LONDON (Reuters) - The Conservatives said on Tuesday their politicians would pay back thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money to try to quell a row over parliamentary expenses that has outraged voters.
The Labour Party and Conservatives alike have been damaged by embarrassing revelations about how their politicians have filed expense claims for large sums spent on gardening, home furnishings, repairs and security.
Conservative leader David Cameron, whose party has a commanding lead in opinion polls, putting him on course for a landslide election win, said he was sorry for the actions of some Conservative MPs and was taking immediate action to halt abuse of the system.
“Politicians have done things that are unethical and wrong,” he told a news conference.
Saying Conservative MPs must set an example of personal responsibility and thrift with public money, he said: “From now on I want them to claim what is reasonable to do their jobs, not the maximum they can get away with.”
Revelations by The Daily Telegraph newspaper that senior Conservatives claimed for cleaning their swimming pools, installing a chandelier or buying manure for their gardens have given a glimpse of the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by some.
That grates with voters suffering the worst recession since World War Two and undermines Cameron’s attempts to tone down the party’s elitist image.
Cameron wants to win over working- and middle-class voters as he seeks to end 12 years of Labour rule. The Conservatives have a double-digit lead in the polls with a general election 13 months away at most.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown has apologised on behalf of all politicians for the way the expenses system has been milked, but has not ordered wholesale repayment of any of the perks.
Instead he said an independent body would review the expenses of all MPs over the past four years, before deciding if there were any irregularities which needed to be acted on. “It’s extreme action but it’s the right action,” he said in a Sky News interview.
Cameron said four of his top lieutenants -- Michael Gove, Oliver Letwin, Andrew Lansley and Alan Duncan -- would repay more than 16,000 pounds they had claimed for, respectively, furniture, putting a pipe under a tennis court, home improvements and gardening expenses.
Cameron said he personally would pay back a maintenance bill for an unspecified amount. And he said he was setting up a new scrutiny panel to review “excessive” expense claims by Conservative members of parliament.
Politicians who failed to repay the money agreed with the panel would be dismissed from the party, he said.
Harriet Harman, Labour deputy leader, told the BBC she had asked a parliamentary committee to look at setting up a mechanism for legislators of all parties “to establish if money has been paid out wrongfully and to arrange for a repayment system.”
Government minister Hazel Blears said she would pay 13,332 pounds in capital gains tax she had avoided on the sale of a London property.
Blears had told tax authorities it was her main residence, though for parliamentary purposes she had said it was a second home thus qualifying for expense awards.
The Daily Telegraph has been embarrassing both Labour and Conservative parties since Friday with details of thousands of pounds of claims made by politicians, including Brown and cabinet colleagues.
The 646 MPs receive an annual salary of almost 65,000 pounds, but also claimed 93 million pounds in allowances last year, an average of 144,000 pounds each.
A Populus poll in the Times, taken before the latest revelations about the Conservatives, indicated the scandal was turning voters off both major parties.
The Conservatives led Labour by 39 percent to 26 but the poll also found a shift towards the Liberal Democrats, and fringe parties such as the British National Party and UK Independence Party.
Analysts said disgusted voters might desert the mainstream parties in June 4 local and European elections.
Additional reporting by Kate Kelland, David Holmes and Avril Ormsby; Editing by Kevin Liffey