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Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority

Volume 511: debated on Wednesday 16 June 2010

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Jeremy Wright.)

It is pleasant to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. Let me say straight away that it is unfortunate that this debate is necessary. All of us in the last Parliament hoped that when we were re-elected, the issue described as “MPs’ expenses” would have been dealt with once and for all. Enough controversy occurred in the last Parliament. Let me make it clear to the chair of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, and the interim chief executive, that I have no wish to conceal from the public in any way the amount of money that we claim. I am sure that that applies to other colleagues, whichever party they belong to. Indeed, I was one of those who strenuously opposed the attempt to exempt Parliament from freedom of information legislation. If we claim public money—and it is public money—the public are entitled to know what we claim. That is not at issue, and it is important that that is understood.

It is perfectly understandable that in the closing stages of the last Parliament, as you know, Dr McCrea, IPSA was unanimously agreed to without any vote. My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), who is present in the Chamber, put the reasons why a new body should be set up, which we all understood. However, what has occurred since we returned after the election has put these issues back on the agenda. The reason for that is simple: the system that IPSA introduced, without any consultation with Members, is complex and difficult. When it comes to legitimate claims—obviously, all our claims should be legitimate—for constituency offices and related bills such as council tax, rent, telephone, electricity and so on, it is difficult to get any sense out of IPSA.

The person whose title is “independent expenses compliance officer” was quoted yesterday in the press as dismissing the complaints as coming only from older MPs. I am not here to apologise for my age. I am no more responsible for that than I am for the colour of my skin, my racial origin or my gender. However, over a third—35%—of the Members are new to the House of Commons and they cannot be dismissed as “older MPs”. Presumably, those MPs coming to the House for the first time are somewhat younger than me—I would be surprised if that was not the case—but it is not a matter of saying that they should “get used to it”, because that is nonsense. Criticism coming from new Members is no less than that coming from those of us who have been re-elected.

I think that I am correct in saying that my hon. Friend was elected to this House for the first time in the 1960s. In The Guardian yesterday, Mr Alan Lockwood commented that most MPs were happy with the system and he made some pejorative statements. If he were to hear a complaint against my hon. Friend, or if my hon. Friend made a complaint about IPSA, does he think that he would get a fair hearing?

I am not going to take up what the independent expenses compliance officer said. I do not think that his comments deserve any response from me; they speak for themselves. However, if the situation has been difficult for returning Members—as many of us are—how much more difficult has it been for new Members? It must be an outright nightmare for them, and that is set against a background in which they would find it far more difficult to criticise the system because their local paper might say, “Look what they complain about the moment they are elected.” At least returning Members have constituency offices, however difficult it is to get IPSA to agree on rent and related matters. New Members have to start from scratch, without being able to go to IPSA and say, “This is what we want to do. Is it legitimate? Is it within the rules?” Those are elementary questions, but they will not get any answers because, at the moment, the system does not provide for anything of that kind.

Does my hon. Friend find it perturbing that although it is virtually impossible for Members of Parliament to get a face-to-face interview with a senior IPSA official, it is extremely easy for almost any member of the press to do so?

I take that point entirely. If IPSA spent as much time trying to resolve the genuine difficulties of new and returning MPs as it gives to the press, that would be an advancement. The national press will say, as in one recent article, that MPs are too obsessed with their own position. However, what we want to do is on behalf of our constituents; it is not about our salary. Perhaps our salary has not been paid in full due to a technical fault, but that is not the subject of today’s debate. We are not going to town about that, far from it. If we want to have constituency offices and to get matters resolved, it is so that our constituents can come to our constituency offices and we can pursue their complaints. IPSA gives the impression that our concerns are all about ourselves, and that is what it tries to get over to the media.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate; it is a subject that I feel passionate about. Is it not wrong that long-standing, loyal staff find themselves in the predicament that, as a consequence of the ceiling that has been set, they might be made redundant?

I would like to make some progress as I know that a number of colleagues wish to speak. IPSA’s justification is that the system works. I do not claim to be an expert in computer technology. My secretary makes the claims. I am not sure that when she was appointed, many years ago, that was one of her jobs. Be that as it may, it could be argued that whether or not we are acknowledged computer experts, that is the system.

Let me, however, give some illustrations in order to challenge what IPSA has said. One new MP—not of my party—told me that since he was elected, 80% of his time has been spent being an administrator. He did not consider that to be the reason he stood for election. If my party had won that constituency, it is likely that the Labour Member would be in precisely the same position.

Another colleague—not a new Member—said that he had spent four hours trying to submit a claim for the cost of petrol to and from his constituency. Four hours, and then the system crashed. On “Newsnight”, which some colleagues will have watched, a newly elected Conservative MP was shown using a computer. She said that trying to deal with the computer system set up by IPSA was far more complex than working as a GP in the national health service. Why should that be the case? Why should MPs, be they Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat, have to do that? We should not be spending hours and hours on such matters; we should be getting involved in the things that we were elected to deal with in the first place. It is indefensible that IPSA should have set up a system that is so difficult and complex, and which, particularly for new Members, has made life a nightmare.

Is my hon. Friend aware that 20 central London MPs have, on a cross-party basis, signed a letter to Sir Ian and held meetings with IPSA to highlight the historical problems that we have had in balancing our budgets—a difficulty greatly exacerbated by the changes in the rules? The penultimate sentence of our letter states that

“no thought has been given to the needs of central London MPs when designing this scheme of allowances.”

However, the expenses that appeared on the screen were those of another MP. A member of my staff managed to get through to IPSA to point that out and was told that it was a computer glitch that would be sorted. In my view, that is not a computer glitch but a gross intrusion into another Member’s privacy, and it needs to be looked into before we go any further.

My hon. Friend’s point is valid, and I hope that it will be noted by IPSA. I am not sure whether IPSA is represented here today—I shall talk about its senior personnel in a moment.

Another of my hon. Friends said that trying to deal with IPSA was like dealing with a brick wall. That sums up the experience very well. IPSA has provided a helpline, but if there ever was an anti-helpline, that is it. In many instances it is impossible to get through, and if one does, one gets no information but is told to send an e-mail. One would have thought that if a helpline is provided, it should be a genuine one. Time and again, colleagues have complained that they send e-mails to IPSA and spend a great deal of time doing so—as Members of Parliament, we should not be spending anywhere near as much time on that as we do—but they receive no response at all. One would hope that one could phone somebody, apart from the helpline, and get information, but that is out of the question. IPSA will not give out another phone number.

