Skip to main content

Review of Parliamentary Standards Act 2009

Volume 527: debated on Thursday 12 May 2011

I beg to move,

That it be an instruction to the Committee on Members’ Allowances established under Standing Order No. 152G (Committee on Members’ Allowances) that it review the operation of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 and make recommendations, giving due consideration to ensuring:

(a) value for money for taxpayers;

(b) accountability;

(c) public confidence in Parliament;

(d) the ability of Members to fulfil their duties effectively;

(e) fairness for less well-off Members and those with families; and

(f) that Members are not deterred from submitting legitimate claims.

I thank hon. Members on both sides of the House for their support in crafting today’s motion and ensuring that it was tabled and supported. I also thank you, Mr Speaker, for supporting Back Benchers in having their voices heard in this place, and the Leader of the House for his robust defence of the functions of the House and for making it known to the external bodies that deal with our expenses that we are keen for the system not to impede the work that MPs do on behalf of their constituents.

None of us wants to be discussing expenses, and it is sad that we have to, but given that the expenses system has caused so much trouble over the years, and the current expenses regime continues to raise concerns for many Members and for democracy at large, it is our duty at least to consider a measured, sensible and calm way forward in which we can review the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 to consider whether it is achieving the goals set for it. I want to make clear, therefore, what we are aiming to do today. The motion is about considering ways of cutting the cost of Parliament to taxpayers in the long term, and about giving MPs’ time back to their constituents, rather than allowing them to be waylaid by bureaucracy beyond what is necessary for accountability. It is also about reviewing whether Parliament can be a place open to people from all backgrounds, including less well-off ones. Irrespective of our own personal positions—in many cases—it is important that Parliament does not become a place where only wealthy people can serve and thrive without damage to their public reputation.

The motion is part of the process of cleaning up our politics. It is right that this debate should be held in Back-Bench time, because the terms and conditions of Members of Parliament in serving their constituents and doing their duty within a democracy are rightly for this place to determine rather than for the Government to take the lead on—unless, of course, the taxpayers’ purse is affected. Then the Government must take a very robust position.

Let us be clear: it is Parliament that holds Government and the Executive to account, not vice versa. That is why I want to thank the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee, the Leader of the House, the shadow Leader of the House and others for recognising that this is an issue that should really be raised, as it is being, in Back-Bench time.

Today’s motion says that MPs take their responsibilities seriously. What does it do? It instructs an existing Committee to review the Parliament Standards Act 2009, as amended in 2010. It not only instructs the Committee to review the Act, but asks it to make recommendations to the House about any changes that it thinks might need to take place, giving due consideration to the important issues about which we are all concerned, such as accountability.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on all the hard work that he has undertaken over many months on this very important issue. There is now a person in the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority called the compliance officer, and as a consequence of my having a very small logo on my website—a tiny little thing with “Labour” on it—I received two recorded delivery letters and was summonsed to respond within a certain time. When I phoned, I asked why they did not just lift the phone to me and say, “Look, this is against the rules. Why don’t you remove it?” It was the way that it was done. The bureaucracy involved in that process needs to be considered, along with many other things.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for mentioning that. I noticed just the other day that 40 hon. Members have been reported and may well be investigated for some very minor and seemingly almost irrelevant matters. I have seen newspaper coverage of Members’ being criticised for claiming £3 here and £4 there. It seems to me that the public standing of this place is not necessarily enhanced by some of the practices in place at the moment, and that is why we need calmly to take a step back and review the situation. We need to review the 2009 Act and ask whether it is improving and restoring the integrity of Parliament and its hon. Members through its operation.

Clearly, some disgraceful acts happened in the past and no one is condoning that. We needed to make changes and I welcome the progress that has been made, but we must now calmly review the Act, its operation and the current arrangements.

The hon. Gentleman is making a very good speech, but is it not a fact that the vast majority of Members in this House never did anything wrong and never broke any rules—I am talking about more than 600 of us—but have been rewarded by having our job of serving our constituents and checking on the Executive made much more difficult? My job here is to serve my constituents and call the Executive to account, and I am finding it much more difficult to do that under the new rules.

That is the observation of many Members, I think. I have to say—I hope I will not get a hiss for this—that the media and those who really understand how this place works are beginning to recognise just how difficult it is becoming for Members of Parliament on both sides of the House who want to go about their duties of holding the Executive to account, representing their constituents and picking up issues, but they are constantly being harangued over issues regarding which, one might argue, they should not necessarily be under pressure.

