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MPs give IPSA four months to change its ways over the handling of their expenses

By Jonathan Isaby

IPSA logo Yesterday MPs passed the following motion without the need for a division:

"That this House regrets the unnecessarily high costs and inadequacies of the systems introduced by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA); calls on the IPSA to introduce a simpler scheme of office expenses and Members’ allowances that cuts significantly the administrative costs, reduces the amount of time needed for administration by Members and their staff, does not disadvantage less well-off Members and those with family responsibilities, nor deter Members from seeking reimbursement of the costs of fulfilling their parliamentary duties; and resolves that if these objectives are not reflected in a new scheme set out by the IPSA in time for operation by 1 April 2011, the Leader of the House should make time available for the amendment of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 to do so."

The motion had been tabled by a cross-party group of MPs, but it fell to Conservative MP Adam Afriyie - who does not himself claim expenses - to move it, giving IPSA four months to change the way it handles MPs' expenses or face being reformed by new legislation.

AFRIYIE ADAM Mr Afriyie said he wanted to highlight the way in which the current expenses system "unintentionally discriminates against MPs with family commitments and those who come from a less well-off background":

"The system seems almost designed to create a Parliament for the wealthy. If a Member does not have sufficient resources to subsidise themselves, they become ensnared in a vice-like grip designed to bring them into disrepute—they have to produce every single receipt for some sort of personal item. Wealthier Members or those with independent means, of course, can simply not claim. As I look around both sides of the Chamber, I know that probably not a single Member here has claimed everything that they are entitled to claim—first, through fear of the public and the media really having a go, or secondly, because it is too complicated and time-consuming to do so. We have to ask ourselves whether the public want such a system for their Parliament. The wealthy swan through, buy their way out of the system with no trouble at all and are treated as saints when they are nothing of the sort, and everyone else is stuck in the system."

"The current system causes inconvenience and makes things very difficult for Members with families and Members who are less well-off. It also causes problems, because Members are not making claims. Looking back at this year, and certainly over the past six months, I know that virtually every one of my colleagues—I have spoken to 350 MPs one-to-one—has not made the claims that they are entitled to make. That may be seen externally as a great success—“Look, IPSA has crushed the MPs, and they cost far less!”—but we all know that that is not the situation. We know that Members are borrowing from their parents, having to borrow cars from friends, and still sleeping on floors of offices, which they are not supposed to do, because they are not claiming what they rightfully should be able to claim. It is not a good situation.

"However, I am not moaning on behalf of existing MPs. I love all the MPs here, but I am not whingeing on their behalf. What I am concerned about is the functioning of Parliament for the next 100 years. Where will we be in 30 years’ time if we continue down this route where only the wealthy can serve? That is where we were before; I thought we had moved on. IPSA, I hope you are listening."

"The motion asks not for a system that involves looking into the individual lifestyle of every Member, but merely for a simplified system that recognises the variability in family arrangements. The motion asks not for a system that investigates the lifestyle, family arrangements and travelling habits of every MP, but for a simpler system that saves the taxpayer money, so that MPs can focus on the job at hand, whether or not they have a family."

"I am begging IPSA please to propose a scheme that sorts the problems out, and I hope that it will. It has the mandate of the House of Commons already, so it can do so. However, the motion states that if a scheme that can be put into operation by 1 April 2011 is not proposed, this place will act—not in our interests, but in the interests of our constituents and Parliament.

"I am now on the record as encouraging IPSA to come forward with a scheme, but we must be clear on timing. If a proposal is not forthcoming by, say, mid-January, it will be impossible to introduce a scheme before the beginning of the next financial year. Therefore, if the motion is carried, it is necessary for us to introduce a Bill or a statutory instrument or something, probably this side of Christmas, in case IPSA’s proposal is not the right one. Otherwise, we are trapped within the current system, and our constituents will suffer. The costs will be astronomically high for at least another year to a year and a half, and I fear that Members will begin to leave Parliament. The work of Parliament will continue to be impeded unless such changes are made."

"This is a sensitive issue and the public are understandably concerned. I am certain that tomorrow this debate will be reported as, “MPs whinge about their conditions and the independent body that controls them”, but that is not what the debate is about. The debate is about saving the taxpayer money and ensuring that MPs’ voices are heard and not hidden through fear of speaking out."

Other Conservative MPs contributing to the debate made a variety of points.

DORRIES-Nadine Nadine Dorries raised the issue of MPs who are mothers with children:

"The Chamber is largely full of men today and women are represented only in small number, so I ask that this comment is not regarded as sexist. The IPSA regulations say that mothers with teenage children are not allowed to have their children to stay with them in their overnight accommodation in London. When a single mother is telephoned from the school or university and told that their child is sick and to collect them and take them home, what are they supposed to do? Mothers are not allowed to have their children with them, yet we have to be here to carry out our duties... The IPSA regulations are particularly difficult for women."

Andrew Bridgen, the new MP for North West Leicestershire, was damning in his criticism of IPSA:

Andrew Bridgen wide "As a Member of the 2010 intake, I have no personal knowledge of the system that ran before, but I came here from the private sector, and the IPSA system epitomises everything I had always believed to be wrong with government—it is bureaucratic, inefficient and very expensive. The system fails in two respects. First, unless hon. Members are of considerable personal wealth, they are prevented from conducting their duties as their constituents would like; and secondly, that this system was adopted in response to such serious allegations against conduct in the previous Parliament is a stain on this place. The system is failing and it needs reform."

