8 Apr 2010

Taxpayers foot $336,000 legal bill for National MPs

6:03 am on 8 April 2010

Taxpayers have paid $336,000 in the past few years to help two National Party MPs pay for the costs of lawsuits taken against them.

Prime Minister John Key says it is appropriate that MPs get taxpayer help to pay for legal bills incurred as part of their job.

To get parliamentary funding for claims against an MP, they must have been acting in their capacity as an MP. The money comes out of a party leader's fund and must be approved by the party leader and the Speaker of the House.

Agriculture Minister David Carter and Environment Minister Nick Smith on Wednesday revealed how much funding they have received.

Mr Carter was sued by former MP Winston Peters over an inquiry into whether there had been corruption at the Ministry of Fisheries, which has since been resolved.

Mr Peters claimed $7 million in the case but the High Court struck out the action in 2004 and Mr Peters later abandoned his appeal against that decision.

Mr Carter paid out nearly $45,000 of his own money and was reimbursed $114,000 from Parliamentary Services.

Costs are still rising for a case against Dr Smith who is being sued by timber preservative company Osmose for $16 million over comments he made about a timber product in 2005.

Dr Smith has received $122,000 of taxpayer funding to help pay for legal expenses and has personally paid out $274,000. The case will go to court in June this year.

The minister says there is a public interest in taxpayers supporting MPs in such situations.

"Members of Parliament need to be able to speak out with confidence without putting their entire livelihood at risk. Ultimately if I lose this case, not only do I lose my seat in Parliament and my job, but also my family home and all my other assets."

Meanwhile, Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee is refusing to comment on a report by The New Zealand Herald that he tried and failed to obtain reimbursement of $49,000 for a legal case taken against him in 1999.

Mr Key confirmed that Mr Brownlee was turned down, but says it was before his time as leader of the National Party.