taken a tough stand, insisting that MPs should pay up and a line should be drawn under the issue.

But Ms Harman, Labour's deputy leader, took a softer line yesterday, and criticised Sir Thomas' approach.

She told MPs it would be "arbitrary" to apply different rules and standards than those which applied at the time.

"There is a three-week period in which members can respond to Sir Thomas," said Ms Harman.

"If they think there is an inaccuracy in his proposal or they think he is not judging them by the rules and standards that obtained at the time, no doubt they will point that out.

"Obviously we have to judge things by the rules and standards that obtained at the time. To do anything else would be arbitrary."

One Labour MP said backbenchers felt "bitterly let down" by Mr Brown's handling of the issue. Claire Curtis-Thomas said Labour MPs were "pretty damning" about the Prime Minister's response to Sir Thomas' audit of expenses, and suggested he may have been "cowed" by the fact that he had personally been found to have overcharged more than pounds 12,000.

Her comments came as it Conservative backbencher David Wilshire announced that he would not seek re-election in the poll expected next spring. The MP for Spelthorne in Surrey had earlier reported himself to Parliamentary Standards Commissioner John Lyon over allegations he used Commons expenses to pay more than pounds 100,000 of public money into his own company.

And Speaker John Bercow and Mayor of London Boris Johnson became the latest politicians to repay expenses as a result of the Legg audit. Mr Bercow paid back an "accidental over-claim" of pounds 978 for mortgage interest, while Mr Johnson returned pounds 1,266 he claimed for council tax while an MP.

Mr Brown's spokesman denied there was a difference of opinion between the Prime Minister and Ms Harman. …