Tuesday 7 July 2009, 15:42
Adult films, moat cleaning, floating duck islands, silk cushions - flippin' heck ... was there anything that MPs weren't claiming for in the great expenses scandal of 2009?
It all began in the New Year when the Commons authorities announced that Parliament would be publishing details of MPs' expenses for the past four years, after abandoning attempts to exempt them from all requests under the Freedom of Information Act.
This prompted the first of a series of leaks from the Commons database - starting with the expenses of the then Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith.
It was revealed that she'd been claiming up to Â£24,000 a year in second home allowances for the house she shared with her husband and children in her Redditch constituency in Worcestershire while designating her sister's home in London as her main residence.
Then it was disclosed that she'd claimed on expenses for two adult films watched at her (second) home by her husband.
But that was only the start.
In May, The Daily Telegraph began publishing often eye-popping details of the private lives or lifestyles of scores of MPs after obtaining computer discs - from a still unidentified source - containing four years' worth of claims and receipts submitted to the Commons fees office.
Among them the senior Conservative Douglas Hogg claiming for cleaning his moat while fellow Tory Sir Peter Viggers charged for a "floating duck island" and the Liberal Democrat Chris Huhne put in for a trouser press.
And much of the controversy centred on the second home allowance.
The then Cabinet minister Hazel Blears was pilloried for claiming for three different properties as her second home in a single year - 'flipping"' a house in her Salford constituency and two flats in London.
Husband and wife Tories Andrew Mackay and Julie Kirkbride each claimed second home allowances on different properties.
And the Labour MPs Elliot Morley and David Chaytor were both suspended from the party after it was revealed they had claimed for mortgages they'd already paid off.
Most MPs in the firing line offered two main lines of defence.
Some insisted they were always acting within the rules.
Others said there'd been an unspoken agreement going back to the 1970s that voters would never accept politicians being given big pay rises so MPs should be encouraged to make up the difference through expenses and allowances.
One of the few to hit back at critics was the West Country Tory MP Anthony Steen, who'd claimed tens of thousand pounds for the upkeep of his country house.
He blamed the whole thing on jealousy, declaring in a BBC interview:
"I've got a very, very large house. Some people say it looks like Balmoral. It's a merchant's house of the 19th century. It's not particularly attractive, it just does me nicely."
As the uproar continued, Parliament finally published its own version of the expenses.
This provoked even more public anger at what was widely seen as an attempted Commons cover-up. For the official list had had the most interesting bits "redacted" - or blacked out, including MPs' addresses, for "security reasons".
If that had been the only version available, we would never have known that second homes were being "flipped" to maximise expense claims and to reduce capital gains tax.
Altogether, more than 100 MPs have announced that they will be standing down at the next General Election, some as a direct result of the furore over expenses.
Labour's Ian Gibson has already gone. He quit after being barred from standing again over allegations that he claimed for a flat in which his daughter lived rent-free. In the Norwich North by-election that followed, the 27-year-old Tory Chloe Smith became the youngest MP in the Commons.
But the highest profile victim of the scandal was Michael Martin, the first Commons Speaker to be forced out of office in 300 years.
He stood down after being accused by critics of being the driving force behind efforts to block the publication of MPs' expenses - and causing outrage when he publicly attacked MPs who were pressing for more transparency. So what's being done to clean up Parliament?
A Bill to create a new independent body, the Parliamentary Standards Authority, was pushed through just before the summer recess. But in the rush to get it passed, this was watered down and plans for a legally binding code of conduct for MPs and for two new criminal offences were dropped.
A newly created select committee on members' allowances has announced interim reforms - including a virtual ban on 'flipping' the designation of second homes and curbs on claims for furniture and things like cleaning and gardening. Mortgage interest and rent payments have been capped at Â£1,250 a month.
As the furore continued, a former civil servant, Sir Thomas Legg, was called in to carry out an independent audit of all MPs' expenses claims since 2004. His findings created uproar at Westminster when MPs each received their own 'Legg Letter' in October 2009, with many being asked to repay hundreds or even thousands of pounds.
Gordon Brown also commissioned an independent investigation into the whole expenses affair by the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
And there was more outrage at Westminster when the committee, chaired by Sir Christopher Kelly, published a report saying that MPs should stop claiming for mortgage interest on second homes and also stop employing relatives with public money.