Allegations have been made about rudeness to staff. I do not blame the staff employed by IPSA for the problems. They are not responsible. If any colleague, from whichever party, has been rude, that is wrong and I would be the last person to defend them. Responsibility lies with the chair and the chief executive of IPSA and not the staff, many of whom, apparently, are interns who were employed only because of their technical knowledge of how to work the computer system. They are not in a position—they admit as much—to give advice to any Member.

My hon. Friend, like those others of us who were here before the last election, will easily recognise the difficulties that everyone encountered last year, when the whole expenses and allowances fiasco was dragged through the press. I have every reason to believe that those involved in setting up the IPSA system visited the Scottish Parliament and spoke to the staff in the allowances office there, who are held in high esteem. The point was raised: why do we not have such a system? It now appears that IPSA visited and paid no attention whatsoever to the advice and help that was given.

I would like to have the response of the chair of IPSA to my hon. Friend’s very important point about the Scottish Parliament.

Regarding submissions, if IPSA says that it is absolutely vital that the system is online, so be it, but I do not see any reason why that is necessary. Why can we not make submissions in writing, with all the documentation? Of course the documentation should be checked thoroughly—there should be no repeat of the embarrassment and shame that was brought on Parliament as a result of the abuses, although we should bear in mind that most of those involved in the abuses are no longer in the House of Commons—but no reason has been given why submissions cannot be made in writing. If approved, they could immediately be put on the IPSA website. In that way, those who cannot sleep at night unless they know what their MP is claiming can be satisfied. All the information will be on the website, so everyone will know the details immediately a claim has been submitted and approved.

I think my hon. Friend is now at the kernel of the subject: the online system. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) that he reported a breach of security—that is what it was—when an e-mail was sent to him in error. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) agree that that is not an isolated case? I have a letter here that was sent to me on 2 June. It belongs to another Member of Parliament. I have sent it to IPSA and told it about the mistake, and I have heard that several other Members have had similar e-mails, not destined for them. That is a serious breach of security. We all know that three Ministers in the previous Government lost their jobs because of dodgy e-mails, and the IPSA system will end in tears if we are not careful. This debate is not about IPSA itself, as my hon. Friend said at the very beginning, or about its being an independent body. We all welcome that, and voted for it. It is about the fact that the system is not secure. Already, in just a few weeks, we have seen many breaches of security. IPSA must look for a different system to get the show on the road, and then everybody will be satisfied.

My hon. Friend has touched on an important question, which I mentioned earlier: why are we having this debate at all? Why was the issue not resolved in the previous Parliament? Why are we back to the point where the media can say that MPs are discussing what they call their expenses again? My hon. Friend has mentioned other matters on the Floor of the House, and IPSA should take them up immediately.

I take the view that the most senior people in IPSA—the chair and the interim chief executive—should understand the widespread concern that is reflected in the attendance at this debate. This is not an attempt to undermine IPSA or to undermine the concept of what we claim becoming public knowledge as quickly as possible. It is an attempt to get those responsible to recognise that there are genuine difficulties, which it is up to them to resolve.

The chair of IPSA receives £700 per day, plus what are called “reasonable expenses”. Whether or not those expenses have to be claimed online, I do not know. That is the equivalent of more than £100,000 a year for a three-day week. The chair is a distinguished public servant—I do not question that for a moment—but he has a responsibility to get a grip on the situation. The interim chief executive is paid somewhere between £105,000 and £115,000 per annum. That is quite a sum, and one would hope that someone in such a senior position and with such a substantial salary would recognise the considerable disquiet, to say the least, among Members of Parliament and staff. The Unite parliamentary branch has expressed much concern that some of its members could be made redundant as a result of the changes.

I put on record that I am here today only because of the inordinate amount of time that I spend on IPSA matters when I should be seeing to the interests of my constituents. Is it not the case that the system has been badly thought through and hastily and sloppily introduced, and that the impact is not just on MPs but on staff, not just in terms of redundancy but in the fact that IPSA has completely overlooked the payment of maternity and sickness leave?

I totally agree.

I mentioned IPSA’s chair and interim chief executive. A communications director is also being advertised for, with a salary of up to £85,000. Apparently, one is not enough, and the intention is to appoint two others. Inevitably, one asks oneself why on earth IPSA requires three, or indeed any, spin doctors. My debate is about Government policy on IPSA, and I know that the Minister will do his duty by explaining what that policy is. However, it would be interesting to know why it is necessary to have three spin doctors, with the salary of the most senior being advertised as £85,000.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a serious impact on Members’ families as well as an effect on staff? One of the most serious issues, in addition to all the points about administration, is that once children reach the age of six the entitlement to accommodation is cut off and spouses are given no travel allowance. Does my hon. Friend agree that IPSA is behaving not only independently but above the law? Is it not clear that that discriminatory rule will impact on not only the way we do our jobs but who can be elected and who can do the job?

My hon. Friend could not have set out better the effect on family life. We could go back to the situation that we had many years ago when only those with independent means could become Members of Parliament. That would be a very undesirable state of affairs to say the least, and I am sure that that view is not confined to Labour Members. I see no reason why family life should be undermined in that way.

May I just go back to my hon. Friend’s point about communication officers? Does he agree that the real issue with IPSA is that there are no channels of communication? There is no way of having contact to resolve issues about parts of the policy that it is has imposed without consultation and that are not fit for purpose.

I mentioned how difficult it is to get in touch with IPSA, apart from with its interns, whom I would be the last person to criticise. I have not seen the chair or the chief executive. Where are they? Do they come to the House of Commons? They apparently have very luxurious accommodation in central London, but why do they not come here? Why can we not meet them? Have they imposed some sort of rule that means that they cannot meet Members of Parliament? Parliament has been back for two or three weeks, but anyone who has seen the chair or the interim chief executive is fortunate. I would not recognise them—I might try to remember them from their photographs, but that is about all.

