Four years ago, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) was established, in a bid to draw a line under a tawdry political scandal that had comprehensively undermined the public’s trust in politicians.
In 2007, a Freedom of Information (FOI) request had been made into MPs’ expenses that threatened to shine a light on the misuse and abuse of a system that some of us had been warning about for years. Rather than release the information, politicians and the Commons authorities obfuscated. The previous Government tabled a motion to block expenses from being declared under FOI. The Speaker of the House fought the matter in court. MPs across the political divide were thrown into panic.
But the truth could not be contained. Eventually, a disc of data got into the hands of the Daily Telegraph that detailed just how some MPs and peers had scammed the system or, at the very least, pushed its boundaries. Party leaders responded with half-hearted measures to clean up the House. But further scandal followed every proposed action, until it was quite clear that MPs could no longer have a say in their remuneration.
Every leader crowed triumphantly that, in future, MPs’ expenses and salaries would have to be determined by an independent body. Only then would the public’s faith in politicians be restored.
The election of 2010 was meant to draw a line under one of parliament’s sorriest episodes. With IPSA now established, MPs would no longer be able to tinker.
Painfully aware of its duty to restore confidence in parliament, IPSA has spent the past two years holding two full rounds of formal public consultation into MPs’ pay. In the process it has received hundreds of responses from the public through radio phone-ins, focus groups, research and social media drives.
Yesterday morning, it released a package of proposals to determine future levels of pay and expenses for MPs. The cost neutral package balances a one-off, 11 per cent salary increase with a paring back of pensions, resettlement grant, taxi, meal and other allowances. It will not cost the taxpayer any more than the current system.
Party leaders have so far rushed to condemn the proposals. In doing so, they are effectively suggesting that politicians will only accept IPSA recommendations that they agree with. The message is clear – the moment the independent body has the temerity to act with independence, MPs will start the process of abolishing it. In public policy terms, this is farcical.
I have always said that I would support IPSA whether it recommends a salary cut, freeze or rise. These are not idle words since, as a London MP, I took what amounted to a 6 per cent pay cut in 2010 when IPSA first came in and recommended the halving of the London weighting to salary. For this reason, I shall not be joining party leaders in opposing the proposed salary increase.
Writing yesterday in the Times (£), Sir Ian Kennedy, IPSA’s chairman, acknowledges the tension between the reasoning and the politics, but concludes: “we were asked to fix the problem for a generation, not for a news cycle. That is what we have done. The alternative approach takes us back to the days of political deals, with scandal never far away”. I appreciate this will not make me popular, but Sir Ian is absolutely right.