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Fresh housing woes for English
By VERNON SMALL and TRACY WATKINS – The Dominion Post
Last updated 05:00 09/09/2009
Finance Minister Bill English qualified for a $700-a-week rent payment from taxpayers after signing a declaration that he had no financial interest in the trust which owned his family home.
It has been revealed that officials took concerns to the prime minister’s office about whether Mr English qualified for the payment, which is double the amount he was entitled to as an ordinary MP.
But documents issued under the Official Information Act show they were told it would be okay as long as Mr English certified that he had no financial interest in the Endeavour Trust, which owns his $1.2 million Karori property.
After he made the declaration on February 1, rent payments totalling $12,133.33 were backdated to December 1. The declaration refers to a legal opinion, which has not been made public.
The prime minister’s office also advised officials that Mr English needed an independent valuation and the rent had to be the lower of market rent or $700 a week conditions which were met.
The documents show that in March, Ministerial Services started an automatic payment of $3033.33 a month, starting on April 1. They also show Mr English claimed $1411.45 for power and water and $720 for cleaning between July 1 and August 7 this year.
Controversy over his allowances led to a review last month of ministerial housing rules and Prime Minister John Key said on Monday that payments would be capped at $37,500 a year, with no rules on how the money is spent.
He confirmed yesterday that ministers would be free to use the money however they wished including to buy a house. But he defended it as saving money compared with the average $48,000 cost of housing ministers now.
He denied ministers would find cheaper accommodation and pocket the difference. They will not have to provide receipts or account for the spending.
Ministers are entitled to an official residence or a leased property, paid for by Ministerial Services.
Mr English turned down an official residence because it would be disrupting for his family.
The title deed for the Karori property, in which he and his family have lived for several years, shows he and his wife, Mary, were joint owners till March, when it was transferred to her name alone.
Mr English has said the change in ownership to his wife had nothing to do with parliamentary allowances and happened last year but took time to appear on the title. It had always been owned by the Endeavour Trust.
Mr English listed a beneficial interest in the trust in 2008 but it was not listed in the latest register, published in May.
The market rent for the property was independently valued at $850 to $1000 a week.
Rent payments were stopped at the end of July after revelations that Mr English was receiving more than $900 a week for rent and other expenses on the property.
He has paid back $11,117.19 described in the documents as an “ex gratia” payment after admitting it was “not a good look”. The payment was the difference between what he received and a backbencher’s.