Last week, I received a letter telling me that I had not submitted my bank details to IPSA so that I could be paid. That struck me as a little odd as I was actually paid, and the money was put in my bank. Today’s edition of The Times contains the statement that many MPs have not submitted their bank details to IPSA. First, I would dispute a communications policy that allows such information to be divulged. Secondly, I deeply resent the implication that MPs are somehow engaged in a conspiracy to avoid giving IPSA their bank details and getting their pay. Lastly, I would ask that we apply what pressure we can, perhaps collectively, to get the National Audit Office to look at these procedures to see whether they give the public value for money.

That is a good point. I spoke about the compliance expenses officer, who is supposed to be an independent watchdog, but that person is appointed by IPSA and occupies its offices, so I do not know how much of a watchdog he is.

I have yet to find a single Member of Parliament of any party who is in favour of what IPSA has done—if there is one, they should quickly put their hand up—and I am not likely to find one among the 47 colleagues who have come along today, presumably to support the criticism of IPSA.

To a large extent, IPSA is working with the mindset that we got into such a position in the previous Parliament—that we were so embarrassed and shamed—that the public will not be on our side. That is a possibility. If that is IPSA’s mindset, it is unfortunate. However, I hope that I have made it clear today that we are not complaining for ourselves, but because what has happened since we returned after the election is undermining the work that we do as Members of Parliament on behalf of our constituents. That is our concern: our constituency offices and the bills to be paid. The system that is in operation should not be so complex or difficult that, as I mentioned, a colleague has to spend, unbelievably, four hours trying to process a petrol claim.

The public should understand that this is not a matter of a few pounds. Normally, when people talk about expenses, it might be a matter of a cab fare—not for us, of course—a meal and the rest of it. However, when our expenses—the constituency rent, the bills, our rented accommodation and the rest—are totalled up, they come to quite a substantial sum. That sum is perfectly legitimate and above board, and I am not aware that anyone has suggested otherwise. We hope that it will be processed properly and without taking too much time.

I hope that IPSA’s chair and interim chief executive understand that our criticism is justified and that we have merit on our side. I also hope that they will come to grips with the situation as quickly as possible and end this rather embarrassing position, which has seen us having to come here to discuss the issue again. Following what happened in the previous Parliament and the setting up of IPSA, we had all hoped, as I have said, that this issue had gone for ever.

Order. I draw Members’ attention to the fact that I will start the winding-up speeches at 10.40 am. I want to get as many of the Members who requested to speak into the debate as possible.

I wish to declare an interest as one of the many Members of Parliament who have been deemed to be a London-area MP with a constituency outside London. I also wish to state that I am among the many MPs of all political parties who were not asked to pay one penny back by Sir Thomas Legg.

I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) on initiating the debate; he has done a great service to parties in all parts of the House. New Members, in particular, might well ask how it is that they arrived in the House on 6 May to find the expenses scheme creating such enormous difficulty for them and, indeed, for returned Members. It is therefore worth stating that that occurred because the final IPSA scheme was published only on 29 March. On the very same day, it was brought into being, when the Speaker laid it before the House without debate, consideration, the opportunity for amendment or a vote. I hasten to say that that comment represents no criticism whatever of the Speaker; that was the procedure laid down by the House in the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009. That is why we are in this situation, debating a scheme that has hitherto been wholly undebated and that is incapable of amendment or vote by Members of the House.

I want to focus on one fundamental issue, which has thus far, I believe, received no consideration inside or outside the House, although I drew it to the attention of IPSA’s chair, Sir Ian Kennedy, in my letter to him of 21 December last year. That issue is the interface between parliamentary privilege and IPSA’s decisions. I should make it absolutely clear that the aspect of parliamentary privilege to which I am referring has nothing whatever to do with the application of the criminal law to MPs’ expenses. I am referring to a quite different aspect of parliamentary privilege—the privilege of freedom from obstruction in the performance of parliamentary duties.

I have taken advice from the Clerk of the House as to the ambit of that privilege. He has drawn my attention to page 75 of “Erskine May”, under the heading “What constitutes privilege”. He has also drawn my attention to page 143, under the heading “Obstructing Members of either House in the discharge of their duty”, the first paragraph of which reads:

“The House will proceed against those who obstruct Members in the discharge of their responsibilities to the House or in their participation in its proceedings.”

He has also drawn my attention to the report of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, at paragraph 264, where, among the contempts of Parliament that are listed, are

“assaulting, threatening, obstructing or intimidating a member or officer of the House in the discharge of the member’s or officer’s duty”.

I do not, of course, suggest that IPSA is in the country of assault, but there are serious issues to be raised about obstruction.

The Clerk of the House has made it clear to me that the privilege of freedom from obstruction applies only to work in connection with parliamentary proceedings. It does not apply to constituency work. However, he has also confirmed to me, in writing, that the protection of MPs from obstruction in connection with parliamentary proceedings applies whether the House is sitting or not. So, just as the IPSA scheme and any obstruction occurring under it applies throughout the year, the protection from obstruction for MPs applies equally throughout the year.

The issue before the House is whether IPSA is obstructing Members of Parliament in the discharge of their parliamentary duties, other than their constituency duties, by, for example, forcing them to spend many hours a week travelling, when they could be working in connection with their parliamentary duties; or whether in countless other ways, as we heard from the hon. Gentleman and in interventions, it is obstructing Members in the efficient and effective discharge of their parliamentary duties.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a fascinating and pertinent point. Is he aware that some of our colleagues have been told that they cannot recoup the cost of going to conferences on subjects that are of relevance to their work in the House and their constituencies? Is not that precisely the sort of issue that would be covered by the points he has made?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making that important point.

No one can say with certainty at the moment whether IPSA is violating the privilege of freedom from obstruction; that is a matter for the House of Commons only. Equally, no one can reasonably deny that the issue must be addressed by the House, as early as possible in the life of this Parliament. We are in an unprecedented situation. Never before in the history of Parliament has a statutory body outside Parliament been created with the ability to introduce rules that directly impact on the ability of Members of Parliament to perform their parliamentary duties. It is clear that the boundary between the authority of IPSA and the ambit of the parliamentary privilege of freedom from obstruction needs to be defined. It is at the moment wholly undefined. For that reason, the issue must be placed at an early date before the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. I intend to achieve that, with, I hope, the support of other Members. I hope the Minister will agree that the issue of the boundary between the authority of IPSA and the privilege of freedom from obstruction needs early consideration by the Committee.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) on bravely initiating the debate on behalf of other Members. Many of us have felt totally frustrated in the past months, particularly during the expenses scandals, and I blame all the party leaders for failing to protect Members of Parliament. They vied with one another to wear the most painful hair shirt. They have thrown us to the dogs.

This is my 26th year in Parliament and I have never felt as humiliated as I was during the expenses scandal and during the general election. I had nothing to apologise for, but in our constituencies people shouted “You’re all the same; you’re all crooks.” I object very strongly to that. I am not a crook. The majority of my colleagues are not either.

Because of IPSA I have spent many hours on accountancy, clerical work, and repeating that clerical work because forms have not been received or have been lost, and I should not have had to do that. Also, when one is doing that work from constituency offices, the online system often breaks down and cannot be accessed. Members spend a lot of time hanging around waiting for it to come back. I agree that it would be much better if the work could be done in writing. We all know that we are asked to repeat things; we are asked to send original receipts, which then get lost. We must keep photocopies of the originals and produce those again.

We have an online computer system, but I also submit every receipt in writing and must establish my own internal office system to track the fact that I have sent the receipts. I submit the information in writing and online, and therefore duplicate the process. I am not against computer systems, but I want to find a way in which my right hon. Friend and I can do things once, not twice.

I agree; and, by the way, I want to say to the press that we are not whingeing MPs. I object to that title. We are raising matters that it is legitimate to raise because they affect our performance as Members of Parliament. If anyone describes me as a whingeing MP again—and I do not know if any members of the press are responsible for such expressions—I ask them please to come and see me.

Andrew McDonald said in a letter to me dated 9 June that IPSA had met almost 600 MPs face to face at the induction sessions. I must have been at a different induction session, because the person dealing with my induction was a civil servant from the Department for Work and Pensions who is not even a member of IPSA. Where were the people who should have met me face to face? Were they the people who smiled and nodded at me on the way into the induction session? Will they please introduce themselves next time as members of IPSA, so that I can acknowledge them? It has been impossible, as we have already heard, to talk to somebody responsible at IPSA. Instead, we are asked to submit things in writing, which is time-consuming.

IPSA is hosting training sessions around the country for MPs’ staff. Again, I object that there is not one training session in Wales, so my member of staff is expected to travel to Bristol for it. That cannot be right.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the problem with the so-called induction system or briefing session was the fact that it was designed only to show us how to use an incompetent computer system? First, if we raised any questions, staff could not answer; secondly, the default position with IPSA seems to be, “Put it in an e-mail.” My right hon. Friend may have experienced the fact that even if we send e-mails, we get no replies.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The comments made by other Members show that we have all shared these experiences. Indeed, I can hardly sit down now in the Tea Room without somebody talking to me about IPSA. Of course they do, because it takes up such a great amount of our time, but it should not be taking up our time in that way. The organisation cannot even get our salaries right; it says that that is an administrative error, but with all the staff or accountants that it has working for it, how on earth can it make an administrative error? I suggest that it is totally incompetent if it cannot get the simple matter of our salaries right.

As with the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), the young man who came to explain the system to me could not answer any of my questions. Does the right hon. Lady agree that it was not his fault? He had been an administrative back-office person in the private office of the former Lord Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw). Those who are responsible are those who put him into that job without giving him the answers.

That is disgraceful. It puts unfair pressure on those people. We expect answers and if we do not get answers we obviously feel frustrated. I have not yet screamed or shouted at anyone, or banged the table, but I am getting to the point of saying that I would not have come back to Parliament if I had realised what a hassle the system would be for me and my staff. I would not have returned. That is a shocking thing to have to say, because throughout my time here I have enjoyed being a Member of Parliament; to spend my time now having to do this kind of thing irritates me beyond explanation.

I note that the Leader of the House is here. He will know that a few weeks ago in business questions I raised this matter in response to a question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North. My hon. Friend did not receive an answer to his questions; he was told that no one was responsible for answering on behalf of IPSA. I then discovered that the Deputy Prime Minister would have policy responsibility for IPSA; the Leader of the House told me that in reply to my question. If the Deputy Prime Minister is responsible for IPSA policy, he should be here listening to this debate. I am sorry he had to send his right hon. Friend to take the flak on his behalf. I would like to know what “policy” means. If answering questions on IPSA is not part of policy, what is?

The reply to the questions I tabled to the Leader of the House was that no responsibility falls on the Government for what are basically day-to-day matters. Downing street then said that it was the responsibility of the Deputy Prime Minister. I put the same questions to him, but got the same response. It is not its fault, but the Table Office now blocks all questions on the workings of IPSA. The organisation is a law unto itself; it is impossible, except at business questions, to raise issues by way of parliamentary questions. That in itself is pretty disgraceful.

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that we allow enough time for the poor man who has to answer the debate to give a comprehensive reply.

I read again in the paper this morning that MPs will be given face-to-face advice surgeries with officials, starting in September. At the moment, advice is given largely via telephone helpline and e-mail. None the less, despite the complaints of MPs, Sir Ian said that it is not a complicated expenses system. Who is he kidding? It is complicated, and I object very strongly on behalf of my fellow Members that the system has been imposed upon us and that nobody seems to be accountable.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we cannot talk to IPSA but have to speak to an agency in Manchester called Calyx? When we ask a question, all the staff there can do is to say, “We’ll call you back; we have to get in touch with IPSA.” Surely that is ridiculous.

It is all ridiculous. We must have answers today, because we are not going to put up with it. Of course it is right that the expenses system should be transparent. We all agree with that—nobody disagrees—but we disagree with the way that IPSA is operating and the extra stress that it causes Members of Parliament.

Further to what the right hon. Lady said about information being given in different regions, an information day was held in Northern Ireland on Monday. I believe that four MPs were notified about it—a total disgrace, given the other difficulties that we are expected to deal with—and as a result, hardly anyone turned up.

That is yet more evidence that IPSA is not working.

