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Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire) (Con):
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. Does my hon. Friend agree that the IPSA regulations are particularly difficult for women?
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 shall come to my closing remarks, because I am conscious of time. The third part of the motion is significant. 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.
Mr Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): My hon. Friend makes a strong case and a plea to IPSA to get on with it. Does he agree that it is up to the Government to empower IPSA by sending a strong message that they support the need for radical reform of a system that, in the end, on administrative cost grounds alone, ought to be seen as unsustainable and unworkable?
Adam Afriyie: That was exceptionally well put. One of my big asks of the Government is that they communicate the message that IPSA is empowered to make those changes and should not be nervous about doing so if the motion is passed.
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.
Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): 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.
We know that the current system costs the taxpayer far too much, that it takes the time of MPs away from their constituents, and that it will continue to undermine Members, particular those with families and those who are less well off. We have a duty to act in the taxpayer's interest if IPSA does not propose a new scheme. One former Prime Minister said:
"The first duty of a member of Parliament is to do what he thinks in his faithful and disinterested judgement is right and necessary for the honour and safety of Great Britain. His second duty is to his constituents of whom he is the representative but not the delegate."
Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) on his excellent speech and on the way in which he introduced the debate. I hope that he continues throughout his life in Parliament to feel as much affection for all hon. Members as he expressed today, although I doubt that that will continue as time goes on. However, I appreciated the opening words of his speech.
I had my whinge last time round when we had the first debate in Westminster Hall. I also got very angry, and I still feel angry that, because of the activities of a few Members in the past, we have all been smeared. We continue to be smeared by the belief that we are all crooks, and after 26 years in Parliament I resent that immensely. We all found during the general election campaign that whether we had done something or not, we were all considered to be crooks. Someone came up to me during the campaign and shouted, "Thief!" If I had been a man, I would have run after him and punched him in the face, because I feel about this so strongly. I am not a thief and I have never been a thief. I object to Members being considered as thieves, because
the vast majority of people in this place are nothing of the sort, and it is not right that we have been smeared by the activities of a few.
A member of my staff uses the online expenses system to fill in the forms on my behalf. I had not thought of the idea of one of my colleagues, who told IPSA that his finger was in plaster and he was unlikely to be taking it out of plaster, which meant that IPSA officials had to go to his office to fill in expense claims on his behalf. I wanted to look at the problems as dispassionately as possible, so I asked my member of staff about his experiences and to outline the difficulties he had encountered. He said:
"Although after the MPs expenses fiasco there was a genuine desire to create a new and more transparent system to pay Members' expenses, I do not think the system put in place by IPSA is the best alternative"-
"The new system is in no way more transparent than the system it replaced, the main difference is that rather than submit paper claims Members must now submit them online. It seems as though rather than looking for a simple solution"-
"(such as daily allowances or issuing credit cards to Members for their expenses) an expensive all consuming bureaucratic monster has been created."
Several issues have arisen after six months of the new system. Inevitably, Members allow their staff to fill out and submit claims forms on their behalf. The previous system did not allow anyone except the Member to sign the forms before they were submitted, but the new system places a lot of trust in the hands of a non-elected proxy. The way in which the travel card statement is sent to the proxy's IPSA account, not to Members, is very time consuming and confusing. The Member travel card has the potential to simplify the way in which Members claim, but the way in which it operates only adds to the problems of the online system.
Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend also recognise that the new travel card system is far more complicated than the old system? Under the old system, we had a statement once a month that we had to go through to check that the information was correct. We then ticked it and signed it ourselves before sending it back. Under the present system, we have to provide the information in paper form and then put it back online, as well as sending in the individual rail tickets. Frankly, that is complete nonsense.
During the first few months of the new system's operation, Members faced huge delays in getting any claims reimbursed. They accumulated large amounts of debt at the beginning of a new Parliament, and a great deal of time and manpower has been spent trying to balance the books ever since. This unnecessarily takes time away from other parliamentary duties, as has been pointed out. During the past six months, IPSA has twice lost or not received the receipts we have sent in the post. IPSA is adamant that all claims must be accompanied by original receipts, but no contingency plan has been put in place to deal with lost receipts. The old system allowed Members to send in photocopies of receipts, while we filed the originals for our own records. Members are now at risk if they do not take photocopies of all receipts before sending them to IPSA.
Communicating with or contacting IPSA is not easy. There is only one general phone number and e-mail address for Members to contact. We have all been put on hold for more than 45 minutes while waiting to discuss issues with IPSA staff and, due to a lack of replies, we have all but given up trying to contact IPSA via e-mail.
I am sure that there would have been many more Members here today if they were not still fearful of the press. We all know that whatever we say here today will be picked up and used in one way or another. Some Members who would have liked to be here to make similar points to the ones we are making are not here because of a certain amount of fear. It is ridiculous that elected Members of Parliament, who often have to stand up for their constituents, find it difficult to stand up for themselves.
Mr Winnick: It is quite possible that new Members fear the local press in particular, and worry that it might say that the moment that they are elected, they start complaining. Is there not therefore a greater responsibility on those of us who have been here some time to make this case today?
As a former journalist, I have been quite surprised at the many leaks that have appeared in the press on matters concerning MPs' discussions with IPSA and what they have sent into IPSA. A headline in The Times yesterday read "Carry on claiming; MPs are already flouting new rules on expenses". The article went on to give details. Now, I admire good journalists, and well done to them for getting the story, but how did they get it unless somebody at IPSA leaked it to them? This morning, a colleague told me that they had been talking to a member of the press who had been offered information by somebody at IPSA on certain "juicy" bits that had not yet emerged in the press about what certain Members had claimed for. The story in The Times said that one MP had had a claim for £338 for a shredder refused. Why on earth was he refused that for a shredder? We all use shredders; we often have to shred correspondence, for example. But that is not the point. How on earth did the newspaper get that story in the first place?
I have been told an allegation that I cannot personally prove, but the information has been given to me on very good authority. I make the allegation because it is doing the rounds-I apologise to the person about whom the allegation is made if it is not true, and she might like to deny it during the course of the day-and it is that the information is coming from the Director of Communications at IPSA, Anne Power. She can either refute that or, if it is the case, agree that it is true. I have every reason to believe my source and that that is the case. There must be an answer to why, every time we have a debate on IPSA, an anti-MP story appears the day before. The information must come from the only people with that knowledge, and that must be the people at IPSA. Today, they must deny or otherwise admit that that person has offered that information to a member of the press.
Mr Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). May I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) not only on bringing this debate to the House today but on the considerable amount of hard work he has put in over many months to seek to redress what indubitably has been and remains a wrong? My hon. Friend has studiously given IPSA, perhaps appropriately, until all fools' day to come back with a better scheme. Personally, I would prefer to see a change now, but I shall support his motion in the Lobby, if necessary, later.
I want to pay tribute to the staff of the former Fees Office, many of whom have been reviled-shamefully, sometimes in this House, but more particularly in the press-because of the systems that had developed. Those staff, known to many of us in previous Parliaments, were in the main diligent, courteous and careful and did a very good job. Some are now working for IPSA, but I happen to know that some of them are acutely disturbed by the climate of mistrust in IPSA that has been inculcated into them and imposed on them from the top. By the top, I mean the chairman and the interim chief executive. Let us now call a spade a spade and understand what we are talking about.
The hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) said it was up to those of us who have knocked around for a bit to speak up for the newer Members of the House. It will not have escaped your notice, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I am practically halfway through my parliamentary career- [ Laughter. ] Did I hear somebody say "shame"? On that basis, I believe that some of us have a duty to say things that young men and women who entered this Parliament for the first time in May need to have said for them but do not feel able to say for themselves. There has been a climate of fear and of mistrust. There is a feeling that if we complain our constituents will not understand and the local and national press certainly will not understand. There are some things that we must get on the record.
In introducing the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor said that he was trying to stimulate a measure in the interests of our constituents and in the interests of saving money. He is absolutely right. The system that has been imposed on us is wasteful, costly and bureaucratic and it is failing. We have to get that right. The interim chief executive of IPSA, in one of his many issued statements, said that
"the core of our mission is to support parliamentary democracy."
Mr Churchill might have used the phrase "round objects". I am sorry, I do not accept that. Our job goes to the core of parliamentary democracy, and parliamentary democracy is being interfered with by the scheme that has been imposed on us.
Let us be absolutely clear about this: not just in the last Parliament but probably in the two or three before, things went very badly wrong. Some former Members behaved in a way that can only be described as less than honourable, and we all need to understand that there was, and remains, a need for change. But change for the sake of change, on the basis of "My shirt is hairier than yours", is not a way of taking the House forward.
The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) asked how many Members had been consulted before the new scheme was devised. The answer is none or very few. We
have to accept that IPSA found itself faced with a well nigh impossible task, and I do not demur from that at all. It had to try to put together a scheme within the time scale that our Front Benchers on both sides of the House demanded-we need to be clear about where some of the responsibility for that lies. That was very difficult, but having said that, the people at the top of IPSA have chosen-I believe partly through arrogance-to ignore the fundamentals and not to do the groundwork and research necessary to put in place not just a scheme, but a scheme that worked.
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.
I asked when the interim chief executive had visited a constituency or a parliamentary office in a constituency, how often and where. Hon. Members may be dismayed to learn that the answer, which came after a freedom of information request because I was not initially told, stated that the chief executive's first visit to any office was on 9 July, the election having been in May. That was to the office of the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), where he spent two days. More recently-very recently-the man who told me that it was not possible to visit my office visited South Thanet, which is four miles down the road.
Mr Kevan Jones: Does the hon. Gentleman also agree that a good example of IPSA completely misunderstanding how an MP's office runs was its early diktat that it would pay only 85% of our phone bills, on the basis that the other 15% related to our personal use?
I want to address issues such as IPSA's extravagance and waste. The office costs issue is important. IPSA's chief executive says that plenty of people in the public sector pay their bills and then reclaim the money. I am sorry, but I do not believe that IPSA's chief executive pays any part of the rent for his office in Victoria-or his phone, heating, lighting and cleaning bills-and then claims it back. I therefore asked how much IPSA was spending on that. The rental for those offices, which are not on the parliamentary estate, as the hon. Member for Walsall North said, costs £348,000 a year over the life of the lease.
I am still waiting-IPSA is out of time on this-for a freedom of information follow-up to tell me how much IPSA is spending on business rates, heating, lighting, cleaning, service charges, depreciation and all the other costs. That figure has to be in excess of £500,000. I note that Mr Speaker has said that he wants IPSA's costs cut to £2 million. If just the building costs £500,000, even before we have put any people in it, and if we now have to pay for the gold key online expenses submissions system, £2 million will not be enough, despite the fact that the old Fees Office did the entire job for that money.
Funding of the online key scheme is discrete; IPSA will not give the answer under freedom of information legislation because the information is commercial in confidence and providing it might prejudice future negotiations. What I can tell the House is that IPSA has entered into a five-year contract. I suspect it has done so at very considerable expense and with no break clause. So if we do revise this scheme, the taxpayers will find themselves paying the bill up to the full five years.
We asked the chief executive what the purpose of all the duplication is. Our staff spend six hours a week online, filling in forms on the screen, item by item and line by line. That is fine, but they then have to print the whole darned lot, back it up with receipts and send it in. IPSA's chief executive does not consider that to be duplication, but if doing something twice is not duplication, I do not know what is.
Finally, I wish to discuss an issue that has been raised and is of grave concern to new and younger Members, particularly those with young families: the living costs allowed to Members of Parliament to maintain the necessary accommodation-I emphasise the word "necessary"-in the constituency and in London. It appears to have escaped IPSA's understanding that Members of Parliament do work in the House of Commons and in our constituencies.
I know colleagues in Kent who represent quite large constituencies that have only one station, which is perhaps just within an hour by train from London. We need to understand that that is just under an hour platform to platform, not door to door. They do not receive any London weighting, any London living allowance or any accommodation allowance at all, so they find themselves, having come into this place believing that they have come here to do a job of work on behalf of their constituents, either having to pay to get home late at night or having to travel home before the vote at 10 pm. Where is the sense in that? I do not know of any journey time that starts when the train arrives at the platform and ends when it arrives at the platform at the other end, but takes no account of the time it takes someone to get from their home or office to that platform to wait
for the train, to catch the train, to be delayed, to get off at the other end and to get back home or to their place of work. That is arrant nonsense. When I told IPSA that those people were being unfairly treated, I was told:
"IPSA did not consider that eligibility for accommodation could reasonably be decided on the basis on where the MP elected to live. This would have created a perverse incentive for the MP to opt to live further away from Westminster, in order to be eligible for accommodation. The decision was therefore taken on principle that eligibility should depend on the constituency's proximity to Westminster. It is then down to MPs whether they elect to live close to the station within their constituency which has the fastest links to Westminster".
I have been in this place for a long time, and I want to leave it one day knowing that it is in safe hands-the hands of good people who have come here for the right reasons and who want to do the job that they were elected to do. If they are going to be able to do that, they have to have the resources. The people who are denying them those resources are the people who are currently running IPSA. We have two choices. This House-this democracy-will either be the province of the very rich or juvenile anoraks with no experience of life, business or anything at all, or we will sort this problem out. As far as we are concerned, IPSA has until 1 April. It had better get it right.
New Members will have read the previous debates. They will have seen that there was a debate not only in January 2009, but in July 2008. They will have studied that debate. One need not read it for too long, however, because one is rehearing it today. I tabled an amendment on 3 July 2008. Unfortunately, my amendment did not manage to persuade the Speaker that it should be selected. So it is today, but there has been some progress, because today I have been called to speak in the debate, unlike in 2008. In that debate, a year before the expenses scandal became a public issue, the same arguments were made. That was exactly a year before-well, not exactly: it was nine months before- The Daily Telegraph got that leaked information, and the rest, as we say, is history. That debate of 3 July 2008 is therefore of significance and relevance. The same Westminster club, with its desire for a special status in society, was eloquently defended then in the same way that we have heard this afternoon. The rich or the junior anoraks with no experience of life? Well, I am not rich: I have no inherited wealth, no wealth siphoned away-
We hear the same kind of abuse that I got following that debate-some of it to my face; some was behind my back. My proposal then-new Members might want to listen carefully to this-was that the House should debar the practice of flipping. If that had been agreed, it is eminently predictable that the issue of
mortgages would not have been resurrected in the way that it was the year after. An acceptable solution would have been in place as would a coherent system of mortgages. However, the House was not interested in listening to that, because, despite the fact that my resolution was passed, even though I could not get a seconder-I had read "Erskine May" and I knew the procedures-the powers that be managed to bury its implications. It was not enacted and a high price was paid.
The principle at issue is simple-this is why I back the independence of IPSA: should we cede our ability to determine how the rules on expenses are set and managed to an independent body or not? I can criticise how things are done; indeed, I have and some of my criticisms were listened to but some were not. We can all take a view on what the system should be, but the principle remains: should we cede the authority to determine these matters to IPSA-an independent body-or not? That was the basis on which we legislated, and the motion, which would have been improved by my amendment, which unfortunately has not been selected, breaks that principle.
I oppose and shall vote against the motion because it says that MPs should have the power to determine such matters. That was the fundamental weakness in the previous expenses system. There is a lot of history and reason behind all this, but there is also reason for the state we are in. I remind the House that we are about to go through a series of court cases and that others might follow. The media will be full of that and so will our constituents. We are in that state of play because of the previous expenses system. The fundamental weakness was not just in the detail but in the principle: the public rightly hated the fact that we set our own terms and conditions.
We rightly broke with that principle and it was inevitable that a new system starting from scratch would have a lot of problems-some of us said so at the time and feared it. Whoever set up the system, whether it was this chap Kennedy with his IPSA, Sir Christopher Kelly with his committee and his review or any other body, it would have had significant problems because of the complexity of the arrangements. Arbitrary decisions will be made, as they are in every expenses system. When I ran a business, I set the system for my employees and contractors, and when I was a union representative, I negotiated and tried to improve expenses systems. Of course, there were arbitrary decisions that I thought unfair when I was operating within other systems, but there always will be in any independent system. This all comes back to whether we set the system. That is the breach point; the motion would break that principle and that is why it is fundamentally wrong.
Claire Perry (Devizes) (Con):
Many new Members on the Government Benches have no issue with the principle of an independent, transparent organisation. As someone who publishes all her expenses on her website, I entirely support the move. The hon. Gentleman talked about creating something from scratch. Rather than going out and buying an off-the-shelf system that could have been provided by numerous companies around the world, we have been compelled to reinvent the wheel and we have ended up with a square wheel that is gold-plated at best. Surely, the hon. Gentleman, with
his business experience, will have come across multiple organisations that could have done that for 650 Members. We are not a multi-million pound organisation with hundreds of thousands of employees. We are a small organisation that is struggling to do the best thing by British taxpayers and our constituents. I totally support the motion that my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) has tabled as a way of doing it better.
John Mann: If the hon. Lady supports the motion, she supports a break in the fundamental principle on which we legislated. [Hon. Members: "Read it! It doesn't say that. You can't read."] Would hon. Members like to listen? [Hon. Members: "Can't you read? Read it!"] Hon. Members choose to shout abuse. Yes, I can read, I have read the motion, and I have seen what the principle is. Hon. Members should read the 2008 debate and see the problem with the culture of MPs trying to determine the detail of their own expenses.
I refute the point made by the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie), who moved the motion, that MPs cannot do their job under the new system. I can do my job under the new system as well as I did it in the past. Nothing is restricting me in the range of things I do, or in how I interpret and do my job. I put it to him that mine is not the least busy of offices, and I am not taking on the least onerous amounts of work. In my estimation, IPSA has improved month on month, and will continue to do so. That is the salient point when starting a new system. I can see only a few areas where further improvement would have a significant impact.
George Hollingbery (Meon Valley) (Con): I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and I understand his problem with the motion. As a new Member, I welcome a transparent and publicly accountable expenses system that all can see, and I understand his problem-he thinks that Parliament is attempting to control IPSA in some way. However, he must recognise that this place has a duty of care to the taxpayer. How would he hold IPSA, and its expenses and costs, to account? I believe strongly that it does not provide good value for money. I have no particular beef with how it administers the system-although other hon. Members do-but will he explain how the House, which pays for IPSA with revenue raised from taxation, will hold it to account?
John Mann: When the House passed the relevant legislation, it put in place such processes. Similar processes were in place before. Although the Speaker did not select my amendment, he has the ability and power to do that now, and he uses that power to the best of his ability.
"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."
That is a fundamental step over the line between the House ceding authority to an independent body and not doing so. It might well be that an independent body establishes and maintains an expenses system that no Members of Parliament are happy with, but the moment
the principle is accepted of ceding that authority, as has been done on salaries as well, that principle cannot be breached.
It is reasonable, of course, for me and other Members to raise with IPSA, or indeed any other independent body, criticisms we have and improvements we would make-and I have done so. My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) raised the issue of the travel card. I have raised that precise point with IPSA and suggested that its systems on that are far too bureaucratic, too onerous on Members and too expensive. I would consider that a sensible improvement. I have made that point, and I hope that it listens. It is right and proper that the House expresses concerns about the detail. I share the concerns, as I am sure does the hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery), about some of the appointments at the top of IPSA. I do not think it needs all these high-falutin' executives in post and being paid. So I totally agree with him, if that is the point he was alluding to.
John Mann: I totally and absolutely agree on that point. That is a criticism I would make. However, that should not obscure the principle, and if we roll back the principle with this motion, we will be back to where we were on 3 July 2008, and we will be saying that it is for us to decide our pay and conditions. It is precisely that problem that created the system that led to the disregard in which we are still held by the British people. The fact that they believe we are all at it-all on the make-is not simply a temporary blip. For many of them that description will continue for a long time to characterise their perception of their Members of Parliament, which will bring about a fundamental weakness in our democracy.
Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) on securing the debate. I am a new Member, one of the 2010 intake. I campaigned against the abuse of expenses, and to this day I am disgusted by it. My concern is very simple: the time that I spend fiddling around with the expenses system is time that I cannot spend helping my constituents. That is my prime concern, and the prime reason why I support the motion.
John Mann: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the amount of time that my staff and I have to spend on the system is greater than it was before, but I recall the system as it was before. As we have learnt from what has emerged, in those days a signature would do, and the scandals that followed made it clear that that was not sufficient. No organisation in the country that experienced such a level of scandal related to expenses would not have introduced a requirement for every box to be ticked and every receipt to be monitored. We cannot set ourselves a lower standard than we would expect of any corporation, or any other part of the public sector out there.
Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con):
I would have supported the hon. Gentleman's amendment had Mr Speaker called it, because I thought its tone admirable. My point concerns the independence of any regulator of a sovereign Parliament. The difficulty is that, although that regulator may be independent in
title, what the House of Commons gives by legislation it can take by legislation. Constitutionally, therefore, IPSA cannot be independent of Parliament-and nor should it be, because if it were independent of Parliament, it would be independent of the British people.
John Mann: I do not think that that would be an accurate constitutional point if there were a constitution. Parliament has powers to meddle with the courts. Parliament has the power, for example, to meddle with any piece of legislation. The question is whether Parliament should cede authority over the administering of, and the meddling with, such implements.
Parliament could, at some stage, decide to abolish, but my amendment seeks to influence by threatening to abolish, which in some respects is even more invidious than simply moving to abolish. For the House to suggest, six months into a new system, that that system is too onerous to allow Members to do their job properly is absurd. Legitimate criticisms can be made on grounds of both bureaucracy and expense, but we should not reverse the principles of a decision made so recently. I warn the House that if we do, the wrath of our constituents will rightfully fall on us, because we will be saying, "The bad old days were not that bad. We will create the system that we want to fit us." [Hon. Members: "People are not saying that."] Actually, people are saying many different things about the expenses system that would suit them and their position best. That is the problem with creating expenses systems: we have different constituencies, and experience different circumstances in different parts of the country.
John Mann: I shall conclude on this: the principles on which we changed-because we were forced to change, because in 2008 and January 2009 we refused to change the system or even to countenance changes to the system-are the same principles today. In pointing that out some of us may have to become a little less popular, but in this case it is not us who are the extremists in the debate. In this case we are the moderates in the debate, suggesting a moderate way forward. I advise the House that in this case moderation would do well.
Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) has performed a signal service to the House by initiating this debate. I congratulate him on his pertinent and important contribution.
I declare an interest. I am one of the 128 MPs who are no longer able to claim expenses for accommodation in London, even though-my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr Gale) rightly alluded to this-my journey time correctly measured from my front door to my House of Commons office door is some two hours, and that is on days when it is not snowing.
I want to make five quick points. First, under section 5 of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009, IPSA is under clear statutory consultation obligations. I believe that IPSA was in clear breach of those statutory obligations in respect of MPs like myself whose constituencies were not specifically identified either in the Kelly report or in IPSA's own consultation document as constituencies
where the MPs were likely to be deprived of their London accommodation expenses, virtually without notice. I consider that the treatment by IPSA of this group of MPs, particularly those who have rental contracts, has been wholly unacceptable.
The chronology ran as follows. On 29 March this year, IPSA published its MPs expenses scheme, and the MPs concerned learned, out of the blue, that they would no longer obtain reimbursement for their rental contracts. The expenses scheme was brought into statutory effect on the very same date by Mr Speaker laying the expenses scheme before the House. A few days later, on 12 April, Parliament was dissolved, and the MPs concerned therefore lost any ability to contest or to object to the provisions that had been included in the expenses scheme.
Polling day was a few weeks later on 6 May, and the IPSA expenses scheme came into legal effect on the following day, 7 May. Those MPs with rental contracts found themselves unable to claim reimbursement for their rental payments under those contracts with immediate effect. I believe this was a serious breach of IPSA's statutory consultation obligations. If any employer, whether in the public or the private sector, had treated their people in the same way, they would face serious liability for damages in front of an employment tribunal.
Mr Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I hope my right hon. Friend will recognise that we are not employees in any sense. We are self-employed. Had he lost his seat on 6 May, there would have been no question of reimbursement from public funds for his rental contract, however much time remained unfilled.
Sir John Stanley: There is an important point on the status of MPs, to which I shall come later. If they were self-employed, they would determine their own expenses scheme. They emphatically are not doing so.
"Members of Parliament have the right to be reimbursed for unavoidable costs where they are incurred wholly, exclusively, and necessarily in the performance of their parliamentary duties, but not otherwise."
It is an illustration of the sad and regrettable fact that the IPSA board members have not adequately informed themselves about what is involved in the work of an MP that that principle, which IPSA says is fundamental, has not been complied with in a number of cases. I want to explain one such case.
As all of us know, what are deemed to be outer London Members-which includes a huge swathe representing constituencies in the home counties-regularly make day visits to their constituencies wholly for parliamentary purposes, such as to attend a school or a meeting with their health authority, but none of the travel costs for such trips are reimbursable under the IPSA expenses scheme unless the Member goes to his or her constituency office, which might be wholly irrelevant to the purpose of the journey. That is one illustration of IPSA failing to comply with what it describes as a fundamental principle, and I have no doubt that other Members can think of further situations when they have incurred expenses
"wholly, exclusively, and necessarily in the performance of their parliamentary duties"
My third point is about a term with which we are all very familiar: maladministration. In the Westminster Hall debate initiated by the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick), countless examples of maladministration by IPSA were given. It is very regrettable that in putting together the legislation that is the basis for IPSA, the previous Government failed to apply to IPSA as a statutory quango the same right of redress as applies in respect of a host of similar bodies-namely, the right for an individual to make a complaint of maladministration, in this case to the parliamentary ombudsman. It is equally regrettable that the current Government have thus far failed to address that.
"The remit of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (the Parliamentary Ombudsman) is updated annually. As part of this exercise, consideration is given to whether bodies established in year should be brought within the Parliamentary Ombudsman's remit."-[ Official Report, 29 November 2010; Vol. 519, c. 560W.]
The parliamentary ombudsman's remit is under constant examination, and I believe IPSA should forthwith be brought within its remit so that Members of Parliament-and possibly others, such as Members' staff-can make a complaint of maladministration against IPSA to the parliamentary ombudsman.
My fourth point is that in any properly functioning democracy it is, of course, essential that Ministers and Members of Parliament are not in any way above the law, but equally in any properly functioning democracy Members of Parliament should have the same rights in law as are available to other individuals who are engaged in their occupational work. Under IPSA, however, Members of Parliament are uniquely disadvantaged in law. IPSA is effectively performing the functions of the employer: in any walk of life it is the employer who determines what expenses can be claimed for, how they should be claimed for and so forth, and those are exactly IPSA's functions. In any other walk of life, the employee-the person working-would be able to go to an employment tribunal. Members are not self-employed; we have employed status for tax purposes. IPSA is the employer in that it determines the expenses framework, but Members are, I believe, the only occupational group in this country who have employed status but no right of recourse to an employment tribunal. That should change, and we should have the same rights as every other occupation group, solely, I stress, in relation to IPSA and the performance of its expenses function and emphatically not-I repeat, not-in relation to the electorate.
My fifth and final point is about parliamentary privilege. Of the privileges that we have, one of the most important for the benefit of our constituents is the fundamental privilege of freedom from obstruction in the performance of our parliamentary duties. In our debates about IPSA, Member after Member has referred to the way in which they as Members, or their staff assisting them, have been obstructed by IPSA-by its bureaucratic processes, failure to answer the telephone and the 1,001 things to which Members have referred-in terms of the severe loss of time while dealing with the authority and its
procedures. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor, in his House magazine article on 8 November, said of IPSA:
"It actively obstructs Members in their efforts to represent the people who elect them,"
I am in no doubt that this issue-the relationship between IPSA and parliamentary privilege-should be brought before the Standards and Privileges Committee. As the House knows, under current procedures, which in my view are outdated and urgently need to be reformed, the only way in which an individual Member can put a complaint about a breach of privilege in front of that Committee is by means of making a precedence motion application to Mr Speaker. Most right hon. and hon. Members know that I have made such an application because there is no doubt whatever in my mind that many Members are being materially obstructed in the performance of their parliamentary duties by IPSA, but my application was, sadly, unsuccessful.
I hope that right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House will not be deterred by the fate of my application; I hope that other Members will consider making an application to Mr Speaker; and I very much hope that their persuasions in relation to Mr Speaker on this issue are superior to my own.
Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. In view of the tragic news from Zurich and the sounds of celebration being carried on the chill eastward winds from Russia, has any approach been made to you, Sir, or to your office to disseminate that sad information throughout the Palace?
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): The country is suffering sub-zero temperatures, towns and villages are being cut off, some people are isolated, airports are being closed, and I was wondering what piece of news could depress me more. I was wondering also which Member could bring that news to me, and I am not surprised that it is Mr Pound.
I am sure the whole House wishes Russia well in holding the World cup and to send its thanks and gratitude to the presentation team of the United Kingdom, with His Royal Highness Prince William, the Prime Minister, David Beckham and others. They did as best as they possibly could, and we are all somewhat depressed that football is not yet coming home, but we look forward to the day when it does. This is clearly not a point of order for the House, though.
Andrew Bridgen: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I point out to the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) that if he were slightly more generous with taking interventions, there would not be the number of comments from a sedentary position to which he objects so vehemently.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie), whose speech was measured, informed and worthy of the best traditions of this House of Commons. It is appropriate that we discuss this matter, because it is six or seven months since the general election and since IPSA took over its duties. I am not the only one who thinks it appropriate; IPSA thinks so as well. It has embarked on its own review of how the system has worked over the past six months and how it can be improved. There is no doubt in my mind that no hon. Member thinks that we should go back to the old system or that there should not be an independent body to oversee the system. I agree with the independence of the body and that we should not go back to the discredited system of old.
Liz Kendall (Leicester West) (Lab): As a new Member, I think I am right in saying that one benefit of the old system was that when a newly elected Member took on staff who had previously worked for an MP, it counted as continuous employment. One of my caseworkers previously worked for the former Member of Parliament for Leicester West. He was recently denied statutory paternity pay, which I wanted to grant him because he had worked for the Member of Parliament for Leicester West for two years. He had not changed his job, but his employer had changed. Unfortunately, he was told that he was not eligible. Indeed, somebody in IPSA signed above my name as the employer to say that he was not entitled to statutory paternity pay. Continuous service is one element of the old system that would be of benefit.
Paul Murphy: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I hope that her comments and those of all hon. Members who take part in the debate are noted seriously by IPSA. I am sure that it is watching proceedings and will read Hansard.
It is important for IPSA to understand what this debate is about. First, it is about ensuring that IPSA's operation is cost-effective, because we have a duty as the House of Commons to the taxpayers of this country to ensure that it is cost-effective. Secondly, it is about ensuring that the body is working properly. Undoubtedly, there are areas in which it is not doing so. Thirdly, and most significantly to Members of Parliament, it is about ensuring that our constituents are receiving the best possible service from us.