I shall not go through the litany of the crimes of the current system, much as I would love to. Anybody reasonable and anybody who knows how this place operates—the people who voted us into this place last May clearly recognised that the people being elected here were people who wanted to serve—will know that the overwhelming majority of Members are desperate just to get on with their job and to perform the duties for which they were elected. I hope that this motion is carried today so that we can have a calm look at whether the 2009 Act is performing the function that, with all the good intentions and good motivation in the world, it was intended to achieve.

My heart goes out to the new Members who came in in 2005. Many were elected on a ticket saying that they abhorred the expenses crisis, and they were right to campaign on that ticket—

That is right; I meant the 2010 intake. My heart goes out to them, because they have been as meticulous and careful as they can not to overclaim and not to make erroneous claims; I know this because I know many of them personally. In fact, 92% of people here are not claiming what they are entitled to claim, just so they can be as careful as possible, yet every eight weeks their names are run through the press, which presents any claim at all as being in some way illegitimate. I do not entirely blame the press for that. In some ways, it might be the workings of the 2009 Act that are perpetuating that perception, which in the majority of cases is not a reality.

The hon. Gentleman is making a very thoughtful and considered speech. Does he agree that there is now a worry that IPSA is straying into areas where it was never intended to go? For example, two colleagues who have recently been injured had great difficulty in getting IPSA to allow them to claim taxis to come to the House, although they were not allowed to use public transport. At one point, a member of IPSA asked them why they were going to work. We cannot have people who are there to regulate expenses deciding when Members of Parliament should or should not be able to come to the House.

The hon. Lady raises a key point that is at the heart of our democracy. In a parliamentary democracy, Members are elected in order to make or change the laws. Parliament is sovereign in our nation within the way that our unwritten constitution works. One has to ask whether it is right for an external body to be able to determine the way in which Members of Parliament, who are elected by the public, do their work. It is not just a question of the level of remuneration, as we understand that and accept the need for independence. I think most people are comfortable with that. If such a body determines the way in which we do our work, however, tough questions must be asked about the arrangements. I hope that as the Committee carries out the review some of these questions will be raised.

There is an opportunity for the Committee calmly to consider not only the current difficulties—the level of accountability and whether it is full enough, whether receipts need to be published and all those detailed issues that affect us on a day-to-day basis—but the constitutional position. It might also consider some of the issues to do with tidying up the omissions and other small errors that we made in our haste as we rushed to make the changes, which we were right to do.

I welcome the establishment of the Committee. Will my hon. Friend confirm whether the membership of the Committee has been determined yet, and if it has not, whether he would be prepared to serve on it? It seems to me that he would be an ideal candidate.

My interest in this issue has been on the public record for many years, and I would be very happy to play a part in any Committee established for this purpose, but naturally such a Committee should have no special privileges. I hope that it would be set up in the same way as other Committees are established, but of course I am interested in this issue and would like to do my best to try to assist Parliament and hon. Members of all persuasions in doing their jobs without unnecessary obstacles being placed in the way.

Let me make some quick observations on some of the stresses and strains. I make these observations not necessarily to make judgments at this moment but simply to flag up some of the areas that cause concern, and which any future review might wish to consider. The first such area is cost. One of the mandates for the Committee is that it must have due regard to the need for value for money for the taxpayer. The budget for IPSA seems quite high, and was certainly significantly higher in the first year than that for the previous year’s arrangements. That is something we need to look at. Those costs might be appropriately high; it might be right that it is very expensive to operate what should be a relatively simple system, but any review must look into that.

Secondly, we have to consider the impact that the 2009 Act is having on the time that MPs have available to perform their duties. There is no doubt, from my own experience and that of hon. Members who were here before 2010, that the level and work load associated with the expenses systems and such matters have escalated enormously. Literally days are taken away from constituents as the time of Members and their staff is taken up. There is an enormous level of stress associated with the IPSA system, and we need to take a calm look at the impact that is having on our democracy and on Members’ ability to represent their constituents.

The hon. Gentleman is making a very thoughtful speech. Like many Members in Wales, I have joint offices with Assembly Members and I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s point about stress. The stress for staff of dealing with expenses for Westminster is far higher than the stress of dealing with expenses for the devolved Administrations. Does he think IPSA should look at the systems in Scotland and Wales and see whether we could adopt a similar system?

