McLetchie claimed for trip to Tory conference

 

ROBBIE DINWOODIE, Chief Scottish Political Correspondent 

October 14 2005 

 

DAVID McLetchie, the Scottish Tory leader, was at the centre of fresh controversy last night after it emerged that he charged the Scottish Parliament for travelling to his party conference in the south of England.

The bill for almost £170 related to the conference in Bournemouth in October 2002. He owned up in March this year and paid back the money, at a time when his expenses were coming under media scrutiny.

More details of Mr McLetchie's wrongful travel claims that became public yesterday were the £170 bill, covering flights to Southampton and rail fares from there to Bournemouth, and £90 for a return taxi journey to an engagement in Midlem near Selkirk in November 2003.

One critic has called for an investigation of his claims by the auditor general.

Earlier this year, Mr McLetchie topped the list of Holyrood politicians for taxi bills and he faced questions about his continuing role as a partner in a leading law firm. His insistence on continuing to work part-time for Tods Murray, on a salary of £30,000, sparked inquiries into whether he ever charged the parliament for travelling to his law office.

On February 10 this year, a formal request to see his travel expenses was lodged under the Freedom of Information Act by Paul Hutcheon of the Sunday Herald. On March 17, having reviewed his expense claims, Mr McLetchie paid back the cost of the trips to Bournemouth and Midlem.

But news of them came out only after yesterday's revelations about the Tory leader's travel expense claims. Mr McLetchie ran up taxi bills of more than £11,500 over a four-year period, just over half using the official parliament account which records all destinations, but the rest on street hires for which he paid cash and was reimbursed without detailing the details or purpose of the trips. Parliamentary authorities have now announced a tightening up of the rules.

Mike Dailly, the campaigning left-wing lawyer, has asked the auditor general to investigate this, saying: "Without resolution, this matter may impugn the good reputation of the parliament and I would therefore respectfully ask, as a matter of urgency, that you consider instructing Audit Scotland to investigate."

A spokesman for the parliament said that Audit Scotland already looked at Holyrood's accounts, including a sample of expenses claimed by MSPs.

On the question of Mr McLetchie's admission in March that he had made erroneous claims, he said: "I can confirm that Mr McLetchie discovered two errors in claims he had made in the years 2002-03 and 2003-04 respectively.

"In March 2005, he repaid £90 in respect of the return journey to Midlem and the sum of £166.99 in relation to a journey to Bournemouth."

Mr McLetchie, as a party leader, operates under a more generous expenses regime than most MSPs and is allowed to travel around Scotland in that capacity, provided the meetings are not purely party functions.

Had he addressed, for example, a farmers' meeting in the Selkirk area, his costs would have been allowable, but not if it was a Tory party gathering, as appears to have been the case.

His aides were unable to explain yesterday how anything as blatant as attending a UK party conference could have been construed as anything other than party political.

The Scots Tory leader is on a family holiday in New Zealand, but he has been in touch with aides and his spokesman said: "He looked over his claims, he found errors and he repaid the money. MSP does the right thing – how is that a story?"

Critics will say, however, the problem is one of perception. Had Mr McLetchie revealed his reimbursement to the parliament in March, it would have been a minor issue.

Now it has come out on the back of a series of other revelations, giving the affair echoes of the downfall of Henry McLeish as first minister, in which Mr McLetchie himself played so prominent a role.