Greens pay back double-dip rent error

12:01, Oct 05 2009
CANDID CASH: Greens co-leader Metiria Turei said it was "only right that MPs make known to the public how the scarce taxpayer funds are being used".

The Greens have paid back $6000 wrongly claimed for accommodation allowances after discovering they had been double-dipping for two MPs sharing a house.

Co-leader Metiria Turei said the error was uncovered in June during an annual assessment of the property's market rent after MP Catherine Delahunty moved into the house with Jeanette Fitzsimons.

"She and Jeanette each continued to claim the rent that Jeanette had claimed alone from February till May."

The money was paid back last week, though Ms Turei conceded it should have been handed over in June when the overcharging was discovered.

The house is owned by the Green MPs' superannuation fund, which also owns a flat rented to MP Sue Bradford.

The fund was set up in 1998 by former co-leader Rod Donald to take advantage of Parliament's rules.

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These allow an out-of-Wellington MP to qualify for an allowance, even if they own or have an interest in the property. They can claim for rent or interest costs (but not principal) on a mortgage to a maximum of $24,000 a year.

Opponents have criticised the Greens' arrangement, saying while it is within the rules it allows them to claim full market rent, even if the mortgage interest is much less.

But Ms Turei said the rents were set below market value, and she was confident that in the past the Greens had always charged less than market rent.

"For the Thorndon house the market rate is $2383 per month (June 2009 valuation). The two MPs claim $1100 per month, $2200 in total for the rent. For the apartment, the market rate is $1863 per month (June 2009 valuation). One MP claims $1720 per month for the rent."

The error had been found by the Greens, not as the result of a separate move by Speaker Lockwood Smith to ensure market rates were charged where residences were owned by family trusts or superannuation schemes.

Ms Turei said the Greens' setup was not a "rort". But the system should be reviewed, including whether MPs should be able to personally benefit from an allowance, as they had for decades.

"When I first got into Parliament MPs from other parties told me that is the first thing I should do – buy a flat in Wellington – because the [mortgage] interest would be paid."

Finance Minister Bill English has been the centre of a controversy over his accommodation claims, and whether he qualifies for an accommodation allowance as an out-of-Wellington MP.

But the rules covering ministers are different.

They can opt to stay on the $24,000 maximum available to ordinary MPs, but if they designate their Wellington house as a ministerial residence they can claim up to $52,000 a year in allowances. From next year that will be capped at $37,500.

However, they are not allowed to have a pecuniary interest in the house if it is classed as a ministerial residence.

Mr English's Karori house is owned by a family trust, and he has obtained a legal opinion showing he has no pecuniary interest in it.

However, he has paid back $32,000 claimed since the 2008 election and has said he will not claim any more because the issue has become a distraction.

The Dominion Post