From my observations of the system in Scotland in particular, and the system in Wales, I think there are certainly some virtues in the way they operate. I have also conducted a review of 27 different systems around the world, including those in Canada, Denmark, some of the Scandinavian countries and particularly Germany, and it is clear that they take a very different view of how expenses and remuneration systems should operate for members of their Parliaments.

That was not a scientific review, but there were certainly some very clear patterns. In Germany they have said it would be utterly ridiculous to lumber the taxpayer with the cost of receipting tiny claims, because the cost would be disproportionate to the benefit to the taxpayer. That is something that a review would need to consider, but I do not wish to pre-empt where it might go. It would need to take evidence and take a very careful look at comparisons from around the world. One or two other nations have what are called sessional indemnities and different, very simple arrangements for office accommodation and housing for their members. That is something we need to look at.

A key area that I hope the review will look into is the situation of Members who are not of independent means—those who do not have large outside incomes, trust funds or inherited wealth, and those who did not have incredibly successful businesses or professional careers before arriving here. In many ways, I think we have to consider whether the expenses system is penalising such Members for not being wealthy. There is a danger that if, as I have said, 92% of Members are not claiming what they are entitled to claim, this place will become a place only for those who are wealthy.

The motion simply asks the Committee to conduct a review of the 2009 Act. I hope there will not be dissent today. This issue of expenses is incendiary, but it is our duty in this place to act without fear or favour in the interests of democracy, our constituents and the taxpayer. A calm, methodical review of the 2009 Act is a very important step, and is part of the process.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is critical that the House should uphold the fundamental importance of independence in these matters, which is absolutely crucial to restoring public confidence after all the scandals?

It is my personal view, and that of many Members, that it would be a very strange day if we were to start determining our pay or rations once again. I do not think that anyone wants to head in that direction, and I have not heard of many people wanting to do so. The independence of the body setting the level of remuneration is a good thing. Whatever any review sets out to do, it must ensure that that independence is maintained. Indeed, it could even be enhanced. With those remarks, I urge Members to support the motion. Let us have a calm and sensible review of where we are.

I want to paint a picture of two different parliamentary expenses schemes. One is bureaucratic, difficult to understand and administer, expensive to run and universally loathed by those whom it seeks to serve. The other is relatively inexpensive, easy to understand and universally accepted by those whom it seeks to serve. It might surprise some to know that both those schemes currently exist in the UK. The first is our good friend IPSA, and the second is the scheme that operates in Scotland without fuss, issues or any difficulty whatever.

A year on from IPSA’s creation, we are here again discussing its many and manifest failures, while the system in Scotland works without any issues or difficulty. No one cares to hear about it, and even the press are bored with it. They lost interest in the tea and biscuits stories years ago and they have gone on to other things, but it was not always like that in Scotland. In the early days of the Scottish Parliament there were a number of alarming stories, but nothing on the scale of what happened in this House. Initially, the Scottish Parliament more or less copied in full the parliamentary scheme from this place, but then there were difficulties, so it patiently, constructively and conscientiously fashioned a new system, which has worked. That system has the support of MSPs and the public, who know it is fair and transparent, and the press no longer have any particular interest in it.

One way of illustrating the difference between the two systems is by looking at them through the eyes of the staff who have the misery of dealing with them on our behalf. I share an office with a Member of the Scottish Parliament. We share staff and our office manager looks after our office issues for us jointly, so she is responsible for paying all the bills and making sure that all the offices work effectively. When she does the expenses work for the MSP, it is over in minutes: the direct debit for office supplies—done; a few receipts for the travel required—finished. But then we almost hear her groan of anguish when it is time to turn to the MP’s expenses. With a heavy heart, she draws down the IPSA website again and the hours of misery start. Is it the four hours to be spent on the travel reconciliations for last month, or the trying to sit through the quadruplicate reconciliation that IPSA requires for travel that causes the misery? Is it the endless phone calls to IPSA Towers, trying to understand and decipher the new, panicky rewrite of some of the rules? Or is it the stress of possibly getting a claim wrong—of something going into the wrong column or category and the claim being returned or, worse, refused and opened up for the ritual press humiliation that comes when those expenses are published every two months?

