The mystery of Chris Grayling’s expenses
In 2009, Chris Grayling promised to sell his London flat and repay any profit to the taxpayer.
He wrote in the Epsom Guardian, his local paper:
"As a result of recent changes to the rules and the row over parliamentary expenses, I took a voluntary decision to give up claiming the allowance immediately, to sell the flat and to repay profit made from its sale to the taxpayer."
There is no record of this repayment. Numerous requests for information from Grayling's office have been met with a blank refusal to provide any further evidence.
It's quite possible the payment was made. The records we have are incomplete, having been destroyed under Commons rules. But his office's refusal to provide any evidence of it suggests the old arrogance of MPs is reasserting itself as memories of the expenses scandal fade.
There was good reason for Grayling to make the promise. He claimed for a London flat, even though his "imposing" constituency home with its "sweeping" drive was just 17 miles from the House of Commons, in the heart of the Surrey commuter belt. For that matter, he also owned two terraced houses in Wimbledon, which he was renting out.
When the Telegraph started publishing the explosive details of MP's expenses claims on a daily basis in May 2009, Grayling was one of the first they targeted. The newspaper reported that he'd bought the Pimlico flat in 2001, almost as soon as he was elected an MP, for £127,000. The next year he set up a rather unusual arrangement with the parliamentary fees office, with a £625 a month claim for mortgages on two different properties – the main constituency home and the London flat. After four years, he ended that arrangement.
In the meantime, he started doing up the flat. Just after the May 2005 general election he claimed £4,250 for redecorating and £1,561 for a new bathroom. The next month he claimed £1,341 for new kitchen units. The month after that he put in a claim for another £1,527 for plumbing and £1,950 for further work.
Ipsa was set up in the wake of the expenses scandal
The refurbishment would have been way over the amount set by the rules, even in the liberal golden era before the expenses scandal. But Grayling's claims were made over two years. In the financial year 2005/06, he claimed close to the maximum amount. Then in the next financial year, he continued to hand in receipts for the refurbishment work.
In June 2006, he submitted an invoice for £3,534 for service and maintenance of the flat. This included £1,148 service charge and then a further £1,956. A handwritten note informed the fees office: "Please note this has only just been issued, date notwithstanding."
The next month he handed in a £2,250 claim for further "remedial and refurbishment works". The Telegraph said he wrote on the claim form: "Decorator has been very ill & didn't invoice me until now." This statement is not found on the documents published by parliament, but this may be because large portions of it are redacted.
The Telegraph found that in 2004/05 he claimed £12,738, in 2005/06 he claimed £20,616, in 2006/07 he claimed £19,618 and in 2007/08 he claimed £15,332.
Presumably all that refurbishment boosted the value of the flat. The Telegraph found a studio flat in the same block at the time on sale for £235,000. A local estate agent told the Mirror at the time that some properties in the block were selling for as much as £330,000.
Throughout this period, journalists failed to find much evidence of Grayling actually staying at the flat. One neighbour told the Mirror he'd never seen Grayling when shown a picture of him. Another said: "I don't know him at all. There is a light on occasionally, but he is not here very often." And a woman from a flat beneath the MP's said: "I have no idea who this man is." Journalists found his post box packed with unopened mail.
Former Labour home secretary Jacqui Smith was criticsed for her expenses claims by Grayling
None of this looked good. After all, Grayling was shadow home secretary and the Conservative party's 'attack dog' against Labour. Days before the Telegraph published his expenses he was telling Labour's Jacqui Smith she had "questions to answer" after claiming towards her family home in Worcestershire.
So Grayling made a series of promises to his local paper. The flat was to be sold and the profit paid back. Furnishings bought in recent years would be bought back from the Fees Office. And he went further, saying:
"Since the House of Commons authorities made available past receipts to MPs in April, I have been through all the documentation carefully to identify any mistakes I might have made and rectify them.
"I have discovered a small number – as well as a couple of occasions when I think the Fees Office gave me the wrong advice – and so I have repaid the money involved.
"Over the summer, every expense claim by every MP will be audited and naturally if the auditors believe that any of my other claims are not correct I will refund the money."
But there's no record of a payment substantial enough to relate to the flat sale.
There are gaps in the records and it is possible Grayling's payment was made in one of these. We can't be sure, because Grayling's office refuses to provide any details. After numerous efforts to contact them, they have only made one statement:
"Mr Grayling kept this promise to his constituents."
The files detailing all payments made by MPs to the Fees Office between April 1st 2009 and December 18th 2009 show Grayling made two separate payments under 'service charge' – one for £756.06 and another for £957.33. He made another payment of £4,142.75 for 'food and furniture' claimed between 2004 and 2008. And there is a final payment of £368.88, for which there are no details supplied and where the year of the original claim is not specified.
The expenses scandal is credited with permanently tarnishing the reputation of MPs
What are these payments? It's possible the 'food and furniture' payment covers the furnishings made to the flat. Perhaps the service charge payments are mistakes he spotted going over his receipts. They surely can't refer to the profit from the flat sale, unless he got a very bad deal. Given the estimates of the time, he should have made somewhere between £100,000 and £200,000.
There is another document of payments to the Fees Office between December 19th 2009 and April 12th 2010. Grayling's name does not feature in it.
That's all the data we have available. The two documents cited above only exist because someone made freedom of information requests and the responses are still online. The original documentation has been destroyed. As the Fees Office said:
"In accordance with the House's records disposal policy, no records are held covering expenses repayments made by MPs before 2009 or between March 2010 and March 2011. The retention period for general financial data, of which members' expenses is a sub set, is three years after the relevant financial year finishes. For the period from April 2011, there is no record of any correspondence between the House and Mr Grayling relating to this matter."
Grayling's statement to the Epsom Guardian is in the past tense, although that could relate to the decision to sell the flat rather than the sale itself. Perhaps the payment appeared in pre-April 2009 documents, or ones dating between April 2010 and April 2011. After all, it takes a while to sell a flat.
We don't know, because Grayling refuses to release any information about the sale.
Now that the expenses scandal has started to fade into memory, you can sense a tentative retreat from the transparency it produced. At the heart of the scandal was not greed, but trust. It is simply not enough to make a promise on expenses and refuse to demonstrate it has been fulfilled. The lord chancellor owes his constituents and taxpayers proof that he stuck to his pledge.