First Minister Peter Robinson today vigorously defended himself and his wife Iris after it was revealed they had claimed more than £30,000 worth of food on expenses over recent years.
The leaked material — reported today by the Daily Telegraph — also includes details of more than £2,000 per month being claimed in mortgage costs for an apartment owned by the couple in London.
The newspaper further states that they each submitted the same £1,223 bill for payment in 2007.
Mr Robinson, DUP leader and Northern Ireland's First Minister, has described this as an “innocent error” which he said was “happily” halted in the Commons Fees Office.
The claim was for six months’ worth of service charges for their Thames-side flat. He has also stated that all of the payments made to him and his wife were “legitimately claimed”.
The expenses details are reported in the ongoing Daily Telegraph series on expenses claimed under the Parliamentary second home allowance.
MPs who share London properties, including husband and wife teams like the Robinsons, are entitled to each claim the full second home allowance.
This is now worth some £24,000 a year per member and can cover such costs as mortgage interest, household utility bills and food.
Today's newspaper report on the Robinsons' expenses includes:
- £30,525 of payments for food claimed by the DUP couple between 2004 and 2008. It further states that they often claimed the maximum £400 per month each from Parliament for food. Mr Robinson has stated that the combined total works out at “about £73 per week” over the period. During this period the two Robinsons had jobs at Westminster and the Stormont Assembly.
- Between 2004 and 2008 the couple claimed an overall combined total of £159,208 on their London flat through the second home allowance.
- Most of the claims were made up of mortgage interest payments, the newspaper states, with their combined total running at £2,172 per month in 2007.
- They jointly bought the flat in the Newham area in London's Docklands district in 2001 for £450,000.
There is no suggestion in the Daily Telegraph report that the Robinsons have breached any of the Commons expenses rules.
There has been controversy over the fact that the second home allowance covers such areas as food bills. Critics have also argued that the entitlement to mortgage interest payments means public money has helped MPs to secure property assets in London.
In a statement last night Mr Robinson said: “In respect of the references in the Daily Telegraph, I am satisfied that all the money paid to my wife and I was legitimately claimed.”
He also stated: “The claims were submitted consistent with House of Commons rules and after Fees Office advice. Many people hold the view that the rules for the payment of expenses should be changed. My party colleagues and I want reform, and indeed have voted for change. Such steps are necessary in order to gain public confidence.
“Being one of Northern Ireland's MPs, availing of the allowance for staying in London is a necessity.”
On the food expenses the DUP leader said the paper had bunched totals together “to arrive at a large figure”.
“In reality, this equates to an average of about £73 per week,” he added. “The Fees Office determined that £400 each month to cover food in London is not unreasonable given the cost of buying meals in London. I use this facility when in London for the Parliamentary sessions or for meetings — or negotiations — with ministers when the House is not sitting.”
Mr Robinson’s statement also said: “In relation to the inadvertent submission of a duplicate receipt. The Daily Telegraph rightly identified that the two claim forms were prepared for the signature of my wife and myself by the same person.
“They were signed separately and then sent together, as always, in the one envelope. Anyone in the Fees Office would have been dealing with the claims together and inevitably would have noticed the innocent mistake. It is clear that this one duplicate entry over many years was an innocent error, and happily was spotted.”
Full details of all Northern Ireland MPs' expenses claims are due be made public by the summer through a Freedom of Information disclosure by the Commons. The Belfast Telegraph is publicly pressing them — and Assembly members — to take the initiative and now publish receipt-level breakdowns of all their claims.