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that having an IPSA-type body is a good thing for MPs, but that it is so over-bureaucratic that it stifles what we are here to do? Speaking from personal experience, I think that if it were not for Philip from IPSA having come around and helped out many of the Members who are present today, we would all be in a world of pain.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point, which gives me the opportunity to say that there is nothing wrong with the staff who work for IPSA, most of whom are courteous and very helpful. They do all they can to try to resolve some of the difficulties and issues that confront us and our staff day in, day out. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the problem is the mind-numbing bureaucracy of the thing. I do not want my staff sitting there on the phone to IPSA Towers. I do not want them wading through the quadruplicate reconciliations that are required. I want them to work to help my constituents; that is what they are there to do. Why are they wasting their precious time, which should be spent on my constituents, on that mind-numbing useless bureaucracy? It is time that we addressed that question properly.

The Scottish system and IPSA have one thing in common—one that we all want to see: transparency. That is what it should be about; transparency is the key to the way forward. The system used by the Scottish Parliament is even better, because receipts are put on each MSP’s website and are available at the click of a mouse, so we achieve transparency without the massive difficulties caused by the bureaucracy of filling in all those forms.

IPSA has had a chance to try to resolve those issues. Unfortunately, I missed the debate secured by the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) before Christmas. I do not think that I have yet congratulated him on securing this debate, and on his diligence in pursuing the issue. After the first debate, IPSA was charged with the task of getting some of those difficulties in order. There have been some improvements, which we are all prepared to welcome, but the culture and the institution are still very much in place. There has not been a cultural shift in the way in which IPSA deals with MPs’ expenses, so we are right to try to pursue the issue along the lines that the hon. Gentleman was prepared to suggest. Let us see if we can look at the 2009 Act again to try to get something different.

We do not need to look too far afield, although I would be fascinated to learn about other international examples. We need look only 500 miles up the road to find a system that functions perfectly well, supported by those whom it serves and by the public, and without any issue or interest from the press whatsoever. We do not need to reinvent the wheel; we just need to strap a Caledonian one on to the House and get on with it. That is what we should do now, as we have an opportunity to try to resolve this. When the issue of expenses came before the House a couple of years ago, we strongly suggested that people should take a look at the Scottish system. That proposal was rejected in favour of IPSA, and the House probably realises that it made a dramatic and drastic mistake in going down that route—but there is still time to try to achieve a change. Let us not do something radically different. Let us just do something that works, and something works just up the road.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) on tabling the motion, and on the diligent work that he has done on behalf of Parliament and the taxpayer. I have been asked to chair the MPs’ side of the committee liaising with IPSA, and we have done our honest best in recent months to try to put MPs’ views to IPSA. Our meetings are courteous and lengthy. We have covered the entire ground but, at the end of the day, many of our suggestions are simply not acted on. The motion will provide further impetus to IPSA to listen to Parliament. Everyone accepts that we must have an independent body that sets the overall levels of remuneration, but we still have a fantastically bureaucratic system that employs 70 staff and which costs upwards of £6 million just to do the expenses of 650 people. It is an absurdly bureaucratic system that must be reviewed, not for our sake but for the sake of the taxpayer.

It is perfectly possible to devise a system that can command public confidence and result in a much lower cost to the taxpayer. Our first priority is cutting the cost to the taxpayer, who has to pay for all of this. It is an expensive way of doing things. Secondly, we want to minimise the possibility of fraud and error. As we have seen with social security, one of the best ways to do that is to simplify the system as much as possible. Thirdly—this point was made by my hon. Friend and others—we want to open Parliament up, and ensure that it is an attractive place for people of all types, from all regions, of all levels of income, and all the rest of it, who want to come here.

I mentioned all regions, because disincentives are built into the current system. For instance, is being a Member of Parliament, with our existing expenses regime and the way in which families are still treated, an attractive option for a lady GP working in Newcastle upon Tyne? I do not think so. We should encourage in particular women with families who want to serve as Members of Parliament, which means that we must have an expenses regime that understands Parliament and the fact that many people who come to the House are not just coming to London for an occasional business trip. It is often a life sentence, as people have to spend half their time in a constituency that may be a long way from London, and the other half in London. Younger Members of Parliament with young families, in particular, want to be with their families, so ultimately we need an expenses regime—we have to keep repeating this—that is not too bureaucratic, which is attractive, minimises fraud and error and cuts the cost to the taxpayer. The present system does not do that.

