IPSA’s revised scheme is expensive and counterproductive
Having come to politics from a background building businesses, I have never encountered an expenses system as expensive and counterproductive as the one introduced by IPSA. The scheme is needlessly costly for taxpayers and cheats constituents by taking their MPs’ time away from serving them. It demoralises staff and discriminates against less well-off MPs. And worse still, IPSA damages the reputation of Parliament by encouraging misleading local newspaper coverage.
In a period of austerity – when MPs have allowed their pay to be frozen to save about £1m – the chairman of IPSA has actually increased the cost to taxpayers by another few million quid.
The Government is committed to major reform
Thankfully, on 2nd December 2010, the House of Commons passed a unanimous resolution: A termination date was set for IPSA’s costly and unworkable system. It was resolved that a simpler and cheaper scheme should be in operation by 1st April 2011.
The Leader of the House, Sir George Young, reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to deliver on the motion. He followed up with a beautifully crafted – if uncharacteristically blunt – letter saying that, in essence, IPSA must stop obstructing MPs from performing their duties.
The Prime Minister then promised that he would sort out IPSA if it failed to introduce a simpler, less costly and more family friendly scheme. And to ensure that IPSA got the message loud and clear, I wrote a letter supported by 300 MPs which urged it to make bold reforms in the interests of constituents and taxpayers.
IPSA published its new scheme on Friday 25th March. In a direct snub to the Prime Minister, Parliament and taxpayers, the chairman only made minor and cosmetic changes.
IPSA’s chairman has refused to acknowledge the fundamental flaws with its system and continues in the wrong direction. Instead of reducing the cost to taxpayers by simplifying the scheme, he has actually extended special privileges for MPs. He will force the less well-off and those with families to publicly claim his special privileges, while those with independent means will protect themselves and avoid claiming. IPSA is creating a Parliament where only the wealthy will thrive. The reputation of Parliament will be held at rock bottom with the bimonthly publication of a list of shamed paupers unable to finance themselves.
The Prime Minister must let Parliament act
IPSA has given Parliament less than a week to respond before changes are implemented. Given the Prime Minister’s firm and repeated commitments, MPs’ expectations are understandably high. But how can he deliver reform for 1st April 2011? Abolition seems out of the question, in view of his role in IPSA’s creation, and the principle of its ‘independence’ has been frequently reasserted. It seems there are three options.
First, Sir George Young and No. 10 may well have spent the last few months frantically preparing a new expenses scheme and the legislation needed to bring forward Government measures in Government time. There may be a Bill in waiting. It might instruct IPSA to implement a better scheme.
If the Government has indeed been secretly drafting legislation and detailed plans for expenses with the Speaker or other Party leaders, then it’s the best kept secret in Westminster. Fortunately, there is little evidence to suggest that the Government has adopted this route to reform. Such a move would be interpreted as a political stitch-up concocted in the smoke-free backrooms of power. It would re-politicise the expenses issue and place the Prime Minister centre-stage on a matter best left to Parliament. The Prime Minister has a country to run which is facing tremendous domestic and international pressures, and only a foolhardy adviser would seek to re-engage him in this incendiary subject.
The second approach is to announce yet another review, commission or Speaker’s panel – thereby kicking the issue into the long grass. Whilst superficially attractive, this approach might merely keep the expenses issue on the backburner until a decision must finally be made. It would also signal to MPs that the Prime Minister had reneged on his personal commitment to see IPSA reformed in time for 1st April.
Now it is clear that IPSA’s new scheme fails to fulfil the criteria of the 2nd December resolution, the third, and final, option offers the most practical way forward. The Government must now make time available for a Parliamentary Standards Amendment Bill.
This approach would mean that the Government and Party leaders, quite rightly, are allowing Parliament to propose the major reforms needed. They would of course retain the power to whip against any measures should they prove, for example, more costly than the current regime.
What is the next step?
This is exactly why I last year introduced the Parliamentary Standards (Amendment) Bill.
The Bill isn’t perfect, but it can be used as a cross-party vehicle for change. Whether it makes progress in its current guise as a private members’ Bill, or is incorporated within a different legislative vehicle does not matter. What does matter is that Parliament’s resolution is satisfied and the Prime Minister’s commitment to his Party fulfilled.
What chance do taxpayers, constituents and MPs have of seeing a sensible expenses scheme implemented within the next few weeks? Pretty high I’d say. I’m encouraged by what I’m hearing and, after a brief period of reflection, I am optimistic that the Government will have the confidence to allow Parliament to resolve an issue that has plagued parliaments and prime ministers for over half a century.