Following the thorough and expansive work of Sir Christopher Kelly's inquiry into MP's expenses last year (including a broad and well participated public consultation), you would be forgiven for thinking that some resolution to the whole issue had already been found. A hefty block of recommendations was delivered to Parliament, and party leaders appeared to support them.
But why settle for just one public consultation when you can have two. Now everyone has the opportunity to give their opinion. Again.
This latest consultation was launched yesterday by IPSA, the new Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (see link above). It refers to its proposals for the new system of expenses, and responses should (all being equal) determine how tough or soft IPSA's new rules will be. IPSA has already provoked some consternation - not least to those involved
with the Kelly inquiry - by suggesting that not all of Kelly's
recommendations may be translated into practice when it set up the system. This would be a serious mistake. The public's concerns were dealt with well by
Sir Christopher Kelly, and should IPSA wish to build a system - as it explicitly states it does - which gives "the public confidence that high standards of honesty and decency will be upheld", the Kelly proposals should be implemented in full.
The current consultation presents a chance to make sure that happens. IPSA's proposals are not bad by any means, but IPSA must be convinced - by the level of public support in this consultation - to stand tough in the face of a body of MPs determined to unpick Kelly's proposals. Go online, contribute to the consultation, and make sure that doesn't happen. http://mpexpensesconsultation.org.uk/
Below is a summary of the TPA's response to the consultation, which outlines all the main proposals. For a full copy of those proposals, see here.
Principles of the new scheme
Q.1: Do you agree that the CSPL (Committee for Standards in Public Life's - the Kelly inquiry) principles, supplemented as proposed, should form the basis of new expenses system?
Yes. The principles laid out in the CSPL (Kelly) report - regarding the probity, transparency, and proportionality of any system) should underpin the new rules.
However, while IPSA is right that the system "must give the public confidence that high standards of honesty and decency will be upheld", its other supplemental principle - "that the system should prohibit MPs from entering into arrangements which might appear to create a conflict of interests in the the use of public resources" - may be problematic. While we fully support IPSAs efforts to limit the possibility of public funds being used inappropriately by MPs, we are concerned that the principle may be interpreted to restrict MPs outside interests. For instance, would MPs be prevented from working for the NHS, HM Courts Service or private companies who work with Government? Kelly concluded that outside interests were beneficial for Parliament, and the new system should reflect this.
Q.2 Do you agree with our proposal to concentrate on expenses rather than allowances wherever possible?
Yes. Allowances are open to greater abuse than a 'expenses', and while not all allowances can avoided, wherever possible the system should be built on the notion of expense reimbursement. As the principles suggest, total transparency of all expense claims and use of allowance must be at the centre of the new system.
Q.3 Do you agree that there should be annual limits to the amount that can be spent from public funds on each of the main elements of our expenses scheme, except travel and subsistence?
Annual limits - as long as they are not seen as 'targets' - in each expense area would be a positive development. Of course we would expect all MP's claims to be below any limit set by IPSA. Nor are we convinced of the arguments for excluding subsistence from the limits; an appropriate limit, which accounts for the differing needs of MP's, and which is properly policed by IPSA, should be possible.
Q.4 Do you agree with our approach to the submission of claims?
Yes. MP's must be responsible for their own expenses, even if their staff are involved in spending the money or accounting that expenditure to IPSA. No longer should MPs be able to excuse their indiscretions by claiming that someone else submitted was fulfilling out their expense form on their behalf.
Q.5 Are you content with our proposed approach to the publication of claims?
Yes. All claims (approved or not) should be published - both online and in paper form - by IPSA at regular occasions.
Q.6 Do you support the idea of requiring MPs to produce an annual report of their use of public funds?
If the choice was between a mandatory annual report which provided constituents with details of their MPs expense claims, allowances and their voting record in that year, or an Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, we would favour the annual report. But as the people were not given a choice, and IPSA a reality, a glossy annual publication with details of MP's expenses would be a waste of money in itself. Moreover, it risks giving incumbent MP's an advantage over challengers, as it could be used to promote the incumbent. IPSA itself should assemble this annual report, and it should be available on line.
Q.7 We propose that MPs are eligible to claim for accommodation expenses unless their constituency contains a station within London transport zones 1-6. Do you agree with this approach?
In the TPA's contribution to the CSPL consultation, we recommended that 'journey' time, rather than a distance measure (such as the Zone 1-6 proposal) should determine eligibility for accommodation expenses. While we appreciate that it may be easier to have a simple measure such as the proposed Zone 1-6, IPSA's role is to develop and oversee the best system, not the easiest.
As workers whose job is in London, many MP's living outside Zone 1-6 are just too close to Parliament to legitimately claim for accommodation in London. Many thousands of commuters make similar journeys each day, and for some MP's living outside Zone 1-6 the journey into Westminster is easier (and not necessarily significantly more expensive) than it is for some MP's who live within Zone 1-6.
We are aware however, that as the parliamentary day is not equivalent to a normal working day, MP's are not regular commuters. This problem however, must be corrected through changes to the parliamentary time table, rather than through the expenses system. Capacity for the parliamentary day to conform more to regular work time tables exists, a reform which could not only make parliament itself more effective, but also more attractive to candidates with young children.