We have those meetings in our liaison committee, but we have no power whatsoever. We can make suggestions on all the points that are made to me in e-mails and letters from colleagues, but ultimately we can still be ignored. There has been some progress, particularly on how we run our offices. The way in which IPSA originally tried to set up the expenses regime for MPs’ offices was absurd. It was ludicrously bureaucratic, but we have made progress, and MPs can increasingly use the IPSA debit card to ensure that the money they need to run their offices does not go through their personal bank accounts. The fact that MPs were forced to subsidise their offices from their bank accounts was almost a throwback to the 18th century, when Ministers had to pay for government from their own personal bank accounts. The situation was ridiculous, and we have made progress.

We have also made progress on travel, but accommodation remains a bugbear. I hope that the motion will be approved today and we can make progress. Let us be quite honest about this. MPs’ accommodation has been the kernel of the problem for the past 30 years. It has proved difficult because successive Governments have not wanted to bite the bullet. My hon. Friend originally tabled another motion for the Order Paper, but I understand that there were Government sensitivities about allowing it to go through. However, it would have maximised pressure on IPSA to reach a reasonable settlement on accommodation.

What is the way forward? So many of the problems with which we deal in public life are utterly difficult and intractable, as we know when we deal with the NHS, social security and the economy, but there is a simple solution staring us in the face on this issue, and there always has been. Although the old expenses regime was much criticised, when it began it was not an expenses regime but an allowances regime, effectively providing a flat-rate allowance. As long as it remained a flat-rate allowance, it worked. It began to go wrong when it became the expenses regime. The moment that we began to ask MPs to maximise their so-called expenses by submitting receipts, we ensured that sooner or later a Member of Parliament would end up in prison, which is what has happened. If it had remained a flat-rate allowances system, we would not have had all the issues that we have had.

I cannot prejudge what the Committee will do, but it is worth putting a marker in the sand, because we have made the point continuously in the regular liaison committee meetings with IPSA. People nod their heads, but our points are ignored. I just hope that if the evidence from the new Committee supports my point of view, and if the matter returns to the House, the new Committee will not be ignored. If it makes a sensible proposal that has been worked through for many months, with hearings of witnesses who have expressed their views, and offers a proposal to the House, I hope that at that stage the Government will not try to block it once again, just as successive Governments have always blocked every sensible resolution on the grounds that it is not acceptable to public opinion, they are not ready, and all the other issues. I think that public opinion is ready. All members of the public I talk with say, “Why can’t MPs just be allowed to get on with it? They should be paid a proper salary and left to live their lives.”

Some people claim that IPSA has made progress, but its latest reforms almost make the situation worse, because it is getting more involved in the family life of MPs. We are paid extra if we have children, and a slightly increased allowance when the children are between certain ages. What happens when the children grow up, which they always do? There are all those sorts of issues. We are going down the same track as our social security system, with more interference in people’s private lives. Frankly, how an MP lives their private life is none of IPSA’s business, nor anyone else’s. All we have to accept is that all MPs have to live some of their lives in London and some of their lives in their constituencies.

I have always thought, as was said time and again in the liaison committee, that the obvious solution was to build on the old London weighting allowance, which was a flat-rate, taxable allowance. If it is flat-rate and taxable, it is not the business of the Inland Revenue and there is no possibility for fraud or error. I am not suggesting that we can move to such a system immediately, as many MPs have now made arrangements for renting and should be allowed to continue with that very bureaucratic expenses regime, with receipts and all the rest of it, if they wish to do so. However, MPs must have some opportunity to opt out of that bureaucratic system and into a flat-rate, taxable allowance system. Otherwise, we will create perverse incentives. We also said in the committee that the more rules we have, the more perverse incentives there will be. For example, there is a perverse incentive for MPs who have been paying for their second homes with mortgages to rent those homes out and then rent themselves a flat, at greater cost to IPSA. How does that help the taxpayer? It is ludicrous.

I very much hope that the Committee will be set up, take evidence and come back with simple solutions that ultimately protect the taxpayer. That is what we are about. It should also ensure that MPs have the maximum amount of time to hold the Executive to account, which is why we are here. We are not here to have our staff spend hours every week enmeshed in some bureaucratic expenses regime. The only reason for our existence is to hold those people on the Front Bench to account in an independent and satisfactory way. I have to say that IPSA is still not there yet. I hope that, with the Committee being set up, we will finally make progress, cut the cost to the taxpayer and do the job we were elected to do.

