Dark Money Investigations: Investigation

Parliament’s £180m expenses bonanza: photoshoots and business class flights

Exclusive: Train enthusiast MP claimed £52,000 on London hotels, instead of catching the train

Martin Williams
28 February 2023, 11.00pm

Authorities face calls to review 'scandalous' expenses claims.


Leszek Kobusinski / Ian Dagnall / Touch The Skies / Alamy Stock Photo (collage by James Battershill)

MPs and peers have claimed almost £180m on expenses in just three years, charging taxpayers for business class flights, hotels, iPads and professional photoshoots, analysis by openDemocracy has found.

Our investigation has uncovered a spending splurge by Westminster politicians during a period that spans Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine, when ordinary Brits struggled with the cost of living crisis.

MPs claimed almost £90m on expenses between August 2019 and July 2022, while members of the House of Lords spent the same. The figures do not include £310m claimed separately for MPs’ staff.

In one case, the Conservative chair of the Transport Committee claimed £51,896 on hotels in London – despite living in a constituency just 35 minutes’ train ride from the capital.

Get dark money out of UK politics!

Sign our petition to put pressure on the government to tighten electoral laws and shine more light on political donations. We need to know who is giving what to our political parties.

Iain Stewart describes himself as a “self-confessed transport wonk” who “derives great pleasure from a comfortable train journey”. Yet instead of catching a train each day, he charged taxpayers thousands of pounds each year to spend at least 307 nights in a hotel.

Stewart is one of eight politicians who billed the public purse more than £40,000 each for London hotels during the period we examined. Overall, MPs billed more than £2.3m for hotels, including for trips abroad. That’s despite repeated Covid lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, which meant travel and hotel stays were severely restricted.

The finding comes after openDemocracy previously revealed how MPs had claimed more than £1m over six years to heat their second homes.

“It’s high time for a review into rules on MPs’ expenses to ensure that they are justified in the public interest,” said Anny Cullum from community union ACORN (The Association of Community Organisations for Reform Now).

“It’s scandalous that some MPs are squandering huge amounts of public money on unnecessary hotel stays, business class flights and heating their second homes, especially while many of us are struggling with rising rents, energy bills and food costs as the cost of living crisis grinds on.”

Alongside accommodation fees, some 398 MPs also racked up parking costs of £307,000 in three years – among them claims from scores of government ministers, including transport secretary Mark Harper and health secretary Steven Barclay.

The government ended free parking for NHS staff in April last year, insisting it was the “right” thing to do. Since then, ministers have continued to charge taxpayers for their parking, including Chris Heaton-Harris, Alister Jack, Johnny Mercer, Nick Gibb, Guy Opperman and Victoria Prentis.

As a perk of the job, MPs also have access to about 400 free parking spaces in the House of Commons.

‘A relaxed regime’

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Committee (IPSA), which regulates MPs’ expenses, says it ensures “value for money”, transparency and accountability. But although there is no evidence of rule-breaking, critics have urged the watchdog to review the way it upholds these principles.

The former chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Alistair Graham, told openDemocracy: “I’d be shocked if it’s true that IPSA have run such a relaxed regime.

“Clearly all these things should be publicised and IPSA should have a major second look at their rules to see if these claims can be justified in the public interest.”

Labour MP Meg Hillier, who chairs the Public Accounts Committee into wasteful spending, charged taxpayers £1,852 for photographs – including £924 for pictures of her constituency in east London.

Another Labour MP, Emma Lewell-Buck, spent £400 on a professional photoshoot for herself, while her colleague Apsana Begum also claimed £725 for photos.

IPSA is also relaxed about politicians using taxpayers’ money to award contracts to companies run by friends and political allies.

On Monday openDemocracy revealed MPs had claimed more than £1m for private spin doctors and PR firms, with many using taxpayers’ money to pay companies with close personal links to their political parties.

But the problem is not confined to the PR industry: in another case, former health secretary Matt Hancock claimed £5,720 to pay a consultancy firm run by his former adviser.

Ben Greenstone served as Hancock’s private secretary when he was minister for digital and creative industries. He went on to set up Taso Advisory Ltd, which describes itself as a “specialist technology public policy consultancy”. Hancock then hired the firm to help his parliamentary office and used his expenses to pay it on at least four occasions.

IPSA should have a major second look at their rules to see if these claims can be justified in the public interest

Alistair Graham, former chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life

Other claims approved by IPSA may raise eyebrows despite being relatively small amounts. For instance, records show that Conservative MP Mark Francois – who made headlines in the 2009 expenses scandal after claiming money for chocolates, sweets and snacks – allowed his staff to claim £25.30 to cover train fares for attending the funeral of fellow MP David Amess, who was murdered in 2021.

The SNP’s Allan Dorans also claimed £37.40 for a Remembrance Day wreath that he laid at an event in South Ayrshire. The MP tweeted that he had been “determined to keep a long standing commitment” to lay the wreath, despite recovering from Covid at the time.

Meanwhile, claims made by peers in the House of Lords are not dealt by IPSA at all, and are still managed internally. Typically, peers do not receive a salary and their expenses are limited to a few specific categories, including travel and postage. But peers are also entitled to a “daily allowance” which currently stands at £332, which they can claim even if they don’t contribute to proceedings.

openDemocracy revealed last week how crossbench peer Khalid Hameed, a former private health tycoon, had claimed more than £18,000 in a year without speaking or voting in the chamber once.

In total, members of the Lords have taken more than £41m of daily allowance over the last three years, together with £3.2m travel costs.

They include money paid to an earl named Charles Henry John Benedict Crofton Chetwynd Chetwynd-Talbot, who was suspended from the House of Lords in December over a lobbying scandal. He claimed more than any other peer for travel expenses, submitting £51,000 worth of receipts.

And Ulster Unionist peer Dennis Rogan also billed taxpayers more than £47,000 for travel, including a £398 business class flight to London Heathrow. Such tickets are specifically permitted under the rules, which state that members of the Lords are “entitled to be reimbursed for the cost of a business class [plane] ticket.”

Why should you care about freedom of information?

From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?

Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.

Hear from:

Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert
Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist
Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London
Chair: Ramzy Alwakeel Head of news at openDemocracy

We’ve got a newsletter for everyone

Whatever you’re interested in, there’s a free openDemocracy newsletter for you.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData