By Matthew Barrett
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Yesterday in the Commons, the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 was debated. The 2009 Act created IPSA, the body responsible for regulating the current expenses regime for MPs. Its workings are deeply resented by many MPs – some of whom dislike it in principle. Adam Afriyie, the Chair of the Members' Expenses Committee, led the debate, following the publication of a report into the workings of IPSA. The main motion of yesterday's debate was:
That this House approves the recommendations of the First Report from the Members’ Expenses Committee on the Operation of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009
The recommendations referred to are as follows:
- Independent regulation of expenses is important and should continue.
- The Act should be amended so that IPSA's primary duty is "to support MPs efficiently, cost-effectively and transparently in carrying out their parliamentary functions".
- IPSA's current administrative role should be carried out by a separate body, so that IPSA is not regulating itself, and the Act should be amended to permit this. The best arrangement would be for that separate body to be within the House of Commons Service, because it would benefit from the economies of scale of being part of a larger organisation in areas such as human resources and IT. However, it should remain independent so as not to replicate the old system.
- The body administering MPs' expenses should implement a cost-effective approach to validation.
- The body administering MPs' expenses should extend its use of direct payments to cover as near to 100% of transactions as possible.
- The body administering MPs' expenses should make more extensive use of its capacity to purchase and provide centrally.
- IPSA should improve its system of publication by: (1.) Creating an enhanced scheme of annual publication of claims, and (2.) Begin developing and implementing a cost-effective system of real-time publication of claims.
- When publishing claims, IPSA should make a clear distinction between (a) costs commonly regarded as personal, such as accommodation and travel, and (b) office and staff costs. The latter would not be described as "expenses" in any other profession, and should not be so described by IPSA.
- When publishing "not paid" and "part-paid" claims, IPSA should classify each one in respect of the reason for non-payment; and it should review whether publication of such claims increases or reduces public confidence in the payments system and Parliament.
- In order to use publicly-funded resources more effectively, IPSA should offer MPs the option of submitting claims in paper form only.
- IPSA should merge the office and staff budgets.
- IPSA should, on request from MPs, indicate to them whether a specific claim will be accepted or rejected.
- IPSA should make it easier for MPs to find out online how much of each budget has been spent.
- IPSA should establish a liaison group with MPs' staff, and should include their representatives in consultations on the same basis as the statutory consultees.
- IPSA should review the overall remuneration package of MPs' staff, and in particular redundancy pay.
- IPSA should make it a consistent practice that MPs' staff who incur legitimate costs relating to the MP's parliamentary duties receive reimbursement direct.
- To facilitate informed consideration and public debate about cost-effectiveness and accountability, the report recommends that: a) IPSA provide a detailed explanation of the rationale for its existing London supplements (especially the Outer London one) and make transparent its current methodology for calculation of the rates. b) A body independent of both Parliament and IPSA be commissioned by the House Service to undertake a financial cost-benefit analysis to determine whether extending IPSA's current system of London and Outer London supplements to other regions in the UK could provide greater value for money for taxpayers. c) In not more than six months' time, the House should have the opportunity to consider the merits of that cost-benefit analysis and evaluation and to make a decision on whether there should or should not be a system of regional supplements instead of the existing travel and accommodation provisions.
- The levels of salaries and rates and maxima for any other payments to MPs should, whenever possible, be set by IPSA at the start of a Parliament for the duration of that Parliament.
- When it examines the matter of resettlement grants for MPs who lose their seats at a general election, IPSA should take into account the arrangements in the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales.
However, Guto Bebb, the Conservative Member for Aberconwy, tabled an amendment to the motion, calling for the recommendations simply to be referred to IPSA, "to be considered as part of its Annual Review". Mr Bebb explained why he tabled the amendment:
"I want to make it clear that I signed up to the report and support it… However, it is important to point out that there are recommendations in it that need to be taken seriously and taken forward. During the course of yesterday, it became increasingly apparent that there was a real likelihood that a vote would be called on today’s motion, and that it might be defeated.
Guto Bebb: I am grateful. It came from various colleagues, and indeed from some Parliamentary Private Secretaries, who despite the fact that there is a one-line Whip are staying around today. That might indicate why I had my concerns."
The key part of the debate, was the exchange between Mr Afriyie and Mark Harper, the (Conservative) Parliamentary Under Secretary for Constitutional and Political Reform, who gave the Government's response to the report:
"The Government are unable to support the motion. It is helpful for the House that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) has moved the amendment, because I fear that otherwise, I would have urged my hon. Friends, and indeed every Member of the House, to vote down the motion, because there are flaws in some of the recommendations and it would not have been appropriate. The amendment enables the report to go to IPSA for its consideration. Indeed, IPSA has said that it is very pleased to consider the report as part of its annual review."
Mr Harper continued:
"We cannot have an independent regulator and expenses system, and then say that if it does not follow the views and advice that we give it, we will legislate to implement them. Those things are not compatible. In paragraph 205 of the report, the Committee states: “We urge the Government and Parliament to have the courage to reform the system of payments…by implementing our recommendations.” From the way I read that—I am happy to be put straight by hon. Members—it seems that there is a conflict between the recommendations in the report and an independent system. It says to IPSA, “If you don’t do them, we will legislate to do them anyway,” which trespasses on the independent system."
Mr Afriyie responded:
"I shall be polite in this intervention, but frankly, my hon. Friend has had to work very hard to find a tiny little thing to object to, but it does not say what he is suggesting. Nowhere in the report does it say that we should not have independent regulation and nobody is saying that—the first recommendation is that independent regulation should be reinforced. … Paragraph 204 is not a recommendation but an observational statement. The Minister could dig out a sentence from any report to try to make a point that simply is not there."
Mr Afriyie said later in the debate:
"I understand my hon. Friend’s point, but both I and other members of the Committee have made it absolutely clear that nothing in that recommendation suggests that IPSA would be bound by it. He will know that earlier in the week when we were discussing these matters, I tried to table an amendment to change the motion to make that clear, but it was firmly turned down. I can only suspect that the aim is to engineer a difference. … I realise that the Minister will persist in his noble attempt to make this a bigger point than it is, and I respect that, but I think that we need to be clear about it."
The outcome of the debate was that the amendment passed, and recommendations will be referred to IPSA. Afriyie concluded:
"The amended motion would not be my preferred route, but it would not prevent other actions from being taken by the Government as they revisit some of these issues. On balance, I shall not object to the amendment. I hope that we can therefore move swiftly on the next business."
The full debate can be read in Hansard here.
"I tried to ring IPSA this morning, because I see that 99 times out of 100 it answers the phone within 60 seconds. I started calling at 9 o’clock; it is now half-past 12. That is three and a half hours. It is a bit like the train operating company that said, “No trains this morning were late because we didn’t run any.” IPSA will not answer the phone before 1 o’clock, and then we discover that the person we want is at lunch."
> Yesterday on ToryDiary: If we want a low-turnover Commons, Adam Afriyie's IPSA reforms make sense