As one of the youngest Members of the 2010 intake, I remember sitting in the Members’ centre a few days after my election and listening to a young lady—much younger than me, surprisingly—who was speaking on the telephone and trying very hard to arrange accommodation for herself in London. She happened to be a member of the Opposition. Each time she spoke with an estate agent, it was clear that she could not do it, and after two hours she gave up. I quickly soused that—

Souse a herring—are we not moving on to that debate in a moment?

I quickly sussed that the expenses system was not working very well. I have spent most of my adult life in public service, but I have also been in business in the private sector. In those jobs, there was a very clear principle that if one spent money doing one’s job, one should be properly recompensed. It was simple and effective. It seems to me that IPSA makes difficulties when it should not do so. I am lucky, because my constituency is close to Westminster and I can travel home each night—22 minutes from Victoria station to Shortlands—except when we have an absurdly lengthy, late-night sitting, when I am told I am allowed to go to a hotel. Members should rest assured that on such occasions I do not cost the taxpayer any money, because I get out my army camp bed and kip in my office, illegally. It is a damn sight easier that trying to check into a hotel at 12.30 at night.


It is clear that IPSA puts colleagues off claiming a lot. My hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) noted that 92% of Members do not claim what they are entitled to, which I think is pretty dreadful. If they do not claim it, that means they are paying for it from their salaries, and we are not that well paid, considering some of the commitments that we are not allowed to claim for.

I understood the intricacies of Balkan politics when I was the British commander of forces there much better than I understand the intricacies of trying to get a claim from IPSA. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who is a parliamentary hero for what he is trying to do. His determination is in the highest traditions of this House. We need a simple, fair and honest system that is cheaper for the taxpayer—if that is possible—and allows us to do our jobs properly. I fully support the need to review the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009. I am not sure that IPSA should go, but I am sure that the system should be reviewed as soon as possible.

My constituency is one of the furthest from the sea, so the next debate on fisheries has no real relevance for jobs there—we merely eat the product—but I put it to the House that that debate is of far more consequence to my constituents than wasting parliamentary time on the self-indulgent obsession of some MPs with the expenses system, which, along with pay, should be determined by an independent body away from this House. That is what should remain.

I, too, will not detain the House for long. I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) that there are many other things we could be discussing, but we must not lose sight of the fact that many hon. Members on both sides of the House are forced, as a result of the overly bureaucratic IPSA system, to spend hours and hours dealing with something that should be relatively straightforward.

Before becoming a Member, I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), was in private practice, and my organisation had an expenses system that was simple, clear and straightforward. If someone paid something out of their own pocket for which they needed reimbursement, they produced the receipt, took it to the cashiers at the accounts department, and they checked that it was in order and paid a cheque in recompense.

I appreciate that the affairs of Members are far more complicated than that, but in essence the procedure ought to be fairly simple, yet it is difficult to conceive of a more complicated system than our current one. I trust that when the existing Committee is re-established, the membership will find time to look at all aspects of the expenses scheme but, in particular, two matters that I think are of specific concern.

First, no distinction seems to be drawn between expenses of a capital and of a revenue nature. The revision has addressed that to an extent by providing a new allowance for new Members, and that is great for Members who are elected in the future or as a result of a by-election, but the new scheme will be of no benefit to Members elected, like myself, in the 2010 general election, many of whom face having to purchase capital items out of budgets that were set for revenue.

That leads me to my second point, the publication of expenses figures on an eight-weekly basis. This provides a constant feed of information for the newspapers, which not surprisingly then use it to form league tables. Again, not surprisingly, if someone has paid a large amount out in that eight-week period, they will go straight to the top of the league table. It will be all over the newspapers that they are “Top of the league table,” yet they will have done nothing wrong. In fact, over the whole year their expenses may well come bottom of the table, but people will remember and focus on the fact the Member was top for that period.

We are not comparing like with like if we issue figures for such a short period, so I hope that when the Committee is re-established, it will find time to look at those two matters.

I welcome the opportunity that the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) has given us—I, like others, think he made a very thoughtful speech—to assess what progress has been made in addressing the concerns that were last debated here in December.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I strongly support an independent and a transparent system, because publication is the best safeguard and there can be no going back on that at all. I know that that view is shared across the House, but I do share the feeling of Members that, despite the outcome of the recent review and the progress that we have made, which I want to touch on, dealing with IPSA takes up far too much time. Time, whether of Members or our staff, has an opportunity cost, and that means we have less time to do our job.

First, we ought to recognise that setting up IPSA was a very big task. Parliament asked for it to be done in a very short space of time, and Professor Sir Ian Kennedy and his senior colleagues, who have been unfailingly generous in the time they have given to listen to us, himself acknowledges that IPSA did not get everything right. I agree with the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), who said that IPSA staff continue to be unfailingly courteous and as helpful as they possibly can be in trying to assist us, but the concerns that bring us back here today are not about them but the system itself.

I said in December that if we asked Members, “Is IPSA helping you to do your job?”, we would find that the answer was overwhelmingly no. That was certainly reflected in the survey of parliamentary Labour party members that we undertook in submitting evidence to the review, and frankly that ought to be the test. We should not be spending any more time than is necessary on discussing the matter, particularly when it ought to be a relatively simple task.

The issue is about making sure that we as Members have the means that we need to do the job. “Expenses” is a terrible misnomer, because it is about the means to do the job. They include staff, loyal and incredibly hard-working, who support us in our work and without whom we could not manage; an office; paying the telephone, electricity and stationery bills; the travel costs between Westminster and our constituencies; and, as the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) rightly said, the cost of having to live and to work in two places, which is in the nature of the job of being a Member of Parliament.

On the review, we should acknowledge the progress that was made on, for example, support for MPs with family responsibilities—in relation both to travel and to accommodation; a start-up budget for new MPs, learning from the experience that our new colleagues faced a year ago; the definition of London; and the merging of the budgets for constituency office rental and for general office costs.

There has been an increase in the staffing budget, although it still does not take account of the costs of the pension contribution that was passed on to MPs’ budgets a year ago, or of the additional work load that dealing with IPSA places on Members and on their staff. That situation will leave a number of MPs having to go back to the contingency fund again this year in order to continue to employ the staff they already have and need, and that really does strike me as unsatisfactory.

There is now greater use of the payment card, but that is not an unalloyed blessing: it is still not available for all costs—as I understand it, it can be used for business rates but not for office rent, and for stationery but not for photocopiers; and reconciliation is still far too time-consuming. I can say from personal experience that accounting for train travel takes much longer than under the old system, when I have to take account of finding the tickets, going on to the IPSA website, typing in destinations repeatedly, copying everything and then posting off the form having made the details available online.

What would really help and, I think, deal with a lot of frustration is either if more details could be obtained from the credit card company to satisfy IPSA, if IPSA could just agree with the House of Commons travel office that buying a ticket through the office would provide the assurance that it was we who bought it, and that it was a ticket between Westminster and our constituency or back. I use that as an example, because it should be a relatively simple thing to do, and I think it would take away a lot of the frustration that has been expressed in today’s debate and before.

The second issue I wish to raise is about what is allowed and what will be approved, because IPSA has realised sensibly that there is a balance to be struck in relation to increasingly prescriptive rules. IPSA has come face to face with the way in which we do our job, with Members saying, “What if? This is what I do. Is it okay?”, and it has thought about the issue and realised sensibly that we can either have an increasingly long rule book, with an increasingly lengthy “frequently asked questions” page on the website, or let Members exercise their judgment, in the context of the rules as they are laid down and subject to the sunlight of publication.

The review has moved more in the direction of the latter, but may I offer some advice to the Committee that we are going to establish on the work that it is going do? There is still a process in-between through which a Member may choose to exercise their discretion and IPSA may second-guess that when deciding whether to approve a claim. We are betwixt and between a more sensible approach.

Thirdly, we have heard today about how Members feel the system treats them in individual cases and on case work, and I hope that the review will dig into the detail and draw on the experience of the liaison committee, so that the issues which the hon. Member for Gainsborough raised might be looked at.

Fourthly, there is the question of value for money, something that the Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is looking at. Indeed, as Members will know, the National Audit Office is carrying out a value-for-money review.

Finally, I say to the hon. Member for Windsor that I welcome the transformation in the motion before us from that which was on the Order Paper yesterday. If we have learned one lesson, it is that legislating in haste on this matter can create difficulties.