The area of office costs illustrates my point well. My predecessor entered the House of Commons in 1958. I took over in 1987, until which point no Member of Parliament representing the old Pontypool seat had had a constituency office. That was not unusual. Constituency after constituency did not have an office occupied by the Member of Parliament. I have no doubt that if, almost 24 years on, I decided to close down the office, my constituents would disagree violently. People in every constituency expect their Member of Parliament to have a constituency base with a caseworker, where they can go to talk about their problems.
I agree with the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr Gale) that there is a considerable difference between an MP who uses the parliamentary estate as his or her main office and one whose main office is in the constituency.
The biggest change that we should make is to disentangle office expenses from personal expenses, because an office expense is not a personal one. That matter is causing considerable difficulties for Members and I believe that IPSA is beginning to understand that. It is beginning to change its policy on that. For instance, as Members will know, office rent can now be paid directly by IPSA and we can use the travel or credit card that IPSA supplies to pay certain bills. I do not see for one second why that should not be taken even further. Personally, I do not want to handle any money at all to do with my constituency office, and I believe that my constituents would agree with that policy.
Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): I have to disabuse my right hon. Friend of the idea that IPSA can handle treating personal expenses and office expenses differently. When I asked IPSA to reimburse my expenses for living in London to my personal account and to put my claims for my office into an office cost account, which I have run for the past 18 years, it said that it could not handle two bank accounts at the same time. It could pay all the money into my personal account or all of it into my office account, but it could not separate the payments. The system is terrible and not geared up to deal with the reality of an MP's life.
Paul Murphy: The result, of course, is that the service that we provide our constituents becomes less and less effective. There is no reason in this wide world why the old system of ensuring that personal expenses are separate from office expenses should be taken over by IPSA. Its starting that process seems to me to underline the fact that it has accepted the principle that they are different.
George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the expenses scandal represented a deep crisis of trust writ large in our political establishment? The establishment of IPSA as an institution is rooted in that distrust and reflects it. As a new Member, I find myself approaching it with trepidation as if it were there to catch me out rather than help.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the system would be cheaper, better and more trust-nurturing if instead of monitoring every single claim, IPSA assumed that MPs were honest and just carried out occasional, random checks without warning, as is done across so many areas of public life? If anyone were found to be cheating, IPSA would punish them, rather than assuming that everybody was cheating and spending millions of pounds of public money on that basis.
The hon. Gentleman is right in the first instance. There is and was a great need for public trust in our expenses system, as that has obviously been lost in the past year or so. However, that is not in any way contradicted by the need to improve how IPSA works. It is so important that there should be transparency, accountability and proper checking on all the claims. Today's newspaper revelations about what Members have claimed indicate that people are looking at the details online, and they can examine the hon. Gentleman's details and mine any day of the week. So there is transparency-of course there is-but the problem comes if a system is so bureaucratic, costly and difficult to administer, and occasionally so unfair, that the people
suffering are not necessarily the Members of Parliament, but those whom we represent. That is the basis of today's debate.
Mr Ian Davidson (Glasgow South West) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the IPSA issues that is not transparent is the cost that it places on Members' staff time? There is no mechanism through which the staff time taken up filling in IPSA forms, dealing with IPSA, phoning IPSA, waiting on the phone for IPSA to answer and waiting for IPSA to ring us back is quantified at all. That is a grossly underestimated cost, which is totally untransparent.
Paul Murphy: That is a valid point, which many Members have raised in the debate. On days when we have to deal with IPSA issues, we tend to find ourselves spending much more time on those than on constituents' problems or on preparing for debates in the Chamber of the House of Commons.
Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): Recently, there was an application for a job in my office from a candidate who described herself as "IPSA literate". The system is so arcane, irrational and impenetrable that to be IPSA literate is equivalent to having about two honours degrees. Many of us have taken the line that to impose the job of dealing with IPSA on an employee would be regarded by any tribunal as cruel and inhuman treatment. Does my right hon. Friend not agree that if a commercial organisation-an internet bank, for example-ran a system such as IPSA's, it would now be out of business because its system was so client-unfriendly?
Paul Murphy: Yes, indeed-my hon. Friend is absolutely right. Given that some years ago the then Prime Minister appointed me as Minister for digital inclusion, I thought that I had some knowledge of how to use computers, but I was defeated in having to deal with these issues. Most Members have to deal with this problem with a highly trained member of staff. I am not surprised that my hon. Friend was looking for someone who had those particular qualifications, although of course he is extremely good with computers and has been for many years.
I want to make two other points. First, the artificial distinction between core expenditure and other expenditure has to go, because it does not take into account the geographical variations from constituency to constituency in office rent, in particular, and other factors too. I hope that IPSA will look into that.
My final point relates to our staff. Not many Members have mentioned the men and women who work for us, either here in the House of Commons directly or, particularly, in our constituencies. They have been seriously disadvantaged over the past number of months, not least by the dramatic change in the pension position. It is now taken directly out of our allowances and not paid from the Commons itself. There is a very strong case that the trade unions and staff associations that represent the staff of Members of Parliament should be properly recognised and should have proper means of negotiating directly with IPSA to ensure that their conditions of service are not disadvantaged. This would not happen in the private sector or in the public sector outside this place, and it should not happen in the House of Commons.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. As is self-evident, a lot of Members wish to catch my eye in this debate. I have therefore decided to introduce an eight-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): It is important that IPSA has a voice in this Chamber. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) took on that role, because, of 650 MPs I cannot think of a better person to be the devil's advocate. I am a member of the Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. Unfortunately, despite my best endeavours over the past three months, the Committee has not met. I therefore congratulate the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) on securing this debate and colleagues on supporting it.
It is important that we praise IPSA's front-line staff, because they, like us, are in this situation: we may be in different canoes, but we are in the same creek without paddles. We should also take on board the enormous debt of gratitude owed to our office staff. It has been estimated that the equivalent of 100 full-time MPs' staff jobs are now devoted to dealing with IPSA affairs-it is as serious as that. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw estimated that more time is now being spent on this in his office, so even the leading advocate of IPSA acknowledges that fact.
Earlier, the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) made a very serious allegation about the head of communications at IPSA. I hope that by the end of the afternoon the Minister will be able to say whether there is any truth in the allegations. Interestingly, today's Daily Mail and Daily Express had almost identical stories, which must have come from the same source. The Daily Mail at least had the good grace to say,
"Leaked figures from the...Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority",
so it acknowledges they were leaked from IPSA. The same article belittles MPs for claiming expenses in August when we were on holiday. A good journalist is always at work and a good policeman is never off duty, and the same goes for an MP and their staff.
"Now to the facts. IPSA is careering stupidly out of control. Many MPs, particularly new young members, are close to despair, but dare not complain publicly because of the witch-hunting atmosphere that still prevails."
"The salary of IPSA's own director of communications (leading a team of three communications staff!)"-
is more than £80,000"
There are stories of MPs enduring long waits on the hotline, and long delays when IPSA replies to letters and so on, to which Matthew Parris also refers. There have been approximately 150 parliamentary questions, including some from the hon. Member for Bassetlaw. IPSA is taking up more and more time. As an MP for 13 years, I have come to realise that the job is different from anything else, but IPSA thinks that MPs work Monday to Friday, 9 to 5.
IPSA did not bother to go to constituency offices. Very early on-long before any brown stuff hit any fans-I invited the chief executive to my constituency, because I thought it would help him to know what goes on. There is a do-down-MPs culture at the top of IPSA. I do not include the front-line staff because I think that, like us, they are doing a grand job. I cannot think of any other description for that culture, and frankly, I no longer care-I have gone way past the stage of caring-what the national media may or may not say about me and my expenses. My conscience is clear. I know that like just about every other MP, for the past 13 years, my wife and I have subsidised my work as an MP. The second homes thing caused a major problem for me like it did for others because of inattention to form-filling, if I can use that phrase. That is a world of difference away from how we are now being treated. Matthew Parris finished his article in The Specator by saying:
"It is left, I would argue, to Fleet Street's Westminster and Whitehall journalists and commentators and to political scientists. They talk to MPs. They know it's a big problem. Yet few have entered more than footnotes acknowledging it. Why are they silent?"
I doorstepped IPSA's offices to find that they are the most luxurious offices to be found anywhere. There we have a problem, because IPSA tells me that I am claiming too much for my converted church hall. It has even told me that my claim for a photocopying machine could not be paid. I do not know of an MP who does not have a photocopier, but I was asked to prove that mine exists. I sent IPSA a photograph of it, but even that did not work-I still did not get payment for the machine. It was easier for me to open a new IPSA bank account and front load it with £5,000 rather than wait for IPSA to reimburse me. My wife and I paid that money. I do not know of a family doctor who has to pay the rent on his surgery or pay for medicine and claim the money back, but IPSA feels that MPs should be treated in that way.
I had cause to write to the chief executive of IPSA because it managed to fail to pay the national insurance of one member of my staff for three months. We all know that a break in NI contributions can have serious consequences. I eventually received a reply-unsigned-not from the chief executive, but from the deputy payroll manager. That shows the contempt in which MPs are held in the highest levels of IPSA.
I have tabled questions to find out how our Prime Minister and Cabinet colleagues are getting on with their IPSA claims, although I have managed to get only
three answers back. Hon. Members will be pleased to know that the expenses of the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs are managed by the "Parliamentary Office". The Secretary of State for Defence said that
"the information requested could be provided only at disproportionate cost."-[ Official Report, 19 November 2010; Vol. 518, c. 966W.]
"I am aware of concerns surrounding the expenses system and am keen to see improvements."-[ Official Report, 1 November 2010; Vol. 517, c. 495W.]
"IPSA Claims System-Web Site Error...A general website error occurred during your last performed action...System administrators have been notified. Please try again later."
There is much more that I would like to say. Frankly, however, IPSA needs to get its act together. Even the Prime Minister says that there must be improvements, so I look to the Chamber to set the ball moving today. If the hon. Member for Bassetlaw wants a vote, let us have a vote.
Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): One point arising from the speech made by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) that I shall immediately take up is the need for IPSA's offices to be on the parliamentary estate. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who will lead for the Opposition, and the Minister will support that in their winding-up speeches.
