Expenses scandal 'could tear UK apart'

CONSERVATIVE leader David Cameron issued a stark warning yesterday that the MPs' expenses scandal could tear the United Kingdom apart.

With public anger growing over the misuse of taxpayers' money, Mr Cameron urged Scots not to be tempted to vote for the SNP out of anger at what was happening at Westminster.

In an appeal to all voters, he told the party's Scottish conference in Perth: "I say this: I know you're angry with Westminster's politicians. But a vote for the SNP puts our Union at risk."

He said the SNP would look upon the scandal with glee and use it for its separatist agenda, even though its MPs "are not themselves squeaky clean". He added: "The Union between our two countries is in danger. This moment is dangerous yet vital."

The SNP's Westminster group leader, Angus Robertson, was caught in the scandal earlier this week after claiming for a 400 "home cinema" and 20 corkscrew, but Mr Cameron used the occasion to attack First Minister Alex Salmond for drawing two salaries as a dual mandate politician.

Mr Salmond claims his full Westminster salary of 64,766 but only a third of the MSP's wage of 56,671, which he donates to a charity set up in memory of his mother. Taunting the First Minister, Mr Cameron said: "You say you're Scotland's voice in Westminster – well, I haven't heard it."

His speech came just hours after UK justice minister Shahid Malik became the first member of the government to resign as a result of the scandal. Police and prosecutors are also preparing to meet to decide whether to launch criminal investigations into MPs in the wake of a barrage of complaints from the public.

And last night, Labour backbencher David Chaytor was revealed as the second MP to claim thousands of pounds for interest on a non-existent mortgage.

It also emerged last night that the ex-West Lothian MP Tam Dalyell, former father of the Commons, attempted to claim 18,000 for bookcases two months before he retired as an MP in 2005.

By last night, 23 MPs had agreed to return more than 140,000 in expenses to the Commons authorities.

In his 25-minute speech to a 1,200-strong audience in Perth, the Tory leader promised to rebuild the "mother of all parliaments" so that it became a respected institution again.

Mr Cameron scrapped last night's Conservative Party political broadcast for next month's European elections and replaced it with a public apology and explanation of his proposals to root out questionable claims from his MPs.

He has also banned second home claims for food and furniture – allowing only the "bare necessities" – and the practice of MPs "flipping" between addresses to maximise benefits. "Flipping, I won't flipping have it," he told the conference.

Recently submitted expenses claims from the shadow cabinet began being published on the Conservative Party website yesterday. They included claims from Mr Cameron, shadow skills minister David Willetts and shadow Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson.

Tories implicated in the expenses scandal are spending the weekend in their constituencies, where they were holding public meetings to hear the anger of constituents – amid expectations some could be forced to stand down as general election candidates.

Alan Duncan, the shadow leader of the Commons, who claimed about 4,700 for gardening, was forced to pull out of Any Questions on BBC Radio 4 to address his constituency party. He said yesterday he had seen fellow MPs "in tears" despite their "consciences being clear" about their expenses claims.

Mr Cameron told the conference he would ban Conservative politicians having dual mandates. However, he appeared to suggest the Tories should do exactly what Mr Salmond is doing and wait for the first election to stand down, rather than sparking a by-election.

Earlier, the conference heard an apology from Michael Gove, the Scots-born shadow children's secretary, who was ordered by Mr Cameron to repay more than 7,500 for furniture and a hotel stay. He said: "The last week has dealt a devastating blow to people's faith in politics. I am sorry for the mistakes I made."

Mr Cameron also announced measures to rebuild trust between the UK and Scottish governments.

He pledged that, as prime minister, he would come to Scotland once a year to answer questions on any subjects from MSPs. He said his Scottish Secretary would be expected to hold monthly meetings with the First Minister, whichever party he or she was from, and provide briefings on the Queen's Speech.

He mocked the SNP and Labour for not talking to each other, and said expectations by the Nationalists that a Conservative government would hurry the split of the Union would prove unfounded.

He said: "I know you (the SNP] think a Conservative government at Westminster will ignore what Scotland wants and needs, and that you will use such claims to promote your separatist agenda. Well, think again.

"Whatever the outcome in Scotland of the next general election, a Conservative government will govern the whole of the United Kingdom, including Scotland, with respect."

He added: "Whoever is Scotland's First Minister, I would be a prime minister who acts on the voice of the Scottish people and works tirelessly for consent and consensus."

WHO CLAIMED WHAT

ANTHONY STEEN, the Conservative MP for Totnes, was reported to have claimed tens of thousands of pounds for looking after a "country mansion" including work on 500 trees.

Cotswolds MP Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, the shadow minister for international development, claimed for a mortgage on a 2.75 million house, it was reported.

Shadow work and pensions minister James Clappison , claimed over 100,000, including thousands for gardening and redecoration.

The Democratic Unionist MPs Peter and Iris Robinson, are said to have both claimed expenses based on the same 1,223 bill in 2007.

They had claims for 10,860 of mortgage interest rejected due to a lack of paperwork.

Former Labour chief whip Hilary Armstrong claimed 3,100 for repointing masonry at her constituency home, while Clare Short, the former Cabinet minister, overcharged the Commons authorities 8,000 for her mortgage.

Ms Short – who now sits as an independent MP , – paid back the money after the error was pointed out by the Commons fees office in 2006.

MAXIMUM CLAIMS

SCOTTISH MPs who claimed maximum second homes allowance in 2007-8 (23,083)

Danny Alexander (Lib Dem, Inverness)

Gordon Banks (Lab, Ochil)

John Barrett (Lib Dem, Edinburgh West)

Malcolm Bruce (Lib Dem, Gordon)

Alistair Carmichael (Lib Dem, Orkney and Shetland)

Michael Connarty (Lab, Linlithgow)

Ian Davidson (Lab, Glasgow South West)

Brian Donohoe (Lab, Central Ayrshire)

Tom Harris (Lab, Glasgow South)

Adam Ingram (Lab, East Kilbride)

Anne Moffat (Lab, East Lothian)

John Reid (Lab, Airdrie)

Jim Sheridan (Lab, Paisley)

Jo Swinson (Lib Dem, East Dunbartonshire)

IN NUMBERS

64,766

Basic salary for MPs (2009-10).

24,766 a year

Current second homes allowance.

109.3 million

Estimated total expenses and allowances bill for this year.

7.4 million

Travel expenses.

23

MPs have repaid cash so far, following start of scandal.

141,627

Repaid.

107,716

From Labour.

28,426

From Conservatives.

2,754

From Liberal Democrats.

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