EAST Lancashire's seven MPs claimed close to £1million between them in expenses last year.

And Burnley MP Peter Pike was the fourth highest claimer in the list of the country's 659 MPs after taking home £153,989 on top of his £57,845 annual salary.

The figures have been released for the first time in advance of the Freedom of Information Act coming into force early next year.

Mr Pike today defended his right to claim the money - saying he was entitled to it and it was sent legitimately as part of his job.

Mr Pike's claim included £67,513 for staff costs, including employing his daughter Jane as his House of Commons Secretary, £25,434 for his own travel, £18,944 for his London home and £4,045 for staff travel.

It also included £18,799 for Incidental Expenses , £2,493 for centrally purchased stationery; £8,132 for postage, £2,064 for central IT provision; and £6,565 for "other costs".

In 2002/2003 he claimed £129,671 in expenses which left him well down the league table.

The total cost of expenses for the seven East Lancashire MPs in 2003/2004 was £912,624 and £875,140 in the previous year.

The average annual claim by MPs was £118,437 and the total bill for their expenses in the last financial year was £78million.

Ribble Valley MP Nigel Evans claimed £141,910 in 2003/2004, making him 25th in the list, and £139,761 in 2002/2003.

The lowest claimer in both years was Hyndburn Labour MP Greg Pope who took home an extra £106,271 in 2003/2004 and £102,332 in 2002/2003.

Blackburn MP and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw claimed £106,858 in the last year and £114,464 in the previous 12 months on top of his total £118,437 salary as an MP and Cabinet Minister.

Rossendale and Darwen MP Janet Anderson claimed £135,779 in the last year and £139,577 in the previous one.

Chorley MP Lindsay Hoyle claimed £144,398 last year - making him 17th in the expenses league table - against £131,733 for the previous 12 months.

Pendle MP Gordon Prentice claimed £123,419 in 2003/2004 and £117,562 in 2002/2003.

Mr Pike said: "I pay the proper rates for my staff and my offices. I employed Jane when a member of staff in London left suddenly and it was difficult as an MP due to retire at the next election to find anyone to work for me.

"She gets the appropriate rate for the job. I have a large office in Burnley employing the equivalent of two and half full time staff to deal with the huge correspondence I receive.

"I have to have two homes in Burnley and London unlike the Prime Minister whose claim of £80,836 reflects him living at the taxpayers' expense in Downing Street. I claim exactly what I spend and I am entitled to.''

Mr Pope said: "I pay my staff the proper union rates as set down by the House of Commons authorities. I try to ensure that I have the best staff and premises to serve my constituents while, as any Great Harwood lad would, ensuring proper value for money for the taxpayer.''