In Britain, Outrage Grows Over Government Officials' Expenses

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 8, 2009

LONDON, April 7 -- Retailers are struggling, joblessness is rising and the recession is deepening, but what the British public is focused on right now is the $14 that a cabinet member charged taxpayers for two pornographic movies.

Jacqui Smith, the British official in charge of policing, said it was "a mistake" that the adult movies, which her husband watched, ended up on her expense report. She apologized Tuesday, saying she was angry at herself for the slip-up, and has returned the cash.

The rented movies -- along with revelations that other politicians have expensed everything from an oven mitt to renovations on a second home -- have fueled public outrage. The scandal is growing, and televised hearings are planned to discuss the charges.

Watchdogs say that until last year, a member of the House of Commons did not have to show a receipt for any expense claimed under $370 and that the current ruckus at least means a little more light is being shed on government. Now lawmakers must produce a receipt for any expense over 25 pounds, or $37.

"What matters is the government as a whole is heading more toward transparency," said Tom Steinberg, director of MySociety, a nonprofit group that runs Web sites on democracy and transparency.

Many of the items being endlessly criticized on radio and television shows are legal. For example, a housing allowance designed to be used by lawmakers from far-away constituencies to keep a place near Parliament has been claimed by some who live just outside central London.

Some top government officials are given apartments and homes rent-free. The former minister of defense, Geoff Hoon, who is now transport secretary, has been dubbed by tabloids as "Three Homes Hoon" because they say his expense reports show that while living rent-free in a grand government home, he rented out a second home and claimed expenses for a third.

Later this year, the government is expected to release for the first time item-by-item expenses of each member of the House of Commons. Lawmakers, many of whom have resisted the disclosure, have been given time to delete some information on receipts, such as items that were not claimed, addresses and other information deemed irrelevant to the expenses charged to the government.

But in recent days, some of the information has leaked out.

In addition to the adult movies on her report, Smith claimed more than $800 for a sink, $1,400 for an antique-style fireplace and $1.30 for a bathtub plug, according to reports.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has asked the Committee on Standards in Public Life, an independent body conducting the review of expenses, to conclude its inquiry "as soon as practical."

Ken Clarke, a member of Parliament from the opposition Conservative Party, said the bad publicity has been "dreadful."

"People should be skeptical about their politicians -- don't regard them as heroes -- but now we have an exaggerated public view that they are all thieves, they are all rogues, they are all lining their own pockets," he said.

Special correspondent Karla Adam contributed to this report.

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