EXCLUSIVE: Devine’s Whip – why the smart money’s on McAvoy

Although Jim Devine is not exactly acquitting himself well at the moment, Labour Whips have form when it comes to expenses abuse. And one senior Whip has more than most.

Although a Labour Whip source told the Observer yesterday that Jim Devine’s ‘a Whip made me do it officer’ excuse was “absolute nonsense”, he would say that, would he not? The saucy Whip also didn’t help his cause much by adding, “If the Whips had been up to such things, everyone would’ve been running round doing it”.

Er…but they were, weren’t they?

Giving a speech to the Oxford Union a few short years ago, Ken Livingstone told a somewhat different tale. He blithely informed the assembled students that the Labour Whips “encouraged MPs to claim for their second home allowance, and said ‘if you don’t want it – claim it anyway and give it to the Labour Party'”. The Slog understands that the one and only Iain Dale himself was there to witness this extraordinary admission.

If any Labour MPs did do that by the way, it could count as falsification of a tax invoice, for which one can be watching colour telly in a cell for around five years. More to the point, it would be a prima facie case of a Party embezzling government funds; I’d imagine the penalty for that is beheading, but I couldn’t be sure about it. (If it isn’t, it should be).

The lagoons of cess in which MPs have been swimming for the last few years (while not at all unexpected) are disgraceful; but it does seem at times that the Labour lagoon had high-diving boards around the edge. There is a grubby culture of corruption evident therein,and it’s beginning to look increasingly systemic.

So: if the Whips were and are part of the Labour Party’s problem; and if Devine is telling the truth….who was around in the Whips office during that key period in 2005?

One was Sadiq Khan, but he’s an unlikely candidate for a number of reasons. First, Mr Khan himself had only been in Parliament for a few months. Second, he has a spotless reputation. And third, his expenses are of below-average weight – and squeaky clean. My personal view is that Sadiq is both a good egg and a credit to his religion.

While many would dearly love to finger Chief Whip Nick Brown, he was on the back benches from 2003 until 2007. And although John Spellar is technically a Comptroller of HM Household now, he didn’t become a Whip until 2008. Brownshirt hit-person Helen Jones has form on the sold-house-charged-us-all-for-the-conveyancing-and-stamp duty scam, but she too was not in the Whips’ office until 2008. She may terrify the bejesus out of most Labour MPs, but she has an alibi.

In fact, after the many other (all pretty unlikely runners) are excluded, a wizened finger of guilt points (perhaps entirely accidentally) at the delightful Labour Deputy Chief Whip, Tommy McAvoy.

Oor Tommy was an experienced Whip in 2005 – he’d been in the job since 1997. As a fellow-Scot, it’s reasonable to expect he’d show Jim the ropes. And he was a comptroller by then. Tommy McAvoy has also spent quite some time deciding how MPs’ expenses should be….decided. He sat on the cross-party, wait for it…allowances committee. And when Gordo the Great panicked on the troughing issue in April 2009, Burly Tommy was charged with pushing through Gordon Brown’s controversial ‘no receipts’ expenses blueprint…another mold-breaking GB idea that went nowhere.

Tommy McAvoy would’ve been the ideal man to do the pushing. Because you see, Tommy is a bit of a dodger and weaver himself when it comes to expenses. So it’s possible (although we can’t be sure) that a ‘no receipts’ solution would’ve been right up his street.

For the years 2001-08, Mr McAvoy’s expense bill topped a million quid. The biggest single item in his claims record is a £502,520 bill for staff – and these include, wait for it….salaries for members of his family. In fact, the total McAvoy income is very much a family business: His wife Eleanor and son Brian work for him. Mrs M is his secretary, son Brian is his ‘senior caseworker’. The other son, Michael, runs the family pub, the County Inn, in his constituency.

So when the new rules on employing family members come in, Tommy’s brood are going to feel the pinch a wee bit. And by the look of it, they can ill afford to: because in 2009 the pub was listed as heavily in debt to an unknown lender, showing just under £300 in cash available….versus a loan of over £400,000.

Mr McAvoy has claimed nearly £142,000 in second-home allowances since 2001 – despite having declared rental income on another London property since 2002. That’s a tough one to explain to a hard-up taxpayer in East Glasgow, but I’m sure Tommy should be given the opportunity to try.

Now you might think that having this kind of bloke on the parliamentary allowances committee was a bit like getting Pete Doherty to guard the Met’s impounded heroin stash. You might think that, but I mustn’t suggest such a thing.

But I will make one point right out loud: if this is the man Gordon wanted to reform the MPs’ expenses system, then it was a profoundly inept choice.

And if he is the man referred to by Jim Devine, then the man chosen by the Prime Minister to drive through his proposed 2009 expenses reform had previously been actively encouraging brand-new MPs to ‘move things around from one account to another’ when claiming allowances.

But let’s assume for a minute that Tommy McAvoy isn’t the old hand who corrupted the new boy. Given that all the financial dealings I’ve outlined above are a matter of public record, why on earth is he still – to give him the full dignity of his titles – a member of the Members’ Allowances Committee, a member of the Selection Committee, and Treasurer of Her Majesty’s Household – in short, Deputy Chief Whip?

Yesterday, Gordon Brown was emblazoned across the Observer’s front page, having referred to the Lord Ashcroft case as a shameful disgrace. How, I wonder, would he now describe this one?