It is always unfortunate when the House is debating its own affairs. I recall our 1996 debate on salaries. That was necessary and justified in the circumstances, but no one relishes discussing our internal matters.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) is not in a minority of one as someone who wants a proper, transparent system. He is also not alone in wishing to ensure that the abuses that occurred before never occur again. We are all of the same view. Indeed, in April and May 2007, although I do not recall that my hon. Friend was present, about five or six of us attended the Chamber strongly to object to and protest about a private Member's Bill that would have exempted Parliament from freedom of information legislation. I was pleased that that Bill never became law. In addition, about 10 years ago, I was one of those who opposed the way in which the then Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards had her contract terminated-or at least not extended-and we had a pretty good idea why that happened.
I would be absolutely delighted if the alternative system brought in under IPSA was doing its job, helping Members, ensuring that everything was transparent and above board, and operating so that abuses could not occur. However, the fact of the matter, as the debate has demonstrated, is that that has not happened-it is the opposite in many respects. The manner in which IPSA was introduced and started its work was, in many ways, intended to teach us a lesson, but I believe that teaching us a lesson is a matter not for IPSA, but for the electorate. Moreover, we saw in May a large number of
new Members-more than a third of the House. Surely new Members did not need any lessons about abuses because they were not here at the time.
Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I also remember-albeit from the other side of the House-opposing the Bill to exempt MPs from freedom of information legislation, which thankfully never became law. I understand the hon. Gentleman's point that IPSA needs to do better. Indeed, those of us who would have liked to support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) accept that point. However, does the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) agree that this is an issue of trust? The public lost trust in the MPs' expenses system entirely. If we were to vote today to legislate to change IPSA, if we do not like what it is doing, such a threat would do nothing to rebuild the trust that we need the public to have.
Mr Winnick: I hope that I will have time to deal with the valid point that the hon. Lady makes. I remember her joining us to oppose the Bill that would have exempted Parliament from freedom of information legislation. At that time, those of us who opposed the Bill did not get much support from Government and Opposition Front Benchers, but be that as it may.
If it was difficult for those returning to the House after the election to deal with IPSA, it must have been an outright nightmare for new Members trying to sort out their constituency offices, their staff and their rented residential accommodation, either in London or in their constituency. IPSA in no way wished to be in a position to help. It had a helpline, but if ever there was an anti-helpline, that was it. We could not get through to it. Even now, it is difficult, but it was certainly so at that time. And even if we managed to get through to the helpline, the person who answered the phone-whom I do not blame-made it perfectly clear that he did not have the authority to give us the necessary information. I had some experience of that myself.
I entirely accept the point made by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) that the abuses that occurred did tremendous damage to Parliament. Of course they did. Some Members abused the system in such a way as to enrich themselves without caring at all about the reputation of Parliament. They were obviously working on the assumption that none of it would come out. As I said earlier, there is no question but that we need to ensure that that does not happen again. Of course the system has to be transparent and honest, and I only wish that IPSA was doing the job that I would like it to do.
I employ staff to assist me in carrying out my duties as a Member of Parliament. I do not believe that I am employing them to process my claims. Why should a member of staff be involved in that? That is not a matter of confidentiality; far from it. I want all the information to come out as quickly as possible. It can go on any website as soon as possible; I have absolutely nothing to hide, and I am sure that that applies to other hon. Members as well. But it is not the job of the staff to be involved in processing my claims. It so happens that I might be guilty of this, although I was not aware that there was a great issue at the election as to whether I would be able to process the electronic devices involved. It so happens that I cannot do so, so there is no alternative but to have assistance. But why can we not
submit our claims on paper, as we did previously? I used to submit my claims almost religiously near the end of each month, and I would always enclose the relevant documentation. I would not have expected the old Fees Office to receive my claim without it. Now, everything is separate. The claim is processed and the documentation is sent on accordingly.
Then there is the question of the word "expenses". The general public might feel that we can claim expenses of £40 or £50, and perhaps a cab fare-not that we are entitled to claim it-or a meal here and there, but there are very large sums involved for those of us who are not rich. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw is not alone in not having inherited wealth. Indeed, I am not aware of many Labour Members who have done so, and I imagine that a good number of Government Members have not inherited wealth either. The sums involved-utility bills, office rent and so on-mount up to a considerable sum for those of us who do not have substantial wealth. That is all the more reason why, in some instances at least, those expenses should be paid directly by IPSA, once it is satisfied that all the documentation is in order. If everything has been checked and double checked, and IPSA is happy with the documentation, there is no reason why it should not pay those expenses directly.
The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire said that, from the public's point of view, it would look very bad if we agreed to abolish IPSA. I think that, to a large extent, the answer lies with IPSA. It should be willing to listen, and to recognise that the criticism is valid and legitimate, that we are not on the make, and that we are not crooks and not dishonest. If IPSA recognises that what we are saying today is legitimate and valid, and that there is a need for flexibility and a need to look again at these matters-this does not apply so much to me, at my age, but it is important for Members with young families-I do not believe that it will be necessary to change IPSA as such. However, if it continues to remain obstinate and remote, I am afraid that the time might well come in this Parliament when Members will have no alternative but to conclude that new arrangements should be made, and that they should be transparent, certainly, but different from what they are now.
I want to make two brief points, the first of which is about time. I have had to cancel meetings with constituents to spend more time dealing with IPSA, and I do not think that that can be right. The IPSA system and website are so cumbersome that they take far too long to operate, which has a direct effect on the time available to look after constituents. That cannot have been Parliament's intention. When IPSA gets things wrong, as it does, one then has to spend extra time explaining why it has got things wrong.
My hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) said that this debate was not about personal inconveniences, and I agree with him-it is about much broader issues. I do not want to dwell on a personal inconvenience, but I wanted to raise one example because I think that it illustrates the nature of the problem. I
recently discovered that IPSA has refused to pay my constituency office telephone bill. I have not met anyone who thinks that is right, but I resent having to spend time investigating it and explaining to IPSA that my constituency office telephone bill is an entirely legitimate cost. So far, I have been too busy to do that. I fear that when I eventually find time to do it, IPSA will tell me that my complaint is now outside some arbitrary time limit that it has set. It should not be necessary to waste time explaining how absurd that is, so I shall move on to my second point, which is about value for money.
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.
I ran my own business 10 years ago. I sent electronic invoices to my clients and received payment from them electronically, and payment systems have moved on considerably since then. I do not believe that at present IPSA uses public money economically, effectively or efficiently, so I am pleased to support the motion, particularly because I know that the proposals made by my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor would save over £4 million per year of public money.
Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab):
I welcome the sea change from a system that was clearly not transparent as far as the public were concerned. It was clear that the public thought that the system we had before contained hidden powers for Members of Parliament and a lack of transparency. The electorate were right to demand a redefinition of what we were allowed to spend their taxes on. I have no regrets about all the things for which expenses were available before but have now been withdrawn. It would be wrong of us to think
that the public did not demand changes-and they got changes. I regard it as important that we have an independent, transparent system, controlled and reconciled by a body outwith the control of MPs. That is why I cannot vote for the motion.
However, I disliked the witch hunting that went on during the process of change. It distorted the public's view, and IPSA is a system based partly on what is acceptable to the tabloid journalists and The Daily Telegraph, as well as to the few hotheads-only a few dozen in my constituency-who demanded that we should pay everything out of our salaries and sleep on a park bench. As I have said again and again, it is a punishment system, although IPSA did not mean it to be.
I have to be quite honest that I disliked the windbaggery at the time, of which we have heard some more today, with people playing to the redtops and going for populism rather than common sense in their speeches. That is not useful to any of us. I am sad to say that I could not have supported the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) if it had been selected, because he is doing it again. It mentions apologising unreservedly to the British people-should the 300 new Members vote for that? It suggests that the House trusts IPSA, but I do not trust it. I think IPSA is an incompetent system, put together by people on a board in which I have no confidence, under a chairman who I do not believe understands, or has even tried to understand, what is required. I told the gentleman that to his face, and I have not been persuaded to change my opinion.
If any Member says that IPSA is not interfering with their task of working for their constituents and constituency, either they are not getting reimbursed, they are getting a member of their staff to do the work for them or they are working longer hours. I have an ongoing case in my constituency of a man of 53 who buried his 30-year-old son, who developed pneumonia and left behind four children. That man is an unemployed bricklayer in the middle of a recession that is particularly affecting the building industry. He is my priority, so I chose to deal with his case rather than to start claiming back some of the road travel expenses that I have never claimed since the day that IPSA came into being. I do the same every time-I give priority to my constituency work load and what my constituents need, and I keep putting off claims.
Of course, IPSA's 90-day rule means that many claims for such legitimate expenses will be denied me, as the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), who travels two hours to the House every day, told us earlier. It has made an arbitrary rule that after 90 days, it does not matter what we have spent money on, we cannot get it back. Another arbitrary rule is that if we forget to send the paperwork within seven days of an online claim, it can deny us the payments. That has nothing to do with the legitimate claims and expenditure of Members of Parliament.
Now is the correct time to have this debate, which is not about having a whinge at IPSA. It has said from the beginning that there will be a six-month review, and that it will improve the system. My contention, as I said to Sir Ian Kennedy when he came to speak to the Scottish Labour group, is that just as a camel is a horse designed by a committee, IPSA's system was supposed to be a horse but is in fact a donkey. It was designed by
people who were not competent to design it or they met a man, or maybe even a woman, of shifty personal background, who sold them a system that is inadequate and yet much more tortuous.
My son is a senior systems solutions architect for Hitachi. He was awarded the Hitachi systems engineer of the year award for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries last year. He laughs like a drain every time I tell him about our online claim system, which we have to back up like some sort of petty cost clerk, by putting together all the paperwork and sending it all in for somebody to check.
I tell my son that two companies are involved-one in Manchester, which is getting a good old pay-off for the online system, and a wedge of people up on Victoria road in rather palatial circumstances who are supposedly checking every single invoice that comes through, and who boast about having turned down so many claims from Members that are in fact legitimate. We have heard that they have even refused claims for people's offices or not paid national insurance. That is not a system that is working efficiently, but it is costing the Government, and the people through their taxes, a lot of money.
I have had a number of useful conversations with the acting chief executive. I always worry about acting chief executives-are they afraid that if they recommend radical change they could be sacked? He is still acting chief executive, yet he seemed to respond well to everything I said to him.
