McLetchie: more questions in taxi fares controversy

EXCLUSIVE: By Paul Hutcheon, Scotish Political Editor

 

BY all accounts, Scottish Tory leader David McLetchie has not had an enjoyable holiday in New Zealand. Instead of relaxing with his family, he has taken phone calls from his spin doctor about his use of parliamentary taxis.

The Pentlands MSP may be sunning himself on the other side of the world, but he can’t escape the storm that is brewing back home.

McLetchie’s nightmare week can be traced back to requests tabled by the Sunday Herald in February for copies of all the MSP’s cab receipts.

Although the parliament blacked out the Tory leader’s taxi destinations, Information Commissioner Kevin Dunion ruled on October 7 that Holyrood bosses were wrong to “redact” the information and demanded disclosure.

The following day, McLetchie got his retaliation in first. After months of speculation that he had billed tax payers for cab rides to Tods Murray, his Edinburgh law firm, the Tory leader admitted that he taken almost £900 of taxis to the high profile Edinburgh practice.

But this tactic backfired: political opponents, sensing that an excuse had been cobbled together, said he had broken electoral law by not declaring the Tods Murray office as a gift.

This was the prelude to Wednesday’s publication of McLetchie’s taxi receipts, an event described by one Tory MSP as the moment when the “floodgates opened”.

Parliament officials, who had previously defended withholding the information, were now handing over hundreds of disputed chits.

Having clawed back more than £11,000 in cab rides since the parliament’s first year, the highest claim of any MSP, disclosure was always going to pose problems for McLetchie. Not only was he facing scrutiny of his numerous fares to Tods Murray, but his every journey was about to be dissected in great detail.

“Dunion’s decision must have been a hellish for him,” remarked one Tory MSP.

Publication proved to be a nightmare moment for Scotland’s most prominent Conservative. In addition to at least £900 of rides to his law firm, McLetchie had also claimed £5000 for street cabs with no destination or point of departure written on the slips.

In clear breach of parliamentary rules, the Pentlands MSP had simply written “taxi” on the receipts and hoped this would be good enough.

The focus then switched to the 40-plus addresses referred to in the taxi chits. McLetchie, a staunch defender of public money, had billed the taxpayer for journeys to the dentist and to a performance of Swan Lake at the Playhouse.

He also charged for a trip to Edinburgh’s New Club, of which he is a member, and billed them a taxi ride to the street where his mother lives.

As one Tory MSP said when details of his journeys were published: “This is looking bad, very bad.”

The Conservative leader was also refusing to deny that he had used his parliamentary taxi account to travel to or from pubs. 

In January 2003, for instance, McLetchie took a cab from his house to Hope Street in Edinburgh – the location of Whighams, a favoured watering hole – and then claimed a taxi back to Keith Crescent from the same street.

On whether McLetchie took cabs back from the pub, his spokesman said: “He’s entitled to a taxi home.”

As McLetchie’s reputation as a guardian of public funds was being destroyed, details of misclaimed expenses began to emerge. On Thursday, his spokesman was forced to admit that the Tory leader had paid back £260 for trips to the UK party conference in 2002, and to an engagement in Selkirk. The parliament was reimbursed in March this year, weeks after the Sunday Herald’s initial freedom of information request.

But paying back the expenses has set a dangerous precedent. As the Sunday Herald can reveal, McLetchie billed the taxpayer for £44.37 in mileage to Perth on August 31, 2001, the day before the Scottish Tory conference started in the same town. It is understood that the date coincided with a Conservative dinner that was addressed by former Scottish secretary Michael Forsyth.

“The taxpayer should not be billed for the Tory’s leader’s trip to his Scottish conference. This is clearly party business and it too should be paid back immediately,” said SSP leader Colin Fox.

Other details are now beginning to emerge that the Tory leader cannot ignore, such as the nine taxi journeys that mention Ravelston Terrace, an upmarket street in Edinburgh that was close to the top of the list of residential addresses McLetchie visited between 1999 and 2004.

Of the nine trips, eight were booked via the street cab system that accounted for the £5000 of the incomplete taxi chits. 

In addition, only two of the taxi chits reveal either the time of departure or arrival to the address, which in both cases is after 8pm at night. In one instance, McLetchie took a taxi from his house in Keith Crescent to Ravelston Terrace at 20.17.

Despite the intrigue, the Sunday Herald has discovered that McLetchie did travel to Ravelston Terrace to see Lady Sian Biddulph, a Tory activist and property owner in the street. Lady Sian, who works for Jamie McGrigor MSP, admitted that trips had taken place.

“Any visits made here would have been in the course of party business. I did a lot of work for the party and sometimes David would drop off papers here on his way home,” she told a reporter yesterday.

When asked later by the Sunday Herald if she had an explanation for why McLetchie had taken parliamentary taxis to Ravelston Terrace, she said: “I am not actually allowed really to speak to you,” she said. “I have to end this phone call.”

On whether McLetchie took taxis to her house, she said: “I have no idea what he was doing.”

The unfolding drama of McLetchie’s taxi expenses is being played against a backdrop of panic at Tory HQ, where McLetchie’s long-suffering spokesman Ramsay Jones is getting increasingly tetchy. Quizzed on whether the Tory leader took parliamentary cabs to see his mother, he said: “Prove it.” Asked if his boss had taken taxis home from the pub, he said: “Maybe.”

“It’s not Ramsay’s fault,” said one Tory source. “He is trying to do his job without having the full facts in front of him.”

The parallels between Taxigate and Officegate, the episode McLetchie used to drive Henry McLeish out of office, are becoming more striking every day. Both were rows over expenses. Both were fuelled by the protagonists refusing to answer simple questions. Both involved party leaders paying back money. And both moved slowly towards the endgame as the facts were fed piecemeal to the media.

McLetchie’s woes are set to continue, as he faces four probes into his travel expenses following his return from New Zealand. SSP leader Colin Fox has written to Standards Commissioner Jim Dyer and the Electoral Commission urging them to investigate the use of Tods Murray offices for political work.

Mike Dailly of the Govan Law Centre has also asked Audit Scotland to pore over McLetchie’s incomplete taxi claims, while he has promised to contact the police if no inquiries are made.

Taxigate’s effect on the Scottish Tories has not gone unnoticed in other parties. SNP insiders say they want McLetchie to hold on until the 2007 election because he is now a lame duck leader, while Labour politicians are enjoying the spectacle because of their rival’s role in bringing down McLeish.

“You couldn’t get a better example of hypocrisy than of the way McLetchie has behaved throughout this period,” said one Labour source.

For McLetchie’s detractors, the disputed taxi chits are another example of the Pentlands MSP dragging his party down with him. In 2005, McLetchie presided over a disastrous general election result, struggled to contain a debate on the Scottish party splitting from the UK Conservatives and was forced to resign from Tods Murray.

With questions now being asked about trips to Ravelston Terrace, David McLetchie’s annus horribilis is about to get worse. 

 

16 October 2005