Roger Gale Roger Gale, a Member since 1983, expressed concern that IPSA was not familiar with the various ways in which different MPs ran their offices:

"I have invited the interim chief executive of IPSA, courteously and on three separate occasions, to visit my parliamentary office. It is located in my constituency, but it is not a constituency office. That is a fundamental difference. I have chosen to locate my entire business in the constituency. I have tried to impress on the interim chief executive the point that if a Member of Parliament has his or her office based within the parliamentary estate, and if all their staff are based there, all their bills for telephone calls, office equipment, heating, lighting, cleaning, office rental, rates, fire precautions—the whole kit and caboodle—are paid for by the House authorities. That represents a difference of about £17,000 a year between that Member and another Member with his or her parliamentary office in the constituency. That means, of course, that the information published today is hopelessly distorted. My telephone bills for my parliamentary office will be much higher than those of colleagues who use the phones here.

"The interim chief executive wrote back to me and completely missed the point, saying, “Well, if you’ve got a problem with this, we’re quite prepared to review the amount that you’re allowed.” I do not want the amount that I am allowed reviewed, and I do not want to spend any more money. Over 27 years in this place, I have already subsidised my office costs to the taxpayer to the tune of a quarter of a million pounds, and I have done so uncomplainingly. However, I do not want to be misunderstood by people who have devised a scheme without taking the trouble to get out there, visit offices and really understand what the job of a Member of Parliament is about."

Picture 9 Richard Bacon dwelled on IPSA's failure to deliver value for money or full transparency:

"Immediately after the debate on IPSA in Westminster Hall some months ago, I was approached in the corridor by a representative of a major card payments company. In conversation with him, I said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could have a system whereby if we paid for something such as a toner cartridge for the office printer we knew within 24 hours or so it would be published on the internet so that everyone could see it?” He replied, “It wouldn't take 24 hours. We could do it almost instantly, within a few seconds.” Of course, that would be much cheaper than the current system. That would suit me fine and I think it would suit my constituents, who have a right to know how public money is used. I am in favour of complete transparency about where public money is spent. Indeed, I have spent my entire time in this House—the past nine years—trying to do my best on the Public Accounts Committee to defend the proper use of public money.

"Instead of such a simple plan, we have this extraordinary situation where the arrangements are staggeringly expensive—they cost about £10,000 per MP to administrate—yet they offer satisfaction neither to members of the public, who quite rightly want to know how their money is spent, nor to MPs, who are trying to do a job. This morning, IPSA has protested that it cannot publish receipts because it would be too expensive, but it should be expected to do more—much more—for less money. Publication of all the required information should happen constantly in real time or near real time. It would be cheaper than what IPSA does now and, technically, it would be easy enough to do."

  Charles Walker Charles Walker pithily summarised the problem under consideration:

"The “problem” we have in this place—it is part of its richness and is not necessarily a problem—is that all 650 individuals do their jobs differently, and trying to shoehorn them into a one-size-fits-all solution was always going to end in tears...  We have people in their 20s and one person in their 80s. That is healthy. People of all age groups need to be represented in this place, but how can we have a diverse system when some Members—perhaps in their late 60s or 70s—are expected to travel an hour and a half to two hours home every night? We deposit them on a platform somewhere in the far-flung parts of the home counties at midnight. That is not going to encourage diversity. It will not encourage women to come to this place either, if we expect them to go home at midnight. They have not been out for a night on the town; they have been working on behalf of their constituents."

Edward Leigh Edward Leigh was highly critical of the party leaderships for allowing IPSA to be set up as it is:

"The fact is—there is no doubt about it—that we cocked up the system. The thing collapsed, and we have a system that we all know is not working, and that is hugely complex and massively bureaucratic. Above all, it is costing the taxpayer more money—namely £10,000 to administer it before any money is handed out. We are only a small body—a medium-sized company of 600 people—and if this was the private sector, there would be a little accounts department run by half a dozen people. We do not need this vast bureaucracy, so in the few minutes I have to speak, I shall offer a simple solution.

"I make no criticism of the staff. As I am pretty hopeless with computers, a very nice young man from IPSA sat next to me last week for two and a half hours while, with two fingers, I tried to claim for about five journeys. My criticism is not of the young people who work in IPSA, but of our Front Benchers, and particularly the three party leaders who got into a bidding war last year and landed us with this mess. By the way, thank God they are backing out of this and leaving it to Back Benchers, because this is a Back-Bench affair—it is nothing to do with Front Benchers."

FIELD MARK Finally, Mark Field made a bold prediction in his contribution at the end of the debate:

"My big concern is that all parties promised the British public a new politics in May’s general election, which was supposed to draw a line under the calamitous expenses scandal. I am increasingly alarmed that after everything there is a sense among the public that the political class still do not get it. We will have some high-profile High Court cases and I am sure that we will see a number of parliamentarians imprisoned in the course of the next six months. The whole issue will not go away quickly."


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