IPSA should limit accommodation expenses to those MP's who live an hour or more from a central London train station (within Zone 1-2). Once this system is in place, MPs will no doubt move quickly to reform their anachronistic parliamentary time table.
Q.8 Which of the following is most important in a long term system for accommodating MPs: MPs having responsibility for their own actions; cost to the taxpayer; no money passing through MPs' hands; flexibility for MPs to identify properties that meet their particular needs?
Although all are important, preventing MPs from making a capital gain must be the main focus of new rules. A less transparent and more flexible system may appear better on paper, even potentially cheaper, but the most important thing is to ensure the public are in control of an honest and transparent system, in which MPs have no potential or incentive to profit (even temporarily) at the taxpayers' expense.
Q.9 When should the payment of mortgage interest to existing MPs be ended?
Current IPSA proposals will not allow new MPs - elected later this year - to claim for mortgage interest payments. Re-elected MPs will - for an indeterminate time - be allowed to claim mortgage interest payments, with the understanding that they will end terminate such contracts when possible.
It is unfeasible for all mortgage interest payment to be ended immediately, and we acknowledge that some interest repayments will continue to be paid by the taxpayer after the next election. However all sitting MPs must be instructed to begin looking to put their homes on the market now, with a view to terminating their mortagage contracts as soon as possible. Payments should cease to be available from November 2010. As all capital gains must be return
ed to the taxpayer anyway, MPs should have no incentive to wait for the 'best price'.
Q.10 Do you agree with our proposed approach to accommodation expenses for MPs with caring responsibilities?
While those MPs with disabilities (or with spouses with disabilities) should be entitled to accommodation appropriate to their needs, 'caring responsibilities' relating to children should not (in itself) warrant higher levels of accommodation allowance. Taxpayers will cover the accommodation of MPs on the basis that they are working away from home. Like many people, this will involve having a small place in London, suitable for one or two people, but not to house the family. Arrangements for MPs must reflect what is standard practice in the corporate world for employees who work away from home for three to four nights a week. Such demands do not warrant a public subsidy to allow families to live with MPs in London.
Some consideration must be given to the issue of MP's who are single parents, or individuals who the sole carer for an elderly or infirm parent. IPSA will have to judge such cases individually, but it would be appropriate for the system to accommodate such circumstances.
Q. 11 Do you agree with our proposed list of running costs for accommodation which might be met through public funds?
Yes. Within the limits to be set by IPSA, some reimbursement for council tax, water, electricity, gas or other fuel, ground rent, contents insurance, service charges and security appear fair. The exclusion of all 'improvement' costs - cleaning, gardening, furnishing, repairs or maintenance - is also correct.
Q.12 Which of the options that we set out [page 43 of the consultation] do you favour in providing assurance about claims for travel expenses?
Option 2, as it is the most practicable and widely used in the private sector. IPSA must ensure that it is vigilant in scrutinising claims made under this system.
Q.13 Do you agree with our approach to travel by public transport, including ordinarily travelling standard class?
Current IPSA proposals are a significant improvement from current arrangements. We have some concern over the 'ad hoc' provision, as MP's should be reimbursed soley for parliamentary or constituency travel. Where MPs travel around the UK on fact-finding trip, these are already funded by the Parliamentary Committees that arrange them. IPSA should clarify what it means by 'ad-hoc'. Beyond that however, the proposals should be implemented in full.
Q.14 We propose to prohibit the use of public funds in the employment of family members by MPs. Do you agree with this approach?
Yes, we agree fully with the proposed approach. However we would like to see the wider Welsh definition of family members employed, to eliminate any prospect of this becoming a scandal again. Moreover, we would stress to IPSA that while many MPs may hold strong opinions on this issue, so to do the general public, and that opinion is invariably that any form of this practice is flawed and open to abuse. The option that will command genuine public confidence is one that prohibits the employment of any family members.
Q.15 We propose that IPSA should prohibit MPs from renting from, or purchasing goods or services from, members of their families. Do you agree with this approach?
Q.16 Do you agree with our proposed approach to communications expenditure?
Yes. (Page 59 of the consultation document)
Q.17 Do you believe there should be any form of payment in the event of an MP leaving Parliament, either voluntary or otherwise?
No. As IPSA itself has concluded, the volatility associated with the job of being an MP is well understood by both sitting MPs and candidates. An MP who stands down makes a conscience choice not to seek re-election, and should therefore not be rewarded for that choice. Similarly, an MP that loses in an election has effectively been rejected by their constituents; again, this does not deserve reward.
Q.18 What impact do you believe our proposals might have on the diversity of representation in the House of Commons?
The implication that IPSA's proposals, or an expenses system as whole, affects the diversity of representation in the House is a red herring that should be avoided at all times. As political parties are the gatekeepers to parliamentary seats, in many cases effectively deciding on behalf of constituents who will represent them in Parliament, any real concern about diversity in the House must be directed towards parties. That said, if Parliament itself wished to improve diversity, it should reform its timetable into something more resembling a normal working year. Neither of these areas relate to IPSA however.