I have been trying to finish my speech, Dr McCrea; I have tried to resume my seat twice. I now do so.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on raising the real threat to the operation of this Parliament and to the ability of democratically elected Members to do the job for which they were elected. I sincerely hope that the Minister was listening and will give feedback and take action. I hope that the leader of the council—[Laughter.] It could almost be a council, could it not? I hope that the Leader of the House hears what has been said and takes immediate action. Our work is being seriously interfered with and Parliamentary privilege is therefore being compromised.

I have not yet found a Member of Parliament who thinks that IPSA is doing a good job, but we should acknowledge and appreciate that its staff—those who are trying to do the job—are wading through treacle, just as we are. It is down to the Government—my Government—to put it right.

I am not technically proficient, so it goes way over my head, but those MPs who do know how to operate the computer system are spending many hours on it—or their staff are doing so. We had a simple system before and a few Members made it go wrong, but that was to do with second homes. I am not aware of anything seriously affecting the way that our staff operated. Why should they be penalised? Why should they suffer because of the sins of MPs? Why should new MPs have to tolerate a system that would not be tolerated in any other walk of life?

I have been to IPSA—I doorstepped it. If I can do that, I am amazed that no investigative journalist has done so. I can tell colleagues that the accommodation is luxurious—the best that I have ever seen and better than anything in a Cabinet Minister’s office. The work done there could easily be done from an industrial estate in Romford. IPSA does not have to occupy very expensive offices in central London.

I repeat: we should not criticise IPSA staff. It is their bosses who created this monster. It is not fit for purpose. This is not a question of MPs wanting to line their pockets; it is a question of MPs being able to pay the bills, so that they can operate their constituency offices and their staff can get on with their jobs. I honestly believe that if the job had been handed over to Tesco, it would have been done more efficiently, because Tesco knows everyone who goes in its shops and what they purchase. If every MP were issued with a House of Commons credit card, at the end of the month the printout would say what had been purchased and it would be deducted automatically. No money would go out of or into an MP’s personal account.

It is an affront that I have found it necessary to open a separate bank account. I do not see why the private bank account of my wife and I should be called upon to pay the office costs of an MP and that money then paid back into our private account. It is a real affront. Please, let us take up the excellent research undertaken by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley). We have the Leader of the House and the Minister here, and I can guarantee that the Deputy Prime Minister will hear about this at 5 o’clock tonight.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) on securing the debate.

It is almost a year since the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 went through its Commons stages. I remember it well. The Act created the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and gave it a number of administrative and regulatory functions, including payment of MPs’ allowances, dealing with allowance claims and revising the allowance scheme for MPs. The key aspect of the Act is that it gave IPSA those functions in relation to Members’ allowances, yet when IPSA published the first scheme for consultation, it changed the word “allowances” to “expenses”.

Most right hon. and hon. Members understand the anger and annoyance generated in the public by the term “MPs’ expenses” following the scandal of last year. It therefore seems to me to be incorrect and somewhat provocative of IPSA to describe allowances designed to support MPs in carrying out their parliamentary functions as expenses. We could debate the different definitions, but the definition of “allowance” is money defined or set aside for a purpose—in the case of MPs, to pay essential costs such as staff salaries and national insurance, rent, business rates and utility costs. It includes the sense that the sum specified in the allowance may or may not be used, but IPSA seemed to react to the term “allowances” by suggesting that if it made an “allowance scheme”, MPs would use all of the allowance allocated. That has not been the case in the past.

There is a wide variety of definitions of expenses, but a common one is that of costs incurred by an employee that are payable by an employer. As other Members have said, that does not fit the situation of MPs as we are not employees of the House. I strongly feel that “expenses” has overtones that work to hamper Parliament’s recovery from the scandal generated by the discredited system used in the previous Parliament. As my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North has said, we all want to get over it. In my view, IPSA would be well advised to describe the scheme as an allowance scheme, as the 2009 Act laid down.

Interestingly, IPSA uses a different definition of expenses when it comes to its own reporting. It states on its website that it will publish all expenses and hospitality incurred by the IPSA board and senior staff. If it used the same definition of “expenses” for its own staff, it would report its office costs and the salaries and other support costs of its staff, as well as personal expenses. What it actually publishes is travel and accommodation costs.

What was called the office costs allowance is now split by IPSA into two allowances: constituency office rental and general administrative expenditure. The previous allowance was more than £22,000 and could be supplemented by transfer from other allowances if office running costs were higher than the allowance. The IPSA scheme split the allowance into two parts and reduced it by £1,300. One part of the allowance has to be used to pay office rent, business rates, utility bills and office insurance, and the other for office furniture, computers and printers, phone systems and bills, stationery and postage. Why does IPSA feel that it is right to reduce the total amount of allowances for running an MP’s constituency office?

The Committee on Standards in Public Life looked at the previous allowance and, in its report, recommended no change. Not only has IPSA reduced the allowance, but it has arbitrarily split it and insisted that office rental and associated costs must somehow fit into the reduced half, with the other part of the allowance not able be used for rent, rates or utility bills. Apparently, the level of rental used by IPSA to set the constituency office rental cap is about £5,000 a year, which is meant to pay the annual rent of offices for the MP and up to three and a half staff, plus filing space, printers and space to meet constituents. It is not adequate. The cap is said to be the average office rent paid in the previous Parliament. The concept of an average rent is strange—rents vary up and down the country and probably half of the MPs in that Parliament had a higher cost than the £5,000 average. Many MPs are able to rent office space at low cost from constituency associations or have subsidised offices from their local authority, but for other MPs such subsidised and low-cost offices are not available. There is a danger that IPSA’s splitting the allowance and setting such a low cap on the office rental element could drive MPs out of their current constituency offices and into unsuitable premises.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is even more absurd to put things over which no one has any flexibility into one budget. We sign up to all the things included in the rent five years beforehand—they are not under our control—and all the flexible things are in another budget. Putting those two budgets together would make management of the money far easier.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North referred to new MPs setting up their offices from scratch. Some new colleagues have told me that they cannot afford the offices used by their predecessors. The rent will last for a number of weeks and then they will be pushed out of those offices.

On the same day that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Mr Timms) was stabbed at a constituency surgery, I challenged a person whom I thought was breaking into a property neighbouring my constituency office. The police advised me that challenging would-be burglars is not a good idea and that I should desist from doing so in future. My current constituency office is a place in which I feel that my staff and I are safe—it is not a shop, it is not on the ground floor and we have good security protection in the building—but I am very aware of the possibility of crime in the area and the other security threats posed to MPs and their staff.

I am an MP for a new constituency following a boundary change. It would plainly have been the wrong decision for me to try to inherit the premises occupied by my former colleague, David Clelland, which are on the outskirts of the new constituency. In Gateshead town centre, there is a significant transport hub that feeds virtually every part of my constituency, so it would be right for me to establish a new constituency office there. However, the IPSA recommendations on rents do not take account of town centre locations, where rents are necessarily higher because of market conditions. That precludes my establishing a constituency office that is handy for my constituents to access, unless I subsidise it out of my own salary.

That is a well made point.

I am short of time, so I want to end my remarks on that aspect by saying that I cannot get another office that I believe would be safe for my staff at the rent that IPSA has used to calculate office costs. IPSA is considering my case, and presumably that of other Members in my situation. I hope that it will be true to its word and not force me and other MPs out of our constituency offices. If it forces us into cheap premises in unsuitable areas, what does that say about security and safety considerations? Following on from my hon. Friend’s intervention, I am now thinking about finding ways to subsidise my office costs. That is the position we have been pushed into.

In summary, why has IPSA changed the terms laid down in the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009? Why does it describe our offices and staffing costs and other essential elements of MPs’ costs as “expenses”, given that the word has such a particular resonance with the public? Why has it caused a great deal of doubt, uncertainty and problems to MPs by reducing the office costs budget and splitting an allowance that worked well into elements with caps that are too low to work properly for a number of MPs and that, by forcing MPs into cheaper office premises, could have very serious implications for the safety and security of MPs and their staff?

We have 10 minutes left, and three Members are trying to catch my eye. I leave it for Members to decide whether they wish to allow others to get in.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) on securing this debate. In anticipation of press reporting of this debate, may I say that we get it—but we have had it? Also on press reporting, I would really welcome Mr Kennedy’s coming out of his luxurious bunker to tell us whether a member of staff said to an MP, “Don’t shout at me because it wasn’t me who fiddled my expenses.” I very much doubt whether that was said by a member of IPSA, because the staff are extremely helpful if they can be. I raise the matter because it relates to the whole question of staff budgets. IPSA has effectively cut £5,000 from staff budget levels. That means that 175 MPs will have to reduce their staff, which is unacceptable.

As a new Member, I inherited the staffing structure of my predecessor. He and I and our constituents have been served by those staff with both dignity and diligence. If there is no change in the staffing levels, I will have to sack someone. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that that is unfair?

That is grossly unfair. The worrying aspect is that the hon. Gentleman may even be taken to an industrial tribunal, and who will pay the cost of that? IPSA has also denied our staff the opportunity to be awarded performance-related bonuses. What we want to know—we have been trying to find this out and it has been very difficult—is whether IPSA staff receive performance-related bonuses. If they do, what is the criteria for them and how much do they get? As for redundancy, we cannot pay staff a basic redundancy, and we have little opportunity to enhance that, which is causing us concern.

There is also the question of gender in this place. Maternity pay for our staff now comes from a contingency fund, and it is approved or rejected at the sole discretion of IPSA. There is no possibility of an appeal or anything else. Again, that is extremely worrying.

I am conscious of the time, but let me finish by referring to the question of the stand-in Deputy Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), who asked why we could not have a credit card. I asked IPSA that question myself, and it came back and said:

“Your email asks whether IPSA can consider an alternative system for processing expenses, based on a credit card similar to the travel card. The system used by IPSA has been assessed to be efficient and cost effective for the purposes required. A significant advantage of the system is that it has been specifically designed to help MPs by preventing them from making mistakes at the initial stage of inputting an expense claim - this automatically reduces the level of incorrect claims and therefore reduces associated administration costs.”

If we had a simple credit card system that is transparent and accountable—that is what the general public wants and what we want to give them—we would not need all these compliance officers, communications officers and press officers. We have created an administrative monster. If we had a simple credit card system that is, as I said, transparent and accountable, we would not need all of that.

I strongly endorse the point made by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan). If we can have a House of Commons travel card for our train or plane tickets, why can we not have it for anything else? The hon. Gentleman made a very good point.

People will not be able to take up the excellent suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) about privileges until the Standards and Privileges Committee is established. There is one other thing that Members can do now. Many people have said that IPSA is not accountable, but that is wrong. It spends public money, which, therefore, makes it accountable. The IPSA chief executive is an accounting officer. The Comptroller and Auditor General is an officer of the House of Commons; he is the head of the National Audit Office. His address is 157 Buckingham Palace road, London SW1 W9SP. I encourage all Members of Parliament to write to him with their own experiences, because he is responsible. He is charged by Parliament, under the National Audit Act 1983, with ensuring the effective, efficient and economic use of public funds. In due course, he will need to take an interest in this question. It is a simple suggestion, but people should encourage the Comptroller and Auditor General to look at IPSA, because eventually, if there is enough pressure, he will have to look at it, and IPSA will then have to account for how it is spending public funds. It is that simple.

I promise to be extremely brief. I appreciate that many Members do not have a great deal of sympathy for us London MPs because we have the huge advantage of being able to go home every night and see our families, but we do have particular difficulties. Historically, we have had problems balancing our budgets. The current rules mean that the office limit of £12,761 is simply far too low for London MPs. The amount of money allowed for staff is too low for central London. IPSA suggests that we spend 20% more on our staff, but not a penny more is given to us to be able to employ them. The requirement for staff pensions creates new pressures on that tight budget, and the money allowed for staff bears no relation to the needs of the constituency.