I have experience of running a claims system as a leader of a council for 10 years. We used a paper system, rather than an online and a paper system. I also have experience of using the system in the Scottish Parliament. At the moment, I get all the bills for my office, which I share with my MSP, paid directly out of the allowances of the MSP and they then send me a bill from the Scottish Parliament and I pay it back to them. That arrangement is much quicker, much more efficient and much more transparent. There has been a suggestion that we move to a system of direct payment. Sadly, I think that a Member who spoke earlier was wrong, because IPSA has moved only slightly in the direction of saying that it will directly pay contracted regular payments, for example, our office rent and our office council tax. IPSA has also offered to do this for our second homes allowance, but-
Michael Connarty: I am sorry, but I do not have time to give way. IPSA cannot handle the idea that we might want to claim less back than we pay or that we also have regular non-contracted payments that vary, such as service charges for flats. IPSA can handle only very limited things. What it cannot do is handle a system where we send it the invoice, it verifies that it is legitimate, it pays it and then deducts it from our allowances, because IPSA is against an allowance system in principle. IPSA wants a system that is so stupid that we have to make the claims.
IPSA has done something bizarre in terms of transparency by saying that it will pay on invoices: we send it an invoice before we pay it, it will send us the money and then we have to remember to pay the invoice. I predict that there will be tragedies in that way;
people will lose invoices and will fail to pay them. If we pay them by credit card, where do we get the receipt to prove that we have paid?
The final thing that I want to talk about is the travel card. We get a paper version where we could clearly fill in what it is for and sign it at the bottom, as we used to do. We could then attach to it any receipts that are not coming from the travel office-the travel office will send IPSA every receipt directly-and so all of my flights, my train journeys and all my use of the Heathrow express would be covered. But IPSA does not want to know about that; we still have to go through a system of having this all put online, then following up on the cost part, assembling all the bits of paper and sending everything in. IPSA is not fit for purpose and it is costing us a lot of money. It is not time to take all the power back to MPs, but it is time to reform it properly.
Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I am a sinner and I embrace sin. In the previous Parliament, I used the expenses system almost to its fullest. So I am no angel and I accept that I have to take my share of responsibility for what went before-but that is then and this is now. I fully appreciate that IPSA was set an impossible task by this Chamber in July 2009. We legislated in haste and are now repenting at leisure. The Chancellor said last week that "I told you so" is not a policy, but in July 2009 I did say that we were going to regret the haste with which we were introducing the plans for IPSA and we are now regretting them bitterly. 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.
I fully appreciate and acknowledge the public anger at what went before, because it was unforgivable. However, we should recall that by July/August 2009 the Fees Office had got its act together and for that final nine months things improved dramatically. They improved at an annual cost to the taxpayer of £2 million a year. That is a significant sum, but it is not as significant as the £6.5 million a year that IPSA is costing the taxpayer. This must not be about taking revenge on Members of Parliament; it must be about value for money. In six months, IPSA will publish its first year's figures and they may well show that the cost to this country of Members of Parliament has reduced. However, we should treat those figures with great caution, because if the cost to this country has gone down because Members of Parliament are not claiming legitimate expenses or are funding them out of their own pockets, that is no victory at all.
Over the past decade we have talked about improving the diversity of representation in this place-diversity of race, creed and colour-and we have moved forward immensely. However, there is no diversity if everyone here ends up being rich-wealthy; having family money or independent means. Of course, the make-up of this Chamber is not going to change overnight-it is not going to change at the next general election-but over time it will change. This place will become the preserve of the better-off, whether they sit on the Government Benches or the Opposition Benches. There are many things to recommend the US political model, but one
thing that does not recommend it is the fact that most people who sit there have significant private means.
Let us talk further about diversity, because we now have a great diversity of ages here. 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.
"I'm too scared to claim";
"IPSA shows no interest or desire to keep families together";
"Regular nights spent sleeping on the office floor";
"IPSA is anti-family and favours richer Members";
"People won't claim and only wealthy people will come here as MPs".
Is that really what we want a 21st-century democracy in this country to look like? Do we really want Members of Parliament sleeping on their floors? Do we really want young parents separated from their children for huge amounts of time? Do we really want people to be paying legitimate expenses out of their own pockets, or the pockets of their partners or parents? That is simply a ridiculous place to be.
I have to say that I was disappointed in The Times newspaper yesterday. I have a great amount of time for The Times. I read it avidly and I thought that its reporting of the expenses scandal was fair and balanced. However, when it says in a headline: "MPs are already flouting new rules on expenses", it really does worsen the situation, deteriorating it even further. The article continued:
"The list of rejected claims...reveals how MPs were caught submitting duplicate claims, failed to provide sufficient documentary evidence to back up their demands and, in dozens of cases, flouted the new rules. One MP was refused £338 for a shredder".
That was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). Since becoming a Member of Parliament, I have dealt with cases that involved murder, rape and child abuse, and my God, we had better be shredding that stuff! As much as I respect The Times as a newspaper, if it wants to be responsible for heralding in the age of the rich, privileged Member of Parliament, what I have quoted is just the sort of stuff that will bring that about.
I want to say one more thing-this is not an attack on the Whips Office, but a statement of fact. Members have heard me talk repeatedly in this place about the creeping power of the Executive, and I will say this: if we worsen the financial situation of Back Benchers, we will inevitably increase the power of the Executive, because the attraction of becoming a Minister will be
even greater. It will not just be about the ministerial car or the red box; it will start being about the money as well.
If the expenses scandal taught us anything, it was that what our constituents want most is independent-minded Members of Parliament who do what they say and mean what they say. I have grave concerns about IPSA and what it is doing to this place. Things must change because if they do not we, our democracy and our constituents will all be worse off.
Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central) (Lab): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), who made an extraordinary speech-it was the right speech to make today. I say that advisedly because this issue unites hon. Members across the Floor of the House, but not in some crusade against the idea of an independent parliamentary standards authority and least of all against a recognition that some of what happened in the previous Parliament was gross and unacceptable. I hope that that view is shared universally across the House.
The hon. Member for Broxbourne put his finger on the main point: this is about the future. I hope that IPSA will listen to this point. We have heard many legitimate grumbles by our colleagues today about the difficulties they have had with IPSA and it is right and proper that they should be heard. To be fair, I think that IPSA has been steadily improving its act, but there are still too many problems with the system, as we have heard. The critical issue is the kind of Parliament we will create if we do not reform the system-I know that was the motivation for the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) in securing the debate and making his comments-and it is critical that the most senior people in IPSA, from the board to its senior managers, listen carefully to what is valid in the debate.
The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) made the point that when we hear about items such as shredders being refused, it brings the system into disrepute. I have had a shredder in my office for many years-it is pre-IPSA and long-paid for-and I use it to shred documents of the kind that the hon. Member for Broxbourne mentioned because I simply do not want to risk that paperwork getting into the public domain. That is a legitimate use of the money that MPs offices are provided because it protects and serves constituents-that is an important point to make. However, I would forgo that shredder if that were the only problem. The important test is what kind of House this will be in future if it is not family-friendly for people with young families and if family travel goes out of the window when children pass an arbitrary age because of a rule imposed from goodness knows where. It then becomes difficult to accommodate a family unless the individual concerned has personal wealth.
Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman think it odd that IPSA wrote to tell me -presumably, it also wrote to other Members-that I could bring my three children to London and claim expenses for 15 journeys a year but that I could not claim for my wife once? I wonder whether I should send the children around to IPSA to look after while I am working.
Tony Lloyd: Yes, it is odd. These issues are odd and arbitrary and IPSA must recognise that the system needs reform. It has begun to talk about the reform process so it is reasonable for the House to debate the kind of reform we need. If IPSA is engaged in a process, we should be part of the dialogue about how to move it on, and the experiences we have been hearing about show the direction that IPSA must take.
I want to mention one or two other areas where reform is needed. High on the list of priorities for all Members are matters relating to how people move through different lifestyles and ages. Some people will enter the House at a young age, perhaps with young families, while others will be older, but all will have different needs and different requirements. A proper Parliament should be geared up to accommodate Members of different backgrounds and needs at different stages of life. That ought to be automatic, but it is not so now. We need change there.
We need change in other areas that make it difficult for us to operate as Members of Parliament. For example, some of the arbitrary rules on the office cost ceiling might make sense in the lowest-cost parts of the country, but make no sense in large parts of London and even in constituencies such as mine. My constituency is actually one of the poorest in Britain, but its benchmark office costs are those for the city of Manchester. IPSA has to take those things seriously if it is to allow Members to do their jobs.
The issue of travel is fundamental. In virtually all the years I have been a Member, in all my different roles-whether on the Government Front Bench, the Opposition Front Bench or the Back Benches-it has been accepted that if a Member needs to travel on parliamentary business, their needs will be met, if the travel is legitimate. For Ministers that is automatic, and senior Opposition figures have it provided through Short money, but as we move down the political food chain-if that is the right terminology-that now ceases to be the case.
You know, Mr Deputy Speaker, that under the present rules, some travel outside a Member's constituency will be paid for, while other things will be refused. My right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron) pointed out to me that, as somebody who has spent the last 27 years in Parliament actively engaged on health matters, were he to travel from his south Yorkshire constituency to, for example, the Christie hospital in south Manchester, he would not necessarily be able to claim it as a legitimate cost, even though anybody with half a view of his work over the years would recognise it as important and fundamental to what he does.
Mr Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) (Lab): I travelled from my home in south Yorkshire to Huddersfield university a few Fridays ago, as the chair of the all-party group on pharmacy, to talk to 300 pharmacy students about pharmacy and how Parliament operates. I thought that was a legitimate claim, but it has now been denied. IPSA needs to look at these things, although I agree that it is improving in respect of some expenses claims.
Tony Lloyd: The sad thing is that, in refusing what most people would consider a common-sense, legitimate claim, it will now show as one of those wicked claims that IPSA has refused. That is how ludicrous the situation has become.
We can, of course, spend a lot of time apologising for what happened in the past. Individuals, and the House as a whole, had to go through that painful process. Those of us who were here then definitely went through it, but a third of the House consists of new Members who have no reason to apologise. However, they do have a need to function as proper Members of Parliament. Those who come in new at the next general election will have the same need to operate as functioning Members whose legitimate expenses are paid. That is the big test not for the House, but for IPSA in its review process, which is about to take place. IPSA has to get this right, not for my sake or the sake of the shredder in my office-I will give it back and buy my own, if that is the test-but to ensure that we have a Parliament that can do the work that the public do not necessarily always expect us to do, but which they need us to do.
Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): Parliament should create its own website, on which any Member of Parliament with a legitimate claim refused by IPSA could post it, along with an explanation, and once a week, IPSA should explain to its board, and put on the website, the reason it turned down certain claims. That way we could say in public, "This is the reason we put in the claim." We could put on the public record the fact that it was not accepted, and then IPSA could explain why it did not accept the shredder, the visit to the pharmacy students or whatever.
Spouses cannot now get their trips to constituencies paid for. Once, when I was abroad on overseas duties, and when representing my first constituency, I asked my wife if she would take my advice session. She did. She has a master's degree in social administration and is a psychiatric social worker. She is competent in all such matters. She said that I was not trained sufficiently to do the sort of work that I was being asked to do, and she may have been right: that may be one reason why she became a Member of Parliament herself.
If I asked a member of staff to take charge of an advice session, IPSA would pay. If I ask someone who could do it just as well-someone with 21 years' experience in the House of Commons-IPSA will not pay. That strikes me as an odd position to have arisen. However, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) that the individual members of staff at IPSA are good people. I have been to see them. The first time I visited their building I was going to the Stag brewery, where Watney's was making Red Barrel. The parties were better then.
I do not want to expose IPSA to scorn, but there are some things that I think stop us being serious for just a moment. We all know that when a claim has been prepared, we have to go through hoops to get a barcode. Once we have the barcode, we must print out a sheet of paper. It takes eight separate key presses to proceed from the stage of having the barcode in front of us to the stage of having a printed piece of paper in our hands. I do not believe that a single member of IPSA has been through that process, because anyone who had would have said, "This is absolutely wrong."
Once there is a hard copy of the receipt and the printed-out barcode sheet arrives with IPSA, what happens? I will give the House one guess. A member of IPSA's
staff generates another barcode to put on the bits of paper. There is a perfectly rational reason for that, but if all the members of staff and Members of Parliament were told that that is what happens next, they would say that it was unbelievable.
IPSA sometimes gets things wrong. We can all make honest mistakes: indeed, some of our colleagues who were exposed to public scorn made honest mistakes. When my PA wanted to arrange maternity cover and was going to telephone IPSA to ask how it would be arranged, I instructed her not to hold on for more than 45 minutes each time she did not receive an answer. That happened three times. IPSA tells me that, on average, its staff answer the phone in less than 10 minutes. When IPSA did respond, it said that payment for maternity cover would come out of the contingency fund, and both my PA and I would have to sign a statement that what was happening was both unavoidable and unexpected!
That was an honest mistake, and I am not criticising IPSA for it. What I am saying is that MPs who do not even make an honest mistake, but make an honest submission of a claim for a shredder or for a journey that is perfectly acceptable, are potentially exposed to what we read about in The Times yesterday, and to much more excitement after that.
I have shown IPSA people what happens when I log on to deal with a small self-invested pension pot: it takes me about 15 seconds to log on and be able to move money around. I have shown IPSA what happens when I engage in online banking: it takes about 25 seconds to log on and be able to make payments to people, for instance. I have explained to IPSA-I think that it understands this, and I am sure that the review will lead to even more improvements-that when virtually every Member of Parliament is buying office supplies from the same supplier, I do not understand why I should be expected to work out from the statement I receive from the firm, with invoices attached, which supplies I paid for last month, which supplies I am trying to pay for now, which supplies I have claimed for, and so forth. I do not think that anyone should have allowed such a rigmarole to develop.
In all my work-when I was working for the British Steel Corporation, a large organisation, and in my last job, when I was putting neon lights outside theatres and cinemas in the west end with 25 colleagues-I do not think that I have encountered any procedure that has been so demanding of both time and precision as the current expenses system.
Mr Gale: Can my hon. Friend possibly explain why IPSA is incapable of paying a bill directly and insists that it should go through a Member's bank account, given that, at a third of the cost, the old Fees Office was able to pay literally any bill directly to the supplier?
Peter Bottomley: I normally reply "Yes" to my hon. Friend, but in this instance the answer is, "No, I cannot." However, I think it comes down to the fact that members of the authority did not work their own way through the system, and did not talk to, say, a random selection of 10 Members of Parliament to ask what happens.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) mentioned the problems with the IPSA drop-down menu, which does not include
an option for us to go to our constituency to attend on a constituent or to attend some official function there. We are supposed to start at our constituency home or our constituency office. As it happens, I have a home in my constituency, but not so far as IPSA is concerned, because it is not paid for from public funds at all. There is an office of my association, which is not where I hold by advice sessions or other events, so I have the same problem as my right hon. Friend.
I have spoken to IPSA about the problem and I think it has a solution, but the problem should not arise. In the same way, we are told to find the cheapest way of going on journeys by train. Again, this is not the heaviest point to be made, but it is worth making. I had to go to the headquarters of the Sussex police in Lewes, outside my constituency, with a constituent who had wrongly been accused of rape. I found that I could go there and back for £5 return, so long as I booked in advance.
I said to IPSA, "The money doesn't really matter. It's not the principle, it's not the money, it's a matter of interest. If the meeting overruns, or the senior police officer cancels the meeting and books it on another day, will you please pay me back the £2.50 if I have to take another train back or the £5 if I don't go at all?" The answers that I got were delphic. IPSA was not quite saying no and it was not quite saying yes. It is the sort of question that we ought to be able to put and ask, "What is the answer?"
As another example-this is the way I work-my local association provides a walk-in service for constituents, individuals, businesses or community groups. As a liaison with me, the association can set up meetings, photocopy documents, send them to me or speak to me on the phone. I am not employing the staff or renting the building. We have come to an agreement on what the rough cost is and made an arrangement at slightly below that. The cost is not a problem with IPSA. The problem is which budget should cover it. I intend to ask IPSA to relax the limits on the incidental expenses. That seems the sensible way to deal with it, rather than force it wrongly into office or staff expenses.
Such issues matter. Members are told that they must go back to their constituency or not claim for a home in their constituency if it is less than an hour by train, platform to platform. IPSA must revise that. My constituency is on the south coast. I have come in from King's Cross and it has taken 40 minutes to get from the platform there to Westminster. The idea that a Member can then travel another 45 minutes-say, to the midlands-and expect to be useful the next day is fine if they start work at 2.30 when they come back. I pay tribute to my colleagues who are here at 8 am, or before, or shortly afterwards. Under IPSA's conditions, they cannot do a proper day's work as Members of Parliament.
I confirm the view of the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) who said that given a choice between doing expenses or helping a constituent, the duty is to help the constituent. When I was doing my expenses yesterday at 4 pm, expecting a two-hour break, a woman rang up. On 29 April her gas was turned off, and her new boiler might come next June. She has had to move out or would have got hypothermia. It took two hours to get the problem solved and next week she will have the boiler. I prefer to lose some of my own expenses because I came here to do good for other people, not to do good for myself.
Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab): I welcome the opportunity provided by the Backbench Business Committee to debate the operation of IPSA, courtesy of the effort shown by the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie). I do not propose to rehearse how we got here, as other hon. Members have done so, except to say that parts of the previous system did not bear close examination, nor did they command public support when they were unveiled to public view. The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr Gale) summed it up well when he said that things went badly wrong.
Things had to change, and the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 was the means by which the system was changed. As the House has learned, transparency was the best way of dealing with the problems of the past and is the best way of doing things. Members know that all the expenditure that they incur will be seen and scrutinised by the public. When the public, our voters, see the cost of the phone calls, the office rent, the stationery, the train travel and the accommodation, which is published today by IPSA, they too will realise that this is about nothing more and nothing less than the tools that MPs need to do their job.
The first point that I want to make is that in debating changes to the system as a prelude to the review that IPSA is undertaking-changes that are definitely needed-we must preserve the principle of transparency, a point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) and many others, and we must uphold the principle of independent oversight. I gently say to my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) that nobody wants to overturn that, and nor should we.
Mr Jenkin: Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on the fact that IPSA has said it is not going to publish invoices and evidence of payment? Does he agree that it is slightly illogical to have a system based on transparency and evidence of payment if we do not then publish the evidence of payment, and that that recalls how we got into this mess in the first place?
Hilary Benn: I would make two points. First, an independent body is now looking at those receipts and making a judgment about whether they come within the purview of the rules, which is very different from what happened before. Secondly, there is a balance to be struck between the cost of publishing receipts-it would be very expensive-and total transparency. Since one of the themes of our debate has been the cost of IPSA as a whole, in offering a view, the House will, in the end, have to say to IPSA, "How do we wish to balance that?"
Mr Bacon: The right hon. Gentleman says there is a balance to be struck between cost and transparency, but in fact the reverse could be the case: total transparency through the right kind of card payment-based, web-based instant publishing system could be cheaper as well as more transparent.
Hilary Benn: I think there is a lot in what the hon. Gentleman says. This debate has produced many ideas and suggestions, and I hope IPSA will take them on board in deciding how the system might be changed.
We must also take into account that setting up IPSA was a very big task. We all acknowledge that there were bound to be teething problems, and hon. Members should recognise that a lot of hard work in a very short space of time has gone into establishing the organisation. I, for one, would simply want to say that in my experience all the IPSA staff I have met-I have visited the offices-and all the IPSA staff to whom I have spoken on the phone have been unfailingly helpful in trying to assist. The problem that brings us here today is clearly not the staff; it is the system itself-how it was designed and the ways in which it does not work.
If we ask Members, "Do you think IPSA is helping you to do your job," which ought to be the real test, the clear answer we get-we have heard it today-is, "No, it is not." It also seems that Members are not entirely sure that IPSA fully understands the work we do as Members of Parliament.
Mr Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): Members such as the saintly hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) have allowed the impression to be put about that expenses are, somehow, some sort of perk. In fact they are what we need in order to do our job. Before I entered the House, I worked for months, or years, with "Newsnight", "World in Action", "Panorama", The Sunday Times and ITN, and what amazed me on arriving here was how many things that I needed to do my job had to be paid for from my own pocket, which was never the case when I worked in the media. I cannot think of any organisation that regularly expects one subset of its members to spend seven or eight hours at home every night on this issue. It is extraordinary.
Hilary Benn: The salaries of the staff who support us in our work are not by any reasonable definition an expense. In fairness to my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw, I do not think he was making that argument; that is an interpretation that others have sought to put on what has been said.
