How do you solve a problem like the expenses crisis?

April 08, 2014 2:00 PM

This is a question that Westminster has failed to satisfactorily answer since 2009 and now the Maria Miller saga has reignited the debate about MPs, expenses and accountability.

Regardless of whether the Secretary of State’s miserly apology and repayment of nearly five thousand pounds is enough to keep her in post, this case raises bigger questions about the systems we use to hold MPs to account

A lot of important work has been done to sort out the mess that was MPs expenses since 2009. The expenses system of today, while bureaucratic, is not open to the level of abuse that the old Fees Office once was. Despite this, there is danger that a particularly toxic mix of circumstances (questions over the commissioner’s findings, a lack of contrition from Miller and the inability of the voters to do anything about it) will undermine the public’s faith in Parliament.

Because of  past scandals there is very little tolerance for any suggestion of impropriety. There remains a deep, mostly unjustified, cynicism about MPs and their expenses and that is not healthy for democracy. Unless proper reforms are put in place, that cynicism could do further irreparable damage.

Ultimately, the fate of Maria Miller actually matters far less than the systems with which she could and should be held to account. The manner in which MPs accused of breaking the rules are investigated and the measures that are in place to empower voters to punish wrong-doing are far more important.

Maria Miller was investigated by the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, Kathryn Hudson following a complaint. As has been widely reported, Hudson made a recommendation that the MP should pay back more than £40,000, but the House of Commons Committee on Standards - which makes the final decision after an investigation - rejected this reasoning and opted for a far lower amount. We are left with one brief paragraph as explanation from the Committee.

We agree with the Commissioner that Mrs Miller should properly have designated London as her main home rather than Basingstoke. Nonetheless, we consider that Mrs Miller’s designation was reasonable in the light of the guidance available at the time, given that the matter was finely balanced. Accordingly we make no criticism of Mrs Miller for her error and we will treat this case as if the designation of the London property for ACA purposes had been correct.

The lack of a detailed explanation hugely undermines the committee’s report as much as its actual decision. Worst of all, it appears to some that MPs are marking their own homework and going easy on a colleague (the committee does contain lay members but they are unable to vote).

Inevitably there are calls to take away responsibility for the final say from MPs, but the rush to do so could just as easily undermine democratic accountability. The last time MPs empowered a bureaucrat to be the sole arbiter overt their pay and expenses we got IPSA and a ten thousand pound pay rise for politicians. Reform and a positive restructure of the Standards Committee are needed, not a hasty transfer of power to the unelected.

In time it may also become clear that the Standards Commissioner does need greater ability to investigate alleged wrong-doing in Parliament. Miller was reprimanded for failing to co-operate with the commissioner as was, Nadine Dories in another recent investigation. If the system is to work then MPs need to play ball. They can’t be allowed to frustrate an enquiry and get away with a 30 second apology to Parliament.

It’s particularly clear from the latest drama that another much needed reform is required to empower voters with the ability to boot out MPs they’re unhappy with. Much of the furore around Maria Miller has focused on whether David Cameron will sack the Secretary of State. But shouldn’t the people who Maria Miller is meant to represent – the voters of Basingstoke - those who ultimately footed the bill for her expenses, have a right to make that decision? I have written before about the need for a "Right to Recall" and this is yet another example of why a proper recall mechanism, as promised by all the parties, is long overdue.

It’s time David Cameron waded into the long grass, retrieved his promise for recall, and put a “proper” system for it in the Queens Speech. But it needs to a proper system, not a Westminster stich-up as the Government previously put forward. In many ways that would be worse than the status quo. Would Maria Miller even have been put up for recall if the Government’s proposed legislation were already in place? I doubt it. But the fact that we have to ask is proof of the problem with current proposals.

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