Free first class travel offered to MPs by Grand Central

Twenty-six MPs in Yorkshire and the North East have accepted free first class travel passes worth thousands of pounds each from the York-based Grand Central Railway Company.

They include Foreign Secretary William Hague, government whip Robert Goodwill and left wing Labour MP Linda Riordan.

The latest edition of the House of Commons Register of Members' Financial Interests reveals that virtually all the passes are being used regularly to make thousands of pounds worth of journeys to Westminster.

All MPs using the passes say they are breaking no parliamentary rules and saving the taxpayer the cost of tickets they would otherwise have to claim on their expenses.

Conflict of interest 'ridiculous'

Those contacted by the BBC strongly denied there is any potential conflict of interest by receiving an expensive benefit from a commercial company licensed and regulated by government.

"That is a ridiculous thing to suggest," said Craig Whittaker, the Conservative who beat the sitting Labour MP to take the West Yorkshire seat of Calder Valley at last year's general election.

"We ought to be congratulating a company that is helping the taxpayer save money. I make no personal benefit out of this.

"I only use the pass in connection with my work - it would be wrong to do otherwise.

"My predecessor claimed at least £9,000-a-year in travel allowances and I will spend relatively little."

'Value for money'

He was speaking to BBC Look North after agreeing to be interviewed sitting in the first class compartment of the Grand Central train he takes most Monday mornings from his constituency to London.

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Image caption William Hague says the deal is good value for money for taxpayers

"The company does not take a penny in subsidy and has started up the first direct service from Bradford to London in 40 years," he added.

It is a view shared by William Hague who uses his pass to travel from his Richmond constituency in North Yorkshire.

A statement issued on his behalf by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said the free passes "represented value for money to the taxpayer".

Not all MPs agree.

Conflict of interest?

Almost half the MPs offered the free passes by Grand Central turned them down.

A company spokesman said 50 passes had been offered to MPs who could potentially use the two services it has started up over the past few years from Bradford and Sunderland to London King's Cross.

Hugh Bayley, the York Central Labour MP, believes there is a clear conflict of interest which could be potentially "dangerous".

"We vote on who gets the right to run services and we need to be seen to be doing this in a transparent way," he said.

"I have two train companies running from my constituency. How could I been seen to favour just one by exclusively using its services?"

Marginal cost

In a statement, Grand Central Railway said it issues passes to MPs because: "As a railway company we would like them to travel by train - so they can use the time to work, meet other passengers and also gain a better understanding of the railway."

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Image caption Grand Central Railway says it also offers similar free passes to charities and local authorities

The company claims its costs for letting MPs travel for free are "marginal". It said it also offers similar free passes to charities and local authorities.

All the MPs who use them declare the benefit being given to them by Grand Central in the Register of MPs' Interests.

Each one estimates the value based on the number of journeys they intend to make.

William Hague estimates using over £1,800 worth of travel in the nine months to June 2011.

Most of the MPs estimate the value at between £4,000 and £5,000-a-year.

Yorkshire MPs declaring the value of Grand Central passes in Commons Register of Members' Financial Interests - June 2011

Nigel Adams (Selby and Ainsty) - estimates £6,006 annual use.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) - says she has one but hasn't used it.

Phillip Davies (Shipley) - estimates £4,000 to £5,000 annual use.

Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) - value estimated at £8,000

William Hague (Richmond) - £1,880 use (October 2010 to June 2011).

Kris Hopkins (Keighley) - £4,000 estimated use.

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) - estimates £4,000.

Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton)- estimates £5,000.

Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby - lives in Halifax) - estimates £4,000.

Meg Munn (Sheffield Heeley) - estimates £1,500 use.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) - estimates £4,000.

Simon Reevell (Dewsbury) £2,000 estimated use.

Linda Riordan (Halifax) £4,000 - estimated use.

Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) - estimated use £173.60.

Marsha Singh (Bradford West) - makes no estimate of value.

Julian Sturdy (York Outer) - estimated value £4,000.

Craig Whittaker (Calder Valley) - estimated use £4,000.

North East MPs

David Anderson (Blaydon) - estimates value £5,000 per year.

Tom Blenkinson (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) - estimates value at £6,000.

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) - estimates £5,000 per year.

Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) - value £1,962.

Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) - estimates £2,000.

Grahame Morris (Easington) - estimates £1,900.

Ian Swales (Redcar) - estimates £1,000.

James Wharton (Stockton South) - estimated value £4,800.

Iain Wright (Hartlepoool) - estimated value £1,800.