A number of issues have been identified both in this afternoon's debate and elsewhere. The first is the expense of the whole system because of its complexity, the multiple checking, and the transaction cost to IPSA and Members of Parliament in trying to make it work. The second is the sheer amount of time it takes, in part because compared with the old system a lot of the inputting of data has been outsourced to Members of Parliament and their staff. The time taken in collecting, checking, clarifying, going online, copying and posting and so forth means MPs and their staff are spending too much time doing accounts, rather than holding the Government of the day-of whatever party-to account, which is what we are elected to this House to do. We know that some MPs do not claim back legitimate expenses because they are afraid of getting it wrong or because of the time it will take. Some also say they get contradictory advice, in that a claim might be accepted one week but not the next.
The third problem was the assumption at the beginning-we must all acknowledge that this is changing-that all MPs had a bottomless private pocket
out of which they could pay bills before claiming the money back. They do not. Some people are still owed money, others have been overdrawn, and we should recognise that the situation is particularly difficult for new Members, who have additional costs because they are establishing offices for the first time.
Every one of us dislikes intensely the fact that the money is forced to go through our personal bank accounts. It should not, and that is another reason why the system has to change. The point has been made forcefully that we know of no other workplace where one would tell an employee-although we are not employees-to pay the rent or the photocopier bill out of their own resources, and then pay them back. That is why direct payment has to be the way forward.
The fourth problem is that the budgets set do not reflect in all cases the commitments that MPs already have, the work loads in their offices or the higher cost of renting offices in some parts of the country, some cities and some towns. One practical and simple step to help MPs would be to allow virement between the staffing, office rent and office costs budgets, because that would allow Members to make that judgment. The overall budget level needs to be looked at, because adding the 10% pension contribution has created a real problem. The argument was, "We have taken some other expenses out," but I do not know many Members who claim them.
MPs who have been worried that they cannot meet their commitments to staff-the number of hours and so on-have been told that they can approach the contingencies fund. I hope that IPSA will in all cases, therefore, meet those costs out of contingencies, because that problem needs to be addressed.
We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) about the difficulties of trying to obtain paternity leave, and I know of problems with maternity leave, too. I echo what my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) said about consulting staff and the unions. We should recognise the enormous contribution that our staff make in supporting us and in doing a job on behalf of our constituents.
Fifthly, we have heard about the impact on family life. The fundamental truth is that MPs have to live and work in two separate places, and we should not make it difficult for MPs, their partners or their children to do so. On the problem that my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd) raised, the current rules are utterly inconsistent, because they only partly acknowledge family life, paying for some things but not others.
Sixthly, there are the problems that arise because of the definition of London. We have already heard some of those cases, including the commuting distance at unsocial hours because of the unpredictability of House business. That needs looking at.
There is also the problem of what is known as extended travel, including by Opposition Front Benchers, which is an issue for us now, given the outcome of the election. The Opposition get Short money to help meet the costs of research and support, as the current majority governing party got over the previous 13 years. In addition, the
Fees Office used to pay extended travel for Opposition Front Benchers and others, but when IPSA arrived it said, "No, we're not going to pay that any more." That prevents Opposition Front Benchers from doing their job, travelling the country to talk to people, listen and bring that experience and voice back to the House.
Another point, which affects all hon. Members, is that if we look at the IPSA rules on extended travel, we get the impression that it sees us only as constituency MPs. That is incredibly important, because we are also parliamentarians, and, if a matter in which we have an interest comes before the House, the ability to travel to gain knowledge and understanding-to listen, which is what we need to do as Members-is important. It is important that IPSA changes that interpretation. I have written to the chief executive to make that point.
I shall make three other points in conclusion. First, one difficulty we are grappling with is that each MP is different, a point that has been forcefully made. The way in which we work is different, and a system that does not reflect that is a system that is not working. Secondly, all that has an impact on people who have become MPs or might be thinking of doing so, a point that the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) made more eloquently than I can.
A battle was fought-the Osborne judgment has been referred to-and winning that £400 a year payment was a big step forward, so we should not go backwards now. We should remember that 19 years earlier Keir Hardie arrived in the House. As hon. Members will know, when he was spied and people looked at his clothes, they said, "Are you working on the roof?", and he replied, "No, I'm working on the Floor." We must not go back to the time when how much money we had determined whether we could undertake this job.
Thirdly, to be perfectly honest, I wish that we did not have to spend time debating what should be straightforward in any job, which is having the means to do the job. The fact that we are tells us that there is a problem that needs to be sorted out. That is why the review that IPSA is undertaking is an opportunity, just as this debate has been an opportunity for hon. Members to send a clear message.
I end by welcoming the fact that the chief executive, Andrew McDonald, has shown a willingness to engage in discussion about how things can change. I am confident that we can get change, but it needs to be the right change and it needs to happen soon.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper): Before I start, I want to thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for your kind words about our 2018 bid team, who were dubbed "the three lions" by The Sun. I know that when the Prime Minister returns from Zurich, he will play close attention to this debate. He spoke about this matter earlier and will listen carefully to what Members have said.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie), not just on securing the debate, but on the thoughtful tone in which he opened it. That has been reflected by all hon. Members who have spoken. This matter is not about us, but about our ability to do
our job-serving our constituents and doing our parliamentary work, as the shadow Leader of the House said.
I want to touch on the story that was in The Times earlier this week, because it has been referred to by a number of right hon. and hon. Members in this debate and it was raised at business questions earlier today. I understand that the story was the result of a freedom of information request, rather than a leak. I do not usually find myself quoting Sir Ian Kennedy, the chairman of IPSA, but it is worth putting on the record his response to the unfair way in which The Times ran that story-he has not always been particularly kind about Members of Parliament. He said:
"We assess that MPs have been thoughtful and proper in making their claims. Where we have queried a claim, it has been the result of misunderstanding as people adapt to the new scheme."
He made it clear that, unlike the way in which they were reported, the claims were not improper and were examples not of MPs trying to do things that they should not have been doing, but of MPs behaving properly and adapting to the new system.
Bob Russell: Unfortunately, that message has not got into the newspapers. The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) made a serious allegation earlier and the Daily Mail today referred to an IPSA leak. Has the Minister received a statement from IPSA responding to the serious allegation that its director of communications is touting around trying to plant stories that are detrimental to Members of Parliament?
Mr Harper: The hon. Gentleman is quite right that the message has not got out that MPs have behaved completely properly. That is why I thought it helpful to announce it on the Floor of the House, not that that will get it into the newspapers, as we know. However, I thought it worth putting it on the record that IPSA has acknowledged that MPs have behaved properly.
It is not my job to speak for IPSA, but as the hon. Gentleman has asked me about this point, and as it was raised by the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) earlier, it may encourage hon. Members to know that IPSA has been following the progress of this debate very closely. It heard the right hon. Lady's comments and has categorically denied them. It has confirmed that the information in The Times was obtained through an FOI request, not from a leak.
"This morning, a colleague told me that they had been talking to a member of the press who had been offered information by somebody at IPSA on certain 'juicy' bits that had not yet emerged in the press about what certain Members had claimed for."
Helen Jones (Warrington North) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman think that it would help if IPSA answered parliamentary questions properly? For instance, I asked for a list of meetings that its staff had held with the press and of who was present on each occasion. The IPSA chief executive categorically refuses to answer that question. Would it not increase Members' confidence in the system if IPSA were as transparent on such issues as it asks us to be when we are dealing with expenses?
Mr Harper: The hon. Lady makes a good point. When I am perusing the lists of tabled questions, I frequently see her pertinent questions to IPSA, and I sometimes enjoy seeing the answers. She is right: if transparency is good for us, it is good for IPSA. It can be extremely helpful.
This is a good point at which to refer to the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), who reminded the House that although IPSA is not accountable to the Government, it is accountable through the Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, of which the hon. Gentleman is a member. Members look to that Committee to be vigorous in ensuring that IPSA conducts its affairs in an efficient and cost-effective manner.
Mr Winnick: Why has it taken so long for me to get a parliamentary reply about IPSA's senior management team-who is involved, their salaries and so on? I have not yet received a reply, but surely such information should have been routine and I should have received it in a matter of two or three days.
Mr Harper: I can answer only for how Ministers and I deal with parliamentary questions. I endeavour to answer mine promptly and within the time limits, and I would have thought that others should do so too. However, thankfully, the Government are not responsible for IPSA's ability to answer questions.
Mr Walker: The hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) is right to be annoyed at having to wait so long for the answer. I signed it off yesterday as the SCIPSA member. The hon. Gentleman should get it next week.
"what is necessary is a properly transparent system, a system with proper rules and limits which the public would have confidence in, but what we do not need is an overly bureaucratic and very costly system. I think all those in the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority need to get a grip of what they are doing, and get a grip of it very fast."-[ Official Report, 14 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 946.]
Mr Jenkin: Does the Minister agree that, as with the House of Commons, IPSA is unlikely to survive a freedom of information request for evidence of payment to be produced? How can it justify withholding evidence of payment-all the invoices-on grounds of cost? That is part of the cost of the system, and it is going to have to bear it.
Mr Harper: That may well be the case, and I think that IPSA has admitted in public that if people apply for receipts through freedom of information requests, it may well have to do that. We will have to see how it gets on. That is the decision that it has made, which the shadow Leader of the House said is a balance between transparency and cost. It may find that the rules of freedom of information affect it as they affected the House.
The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) was right to point out, as did other Members, what happened in the past and the fact that the House made the decision to have an independent system. That is important, as well as the transparency issue. I listened very carefully, but I do not think that anyone during the debate was urging that we go back on that; in fact, Members made good points about ensuring that we retain both transparency and independence.
Hon. Members gave examples of how they thought the system should move and a number spoke in favour of a flat-rate payment, including my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor. However, a number of Members, including the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr Gale), pointed out that a flat-rate system, which does not take into account the variance in costs across the country, may not be a perfect one and that there needs to be some flexibility. They all suggested ways in which that flexibility may be achieved.
We have heard from several Members about their various experiences. IPSA itself has recognised that in the first few months of running the system it made mistakes; it has been very transparent about that. We know that it made mistakes and that it needs to improve the system. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw and the shadow Leader of the House referred to improvements that have been made in the system. IPSA now makes some direct payments to landlords for constituency office rental, it now pays against invoices, and the travelcard can now be used to pay other bills. Most importantly, it implemented advances to Members to deal with the genuine problem that very many Members do not have significant amounts of money and are not in a position to meet these costs out of their own pocket and then claim money back-costs which, as many Members have said, one would not expect any other person in business, in a position such as ours, to have to pay out of their own pocket, and would reasonably be thought of as proper business expenses.
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