It is the opinion of central London MPs that there should be an objective test, perhaps based on the index of multiple deprivation, on the basis of which we should be allowed additional case work. We have confessed to each other that, over the years, we have been putting large amounts of our own salaries into our staffing budgets. Frankly, this is the last straw. We are quite sure that IPSA intends to support Members of Parliament in their work, but it has got a number of the issues completely wrong, and that needs to change. We are pleased that IPSA has agreed to an early review, but we ask it to

“develop an objective method of assessing constituency need. Assess how many staff would be needed to meet that need. Fund that number of staff. Commit to funding increments for staff with long service. Commit to funding London weighting for London-based staff. Develop an objective method of assessing local rent levels. Fund a constituency office large enough to hold the assessed number of staff plus volunteers.”

We are asking for that not for ourselves but for our constituents. Our constituents would not believe it if we told them that MPs’ expenses meant that we could not do a proper job for them.

I express my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) for raising this very important issue. It is important not only to every colleague in the House, but, indirectly, to every constituent. It will become very apparent from this debate that concern about the structure and administration of the new allowance system goes right across the House. It is a matter of concern regardless of party or of previous experience. In his important remarks, the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) said that IPSA was the first body ever to be created with power effectively to adjudicate over the conduct of Members of Parliament, and that is true. However, it is worth reflecting on why this time last year, the whole of the House of Commons, all three party leaders, and some of us caught up in a vice by those party leaders, were under such pressure to establish a separate and independent allowance system.

I want to raise one issue that probably has not been mentioned yet. We are talking about value for money for the public purse and the taxpayer. As a matter of public record, at the moment the cost of my accommodation in London is £252.54 a month. Under the IPSA system and the proposed changes, that figure will rise to about £1,200 or £1,400 a month, so the cost to the taxpayer will be four or five times greater. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that that represents value for money?

From what I have seen, IPSA itself recognises that there are a number of anomalies in the system—although I do not remotely speak for IPSA. Those include the anomaly that if a colleague lives in a second home that they now own they cannot make a claim in respect of that second home. They could, however, rent the home out to a third party and then use an IPSA allowance to rent further accommodation. That is plainly irrational and I gather that it is going to be changed.

Will the right hon. Gentleman please confirm that the public anger during the last year was directed at MPs’ second home allowances and not at our staff, our constituency offices and the office costs? IPSA has created problems that were not there before.

I was going to come on to that very important point.

Just to go back slightly, it is true that this is the first time that there has been a body adjudicating on the conduct of Members of Parliament. However, the reason for that is not an invention of the board of IPSA; it was because of the egregious and outrageous conduct of some Members of the previous Parliament. We know what happened. We also know that the Commons, during a period of years, although it was never presented with the full facts, failed to take—

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. When he mentions the “outrageous conduct” of Members of the previous Parliament, does he not agree that it is a fundamental principle of British justice that someone is innocent until they are proved guilty?

Of course I accept that point. The truth of the matter was—we know this—that quite a number of our former colleagues, although they were of course a minority, were being unjustifiably imaginative, to say the least of it, in their expenses claims, especially for second homes and associated expenses. Because of variable decision making by the Fees Office, bluntly the system came crashing down and confidence in the body politic was brought to the lowest ebb that I have ever seen in my political lifetime.

It was because of that situation that the party leaders agreed in May 2009 that we should set up a separate authority, and the House endorsed that decision. It then fell to me as the Justice Secretary at the time and to a team of very good officials to try to hold discussions with the other parties and to bring forward what became the—

If my hon. Friend will allow me, no, I will not give way. We brought forward what became the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009, which gained Royal Assent at the end of June last year.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North and, I think, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) and others have said, there was and is, I believe, widespread agreement that we could no longer continue with a system—

No. We could no longer continue with a system of allowances whereby we set the allowances ourselves. And yes, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) is absolutely right to say that all of us felt humiliated by that situation, and still do. It was and is a collective humiliation, but we cannot place responsibility for that on the board or the staff of IPSA. I am afraid that we have to look to ourselves.

There is now, however, this other factor, which hon. Friends and other colleagues have referred to this morning, that almost every one of those who transgressed the rules is now outside this House, so the 400 returning Members and certainly the 260 new Members are now paying the price and the penalty not for their own offences, because they have not committed those offences, but for the offences of predecessors who have now left the House. That is a point that I continually make to members of the IPSA staff and board. They have got to recognise that, collectively, the Members of the new Parliament are not the culprits; those culprits, with perhaps one or two minor exceptions, have left Parliament.

No, I am afraid I cannot, as my time is very limited.

I just remind the House that we had to set up IPSA, because that was a requirement put on us by all parties in the Commons, in double-quick time.

I am just putting on the record what Parliament itself agreed. We then had to get an interim chief executive of IPSA appointed in September and a board appointed in November. In addition, the Committee on Standards in Public Life itself decided that it wanted to second-guess what the new IPSA board was doing. That led to further pressure on the establishment of that board. All the time there was that imperative, and I do not remember any colleague from any part of the House saying that we should not have pushed forward with that timetable to try to get the new system established, at least in embryo, by the beginning of this calendar year, with a view to it coming into force at the general election.

My view is that the basic structure of the Act is probably satisfactory, and I have heard no suggestion to the contrary. I just remind Members that, if we are going to have an independent authority—

No. If we are going to have an independent authority, we have got to give it some independence.

There are two fundamental problems. One is the structure of the allowance system that the authority has decided on; that is something that it decided on. Having done that, the second problem is the system of administration.

I have only two minutes left.

So far as the structure of the allowance system is concerned, my view is that the authority has failed to take account of the reality of Members’ work and it needs to change that. It has failed to take account of the fact that we are in a wholly different position from most people, because we do not have an office provided for us; we are expected to provide that office ourselves, and we have to do so. That is why I believe the authority has made an error in assuming that a system for incidental expenses, which could operate for staff in a normal organisation, can be brought in to operate for the complete administration of an office. None of the people who are running that system has ever been in the position of having to run a complete office system altogether.

Secondly, there are major problems about the treatment of families. I have no interest in that issue; my family is grown up. But the fact that travel for spouses and children over the age of six is not properly supported is unacceptable.

I make two final points. First, on the administration of the system, I strongly believe in and support what the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) said about the importance of direct payments. There was no scandal that I can remember about the system of office administration—none whatever. It would have been sensible for IPSA simply to have taken over the direct payment system, which is transparent anyway. By the way, it is not the IT system that will stop abuse of the system in future; total transparency alone will do it. The elaborate system set up to stop abuse is not needed. Unless people are suicidal, there will be no more abuse.

