DESPITE being first among equals, Prime Minister Tony Blair is the least costly MP serving the North-East and North Yorkshire when it comes to expenses, Westminster tables reveal.

The Sedgefield MP claimed only £87,342, putting him 627th on the list of allowance claims.

It is the third year that MPs have released details of their allowance claims, following the passing of the Freedom of Information Act.

Expenses cover, among others, office and staff costs, computer equipment, travel, a home in London and postage bills.

The Prime Minister spent only £687 on postage, and only £202 on travel. It is in stark contrast to the region's most expensive MP, Dr Ashok Kumar, who represents Middlesbrough and East Cleveland. He claimed £161,049.

The second costliest local MP was Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead East and Washington West), who spent £156,891, putting her in eighth place in the Westminster league table.

The next highest were Alan Milburn (Darlington, £148,907, 30th), John Cummings (Easington, £146,731, 44th) and Dari Taylor (Stockton South, £146,111, 50th).

Ms Taylor, the MP for Stockton South, said she was disappointed not to be higher in the list.

Referring to her position behind Dr Kumar and Sharon Hodgson, Mrs Taylor said: "I want to know what Ashok and Sharon are doing better than me.

"I am not surprised I am up there; I am disappointed I am not number one. I work hard; my four members of staff work hard. They are brilliant.

"We respond to every issue and to every constituent. I am really pleased we are up there. I think people need to know what Parliament needs to know. I think people need to have a response."

Last night, other MPs in the region defended their expenses claims.

Kevan Jones, the MP for North Durham, who claimed £144,246, said: "I claim what I am entitled to, but people should remember this money does not come directly to us.

"It is important to note that the bulk goes on staffing. To be an effective MP, you have to employ staff, and I have an office in London and one in the constituency.

"The other major area is on travel, because we have further to go than MPs who are based down South.

"I have business to attend to in London during the week and I come back to the North-East to see family and keep in touch with constituents."

Vale of York MP Anne McIntosh claimed £104,139, the least of any of the region's MPs, apart from Tony Blair.

She said: "I try to curb the expenses to the best of my ability because it is public funds.

"Obviously, some years it will be more than others, but it is a great privilege doing the work of a Member of Parliament, and I hope my hard work, output and attention to detail appears value for money."

Sharp contrasts between MPs included spending on stationery, for which Dr Kumar billed £4,846, while Chris Mullin (Sunderland South) spent only £353.

MPs with sky-high postage bills have faced accusations that they are forcing taxpayers to fund publicity mailshots, rather than to perform their official duties.

They can also use an allowance of up to £21,634 to buy a London home at public expense -opting for interest-only mortgages to cut their repayment costs.

However, the Commons authorities insist the overall bill to the taxpayer is no higher than if those MPs used the allowance to pay rent or hotel bills.

In total, allowance claims rose to £86.8m from £80,8m in 2004-5, mainly because of the £5.8m in winding-up allowances claimed by MPs who retired or lost their seats at the General Election last year.