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UK's Brown under fire as lawmakers repay expenses
LONDON (Reuters) - British politicians under attack from the public over their expense claims lined up on Wednesday to start paying back thousands of pounds of public money in a bid to assuage voter anger over the scandal.
Opposition Conservative leader David Cameron appeared to have outmanoeuvred Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown after he was first to announce, on Tuesday, that his top lieutenants would repay thousands of pounds of questionable expenses.
Some Conservative lawmakers claimed taxpayers' money for cleaning moats and swimming pools, repairing tennis courts and installing chandeliers in their houses, according to The Daily Telegraph newspaper.
On Wednesday Cameron sought on to drive home the political advantage over Brown, some of whose own MPs, including cabinet ministers, have also been accused of misusing the allowances.
"Isn't it time to stop the talking, stop the endless committees and start showing some real leadership to deliver some real change?," Cameron told Brown during their weekly jousting at parliamentary questions.
Brown, his ruling Labour Party trailing badly in opinion polls ahead of an election due by mid 2010, accused Cameron of point scoring rather than trying to reform a flawed system.
"Leadership is me saying to all the political parties that they've got to act now and immediately to change the system," Brown retorted.
Brown's Labour Party and Cameron's centre-right Conservatives have both been damaged by embarrassing revelations about how their politicians have filed expense claims for large sums spent on gardening, home furnishings, repairs and security.
The disclosures have especially galled voters at a time of rising unemployment and economic hardship and undermined Cameron's efforts to distance his party from its aristocratic, land-owning image.
Brown and Cameron are competing to come up with ways to reform the expenses system to limit the damage to their parties in June 4 local and European elections and in the bigger general election battle due within the next year.
REPAYING PUBLIC FUNDS
While insisting they played by the rules, a growing number of MPs have begun paying money claimed from the public purse, shocked by the public reaction and perhaps fearing retribution at the ballot box.
Health Minister Phil Hope said he would pay back 41,709 pounds ($63,250) claimed for furniture and fittings for his second home to try to win back the trust of voters in his area.
"The public anger of my constituents and the damaging perceptions about who I am and my integrity have been a huge blow to me," he told Sky News.
Cabinet minister Hazel Blears pledged on Tuesday to repay more than 13,000 pounds to the taxman after she was criticised for not paying capital gains tax on the sale of a flat.
Cameron has said four of his top lieutenants will repay more than 16,000 pounds.
Britain's 646 legislators receive an annual salary of almost 65,000 pounds, but also claimed 93 million pounds in allowances last year, an average of 144,000 pounds each. They claim thousands of pounds in expenses for second homes needed because they travel to London for parliamentary sessions.
Cameron won praise for acting on Tuesday to clean up his party, with one conservative commentator saying he looked like a "prime minister in waiting". He set clear rules for expenses and said legislators who failed to toe the line faced expulsion.
Brown has put proposals to parliament for an independent panel to examine politicians' expense claims lodged over the last four years and to ask for repayment in case of abuses.
A committee has also approved limits on the expenses that may be claimed and moved to stop the practice of "flipping", where legislators have regularly changed the designation of their second home to take advantage of a 24,000 pound allowance.
(Additional reporting by Kate Kelland)
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