As I perceive it, IPSA staff and Members of Parliament have been talking past one another. IPSA made an error in not ensuring that high-grade staff were available at an early stage to talk people through the system.

No, I have no time.

I hope that all members of the board of IPSA have sought to register themselves and make claims in order to see how the system operates, rather than looking over somebody else’s shoulder. I think that that would be instructive for them. Ensuring personal contact and a phone system that is not Kafkaesque in its operation is critical, as is, above all, responding to the entirely legitimate concerns and complaints raised by hon. Members from all parties.

Colleagues may recall that an amendment to the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 was made in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, which was passed just before Parliament dissolved. The amendment established a general duty on IPSA to

“have regard to the principle that members of the House of Commons should be supported in efficiently, cost-effectively and transparently carrying out their Parliamentary functions.”

I hope that the board of IPSA is applying itself not only to its duties to administer the allowance system but to its clear statutory duty to support the conduct and work of Members of Parliament.

I do not have a great deal of time. I will try to address as many of the issues raised by right hon. and hon. Members as possible as I go along, but I may not be able to take many interventions if I am to make progress. For those Members who have mentioned it, I will also try to set out exactly what the Government’s role is in policy on the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, IPSA’s own responsibility and, to respond to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon), what other avenues of accountability exist to ensure that the system is run in a sensible and cost-effective manner.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) on securing this debate and on how he has conducted it. He reminded us why we are here and emphasised the importance of transparency and accountability for the costs that we incur while doing our jobs, including for the IPSA staff trying to administer the system. He described that well, setting a tone for the debate that I hope will be reflected in the coverage of it. He cannot be accused—to use the words of another hon. Member—of not getting it. He absolutely does get it, and his interest seems to lie in ensuring that a workable, sensible system is in place to enable Members to do their jobs.

Let me make some progress. The fact that there are some 47 Members in Westminster Hall today—the largest number I have ever seen—indicates the concern that exists on both sides of the House. I am sure the IPSA board will pay attention to that, listen to this debate and take note.

To start off on a good foot—before I go on, probably, to disappoint everybody—it is worth saying for the benefit of those who did not see the coverage this morning that at its board meeting yesterday, IPSA made a number of changes that I think Members will welcome. IPSA has agreed to make one-to-one, hands-on help with the expenses system available to MPs who need it. IPSA has recognised the system’s complexity and will deal with it. As the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) mentioned, IPSA has also said that it will offer MPs one-on-one advice surgeries with IPSA officials who understand the scheme.

If it is a bad system, it will be like the Rural Payments Agency, which finally sent people to meet farmers face to face. What we want is a system that works. As a colleague said, a credit card system, which would be totally transparent, would be much simpler, cheaper, more efficient, more effective and more economical.

If my hon. Friend will let me get to the end of my list, he may hear some positive news. To pick up that point, IPSA has also said that in its review of the scheme, it will consider a direct payment system. It is therefore incumbent on Members—[Interruption.] I am sure that IPSA will have listened to the advice from my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) about a credit card system. There are alternatives, but I think IPSA recognises that a direct payment system for office costs is a sensible venture, and it will consider that system during its review in the autumn.

Does the Minister have any idea how much it has cost to reinvent the wheel on direct payment of office costs? Many of us already had such a system in place under the previous Administration and did not handle any cash in our offices.

The right hon. Lady makes a good point. Under the old system, with which Members of the old Parliament will be familiar, no money passed through our hands. That system was completely transparent. I think IPSA will want to bear that in mind as it conducts its review. Members ought to tell IPSA what they think was powerful about the old system—[Hon. Members: “How?”] I am sure that they will, and I am sure IPSA will listen.

In the four minutes remaining to me, I will explain clearly to Members the methods for accountability and what the Government are and are not responsible for.

I will not take any more interventions. I have only four minutes.

The shadow Secretary of State, who was responsible for taking some of the measures through the House, explained clearly the history behind them, the reason why they were introduced and the consequences of moving to an independent system. He also explained why it was necessary. The details of IPSA’s internal workings are for the chairman of its board and its senior management to explain, not the Government. I will not discuss individual details of how the expenses scheme works.

However, the Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has an oversight role. It must agree IPSA’s budget and lay it before the House. Members will be aware that the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, an analogous body, answers both written and oral questions in the House from Members. I understand that at its first meeting on 30 June, the Speaker’s Committee for IPSA will consider whether that is a suitable model for enabling IPSA to answer Members’ questions about its internal workings.

My hon. Friend the hon. Member for South Norfolk, an experienced and well-respected member of the Select Committee on Public Accounts during the last Parliament, made the point that IPSA is subject to audit by the National Audit Office and therefore also by the Public Accounts Committee. I would expect the new Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform to take an interest in the matter as well. Those bodies will deal with the scrutiny oversight arrangements and ensure that IPSA is discharging its duties in a sensible way.

Before my hon. Friend sits down, will he answer the fundamental question that I put to him? Does he agree that it is necessary and desirable that the Standards and Privileges Committee should consider the interface and boundary between the authority of IPSA and Members’ parliamentary privilege of freedom from obstruction?

It is not for a member of the Government to tell the Standards and Privileges Committee—when it is set up—what it should consider. The Chairman and members of that Committee are perfectly able to decide that. However, it is worth remembering and reiterating the point made by the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) that under the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009, IPSA has a statutory duty to ensure that it supports Members in carrying out their parliamentary functions efficiently, cost-effectively and transparently. IPSA is legally obliged when running the scheme to ensure that it is helping us do our jobs as Members of Parliament. That was put into the Act from the beginning.

As I am about to run out of time, I will just make the point that the Government support the independent system of regulating our parliamentary expenses that has been in place since the election. We want to enable IPSA to get on with doing the job it is legally obliged to do in order to help us do our job of serving the public, but we will keep its role and functions under review. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Walsall North for securing this debate. It has been helpful, and I am sure that members of the IPSA board will take note of all the concerns raised. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who was here earlier, has been speaking with IPSA regularly about any concerns raised by Members regarding their ability to do their job, and I know that he will continue to do so.