By Milly Skriczka, Development Manager
With parliament having returned yesterday, it’s an odd time for the House of Commons.
A national epidemic has triggered massive and immediate state intervention in our everyday lives, making parliament’s usual to-and-fro seem trivial by comparison. But in times like this, the ability to ask difficult questions really matters. Taxpayers need proper scrutiny more than ever, as billions of their money is poured into the extraordinary but justifiable government response to the virus. Politicians must become protectors of the public purse.
So in acknowledging the extraordinary situation the country finds itself in, parliament still needs to focus on its public service purpose and try and keep its own costs down. If anything, the coronavirus crisis and the emergency spending required to try and mitigate it shows how important it is that regular, non-vital spending is well managed. Every penny parliamentarians spend comes from taxpayers, and we should not let them forget it. After all, the public will be watching them like a hawk.
£10,000 allowance to work from home
During this crisis, it is essential that MPs and their parliamentary staff should be able to work from home and have the tools to properly scrutinise government and address the concerns of their constituents. As such, to allow MPs to claim some of the necessary costs as expenses is obviously acceptable, as long as it is delivered through the usual system and with the expected levels of transparency. However, the potential bill of up to £6.5million is staggeringly expensive and it is little wonder that this decision, taken at a time of rising unemployment and furloughing, has been met with fury by some of the public. With a headline figure of £10,000 per MP, but a basic laptop available online for less than £300, hard-pressed taxpayers are left scratching their heads.
Thankfully, it’s very likely MPs will have the sense not to dip far into that pot. Many parliament-based staff work from home or travel to the constituency office during recess, and some staffers are home-based; these staff already have the essential equipment for which the £10,000 award covers. We must hope that IPSA took this into consideration when costing this award.
Towards the end of this year, claims will start to be published and we will know for sure how the cash is being used. The TaxPayers’ Alliance, for one, will be keeping a very close eye. But with such a large amount on the table, IPSA should be prepared to look to make savings elsewhere to balance it. After all, we would expect the same of any business’ finance department.
Ex-MPs to keep taxpayer-funded IT
What has been less well covered, but is arguably more significant, is the announcement that MPs who lost their seats in 2019 are to be allowed to keep laptops and electronic equipment purchased on IPSA credit cards.
General elections in 2015, 2017 and 2019, and the significant churn of MPs that resulted, mean that there will be a very significant number of former parliamentarians keeping their IT equipment purchased at public expense for their parliamentary and constituency offices.Unlike those currently adapting to a virtual coronavirus parliament, these ex-MPs are no longer sitting or serving their constituents.
Taxpayers have funded this equipment nominally so that MPs can better represent them. As such, every effort should be made to recoup some of the cost. Ideally, any equipment purchased on expenses should be refurbished and sold on, especially when much of this equipment will be less than three years old. It could even be handed down to current MPs to help them work from home, and save money from that £10,000 budget.
Changes to credit and claims
In addition, the monthly credit limit for MPs (to put on special parliamentary credit cards) has been increased to £10,000, a 90-day limit on expenses claims has been suspended and rules on the evidence needed for costs to be reimbursed has been relaxed. The current crisis shouldn’t mean that checks and balances designed to protect taxpayer money be abandoned. Expected levels of transparency through the usual system is a key qualification for any additional coronavirus cash being made available to MPs.
At the very least, the parliamentary authorities need to explain how important it is for public confidence for MPs to stick to both the letter and spirit of the rules on expense claims. As such, it is reassuring to see them clarifying that MPs who can claim parliamentary costs should not be taking any local authority small business grants. If IPSA want to calm taxpayers’ fears, they would do well to reiterate their commitment to “provide assurance to the public by consulting them on our rules, operating transparently and publishing accessible information about MPs’ business costs.”
During this crisis, parliament will have to scrutinise the use of taxpayers’ money more carefully than ever. That also means parliament itself must keep costs down, ensuring every penny claimed is spent appropriately and transparently. We will be looking at MPs’ expenses in the coming months to ensure that’s the case. Let’s hope parliament is able to put its own House in order.