Sunday, 23 May 2010

Transparent Parliamentary Expenses: “Get real”

Another blast of fresh air sweeps through Westminster. The new bunch of MPs no longer have to rely on the nod and wink of a canny and experienced politician to know whether their expenses are all entirely proper. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has worked wonders to publish an on-line guide that lets everyone know just what our elected (and ermined) ones are entitled to claim. This transparency, together with easy access to the details of people's Parliamentary expense claims, have led us to take yet another (but, for once, possibly quite welcome) step in the direction of a surveillance state.

The ISPA Board, which is entirely independent of Parliament, has created a set of new rules, and it’s pretty clear that it has not allowed itself to simply serve the interests of those who have been elected. And, given the fuss that has already emerged from those who are to be subject to the new expenses scheme, it must be doing its job properly. James Kirkup, writing in The Daily Telegraph last Friday, noted that “Almost every MP I’ve spoken to since the Commons returned has mentioned the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, the new body in charge of their expenses. None has been happy.

Complaints generally focus on what MPs see as IPSA’s inflexibility and its relatively leisurely timetable for paying out on expenses claims.

A few new members say they have been left thousands of pounds in debt by having to pay for start-up costs for offices etc, and then claim them back from IPSA, which will not pay out on claims until June 23. IPSA says that loans and advances are available to help. Members counter that the system for registering and claiming that help is cumbersome and slow. Some are chuntering about asking for an advance on their salaries…

Others are cross about IPSA’s insistence that it will pay no more than 85 per cent of staff and office phone bills, assuming that the rest of the cost is personal calls.”

I’m sure that such comments could be made by most employees who rely on their Accounts Departments to reimburse them for the expenses they have incurred in getting on with their own jobs, so I don’t really have much sympathy with the same rules being meted out to politicians too. If bureaucracy’s good enough for my company's Accounts Department, then it ought to be good enough for theirs. As (I think) all three candidates said in their televised Leaders’ debates just a few weeks ago, “Get real.”

Read these extracts from the Foreword to the new rules, and ask yourself if you have ever before read an official document that puts our Parliamentarians so firmly in their place:

We have been required by the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009, as a body entirely independent of Parliament, Government or political parties, to provide a scheme for the reimbursement of expenses incurred by MPs in doing their work. We have no axe to grind. We have set about our task against a background of great public anger at the present discredited system that has been exposed over the last year. We have consulted widely, not only those whom we are required by the Act to consult, but also the public at large. We are indebted to all those who have responded and answered the questions we posed in our consultation paper. The strength of the arguments put – and the evidence adduced – are our overriding considerations in addressing each question. The scheme has had to be prepared within a very short timescale in order to be operational for the new Parliament following the general election.

We have endeavoured to produce a scheme that is fair, workable and transparent.

By fair we mean not only fair to the public purse but also to individual MPs. It is not our job to punish the next generation of MPs for the excesses of what has gone before. Our responsibility is to reimburse MPs for the costs they necessarily incur in properly doing the job of a legislator in the 21st Century. But fairness has another feature. People who abuse the system must know that we will bear down heavily on them. The public would expect no less. Expenses do not exist to allow some to profit at the cost of others.

By workable we mean that the scheme should be as simple and practicable as possible and avoid unnecessary administrative cost and complexity. Whilst it is not part of our remit to provide a scheme that ensures Parliament reflects the society it serves, we have kept firmly in mind the need to ensure that our scheme does not have the opposite effect.

By transparent we mean that the public is entitled to know not only what those remunerated from the public purse are paid, but the details of their reimbursements for the expenses they incur in doing their job. It is for this reason that perhaps the most important criterion of all is that the scheme should be transparent. Transparency is critical if public confidence in Parliament is to be restored. This is one reason why we have moved where possible to an expenses rather than an allowances based system, a move that has the overwhelming support of the respondents to our consultation paper. The power of transparency is that it allows people to find out for themselves what is being done in their name and with their money.

It has been suggested that the previous opaque system of allowances grew up in part because the issue of the appropriate salary for a Member of Parliament was not properly tackled as it was politically inexpedient to do so, and that the allowance arrangements contained, at least in some cases, a significant element of profit. Whether or not that is so, those days have now gone. Currently MPs’ pay is not part of our remit, although it is likely to become so in the future if the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill becomes law.

It is our aim that MPs should be reimbursed fairly and that they should neither make a profit nor suffer a loss in carrying out their responsibilities.

Inevitably there are grey areas where the impact of the scheme will not be the same for all MPs. There is no stereotype MP. MPs represent different constituencies and adopt different working patterns. We do not pretend that some anomalies will not emerge but we have a statutory duty under the Act to revise the scheme annually and that we shall do, making such changes as appear to us to be appropriate.

And if you’re really interested in all the details of all the expenses that can be claimed, then point your browser to this address: