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LONDON (Reuters) - After damaging stories about porn films, bath plugs and barbecues charged to the public, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has fast-tracked an inquiry into the allowances that MPs claim to supplement their salaries.
The level of extra allowances has sparked fierce debate about whether they are justifiable. Britain's members of parliament, once paid with fish, claimed 93 million pounds ($138 million) in expenses last year.
Public fury intensified after scans of expense claim receipts for all MPs were leaked to the media last month.
The most embarrassing case was that of Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, who admitted that a claim was submitted for two porn films her husband rented. The 10 pounds has since been repaid.
Smith also claimed 88 pence for a bath plug, 550 pounds for a stone sink and 39.99 pounds for a barbeque set to fit out her constituency home, according to the leaks. She has denied claiming the barbeque.
Britain's MPs have come a long way since the 13th century, when some were paid in mackerel. Lawmakers are now entitled to an annual salary of 64,766 pounds.
But tales of padding out basic pay with lavish spending at a time when thousands are losing their jobs are an unwelcome headache for Brown as he tries to keep his economic recovery agenda to the forefront before an election next year.
The receipts, covering claims going back to 2004, are set to be released officially this year. Brown has requested that a parliamentary inquiry into the expenses be fast-tracked.
Members of Brown's ruling Labour Party will receive the most scrutiny, according to Justin Fisher, political science professor at Brunel University.
"There could be potentially an advantage for the government, but by that I mean it may simply neutralize the issue, but that is going to be set against the backdrop of the release of information where people will comb through receipts," he said.
"All MPs, but particularly MPs from the governing party, are going to have a rough ride in the autumn."
The standards committee, set up to restore public faith in politics after a series of sleaze scandals in the 1990s, has said it hopes to publish "challenging recommendations."
One of the most contentious issues is the accommodation allowance that allows MPs representing constituencies outside London to claim up to 24,222 pounds a year in mortgage interest payments, rent, furnishings and utility bills.
They are also entitled to 100,000 pounds a year to employ staff and rent office space.
The accommodation allowance is designed to help those MPs meet the cost of living in London. MPs must designate a property as their main home, usually in London, then claim expenses on their "second" home, usually their constituency property.
Smith herself is under investigation by parliamentary authorities over whether she should have declared a rented room in her sister's London home as her main residence. She claimed 22,948 pounds toward running her constituency home last year.
Employment Minister Tony McNulty also faces a probe after he was found to have claimed 60,000 pounds since 2001 for staying in his parents' home, though his constituency home was only a few miles away.
Despite the predictable anger over the issue, Fisher said it was right to provide politicians with the financial means to conduct their business.
"MPs should be cautious about going for a knee-jerk reaction because the vast majority of these expenses are entirely legitimate, but whether or not some people don't view them as legitimate is in some ways not relevant," he said.
"They need large expenses simply do to their job."
Reporting by Frank Prenesti; Editing by Jonathan Wright