Auditors look into Bill English's housing allowances

BY VERNON SMALL
Last updated 05:00 26/09/2009

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Finance Minister Bill English may face fresh questions over his accommodation claims after the auditor-general's office started "preliminary inquiries" into parliamentary housing allowances.

Deputy Auditor-General Philippa Smith said yesterday that, once background information had been collected, the office would decide whether any further action, such as a formal inquiry, was warranted.

"We recognise there is a measure of public interest in this issue, so we will give it priority," she said in a letter to Progressive leader Jim Anderton, who first wrote to question Mr English's arrangements in August.

A decision is expected in two weeks.

Mr English has been under attack since it was disclosed that he received more than $900 a week in allowances while living in his family home in Karori twice what he was able to claim for living in the same house as an Opposition MP.

It is owned by a family trust in which he says he has no pecuniary interest a key test for him to qualify for the extra allowance.

Mr English has said he had acted within the rules at all times, but last month accepted it was "a bad look" and paid back about $12,000 the difference between the amount he claimed as a minister and what an ordinary MP could receive.

Prime Minister John Key has since reformed the rules, giving ministers up to $37,500 a year to cover all their housing costs.

However, Mr Anderton said Mr English should not be entitled to any money for housing because his main place of residence was Wellington, where he lived with his family.

There is a precedent for an inquiry. In 2001, then-auditor-general David Macdonald held an inquiry into Wellington accommodation allowances after allegations were made against Alliance MP Phillida Bunkle and Labour's Marian Hobbs.

Mr English considers the Southland town of Dipton, in his Clutha-Southland electorate, to be his primary residence under parliamentary rules.

He declined to comment yesterday.

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