I support the motion because it seems to be a very sensible way forward. We should take the opportunity to review the effectiveness of the system that Parliament established, and we should assess progress as well as identifying what more needs to be done. I, for one, look forward to the result of the Committee’s work.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) on securing the debate and on his revised motion, which the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) said he can support, and which the Government can also support. Setting up a Committee to carry out post-legislative reviews to see how legislation actually takes effect is something that we are always being urged to do in the House, and it is welcome. It will provide Members with the opportunity to put forward facts and the Committee with the opportunity to take evidence and then to come back to the House with its recommendations for consideration. I thank my hon. Friend for his thoughtful and measured speech, which was referred to by Members on both sides of the House.

My hon. Friend’s motion is very sensible in focusing on the important things—value for money, accountability and public confidence. It also refers to the need to ensure

“that Members are not deterred from submitting legitimate claims.”

I want him to clarify one part of his speech because I am not sure that I heard it correctly. I think he said that 92% of Members do not claim for things for which they are legitimately allowed to claim, but I would be grateful if he could confirm that. I have not seen that data published, and I would be grateful if he could provide some detail.

I certainly will. This is based on the evidence that I have received and that the 1922 committee demonstrated some time ago—that is, that 92% of hon. Members are not claiming for all the categories for which they are entitled to claim. That would need to be examined; I make no judgment on it right now.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for clarifying that, which is very helpful.

As my hon. Friend and the right hon. Member for Leeds Central said, several things have happened since we last debated IPSA in December. At that time, IPSA had not carried out its review of the scheme, and many Members took the opportunity of that debate to put on record their specific concerns not only about the operation of the scheme but its rules. One or two Members have done that today, but in December the comments were much more focused on individual circumstances. IPSA has listened to some of those concerns. As the right hon. Gentleman said, it recognised when it set up the scheme that it did not get everything right in terms of its rules and how it operated. To be fair, it has acknowledged that and put some of those things right, particularly as regards enabling us to do our jobs properly. The Government, and all Members, are concerned about ensuring that the system helps rather than hinders.

As the right hon. Members for Oxford East (Mr Smith) and for Leeds Central said, it is important that we have an independent body that oversees the expenses system and how it operates. We must also have a transparent system. As the right hon. Member for Leeds Central said, it is the sunlight of transparency that helps to ensure that it works properly.

My hon. Friend is talking about the Brandeis doctrine; Brandeis was a Supreme Court judge in the early 1900s. The review will also need to look at what subsequent academics have said about this. Sunlight is a great disinfectant, but it is conditional on the information that is provided being comparable and on it being disaggregated, so that not only grouped claims or information are published. It is also conditional on the information being standardised, and any review will need to look into those issues.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. This is a good opportunity to leap forward to a point I was going to make later, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) when he talked about the publication of data. I know that it can be uncomfortable for hon. Members when information is published, but we are going to have to get used to it, and there is no going back.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. There is a debate to be had, and these are matters that IPSA can think about. There are ways of publishing information that make it comparable and deal with the league table problem, but also make it very matter of fact and not very interesting to the press. There is an argument that if we publish the information in real time as we go along, and do not save it up and publish it in lumps—the point made by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire—it becomes normal, matter-of-fact, routine business that is not of interest to the media. I think it is fair to say that it has become much less interesting to the national media; we do not tend to see the front page stories any more. I know, however, that individual hon. Members often have to deal with local newspaper stories where their papers drill down into particular claims that, in isolation, take a fair degree of explanation but are perfectly reasonable claims for carrying out their work.

I conducted a review of regional and local newspaper publications. The evidence is pretty conclusive. The bimonthly publication we looked at had about 28 million readers. We found that 97% of local newspaper stories were negative towards MPs, and 63% of the stories made unfair or misleading comparisons about MPs and their claims. A lot of this was generated by the way in which the information was being provided to the media under the current scheme. Again, that is something we will look at.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. This is an opportunity to acknowledge that, as other Members have said, he has done a lot of analytical work. Depending on what the House decides about who serves on the Committee, I am sure that his research will be of great help as it carries out its work.

I would add that it is not just about the local media; the BBC in the north-east has taken the approach of doing league tables rather than any analysis of the information. Even though I have tried to FOI the expenses of the journalists on the “Politics Show” in the north-east, the BBC has refused to release them, and I now have an appeal with the Information Commissioner. If this is about public money and transparency, should not other bodies such as the BBC also have their expenses published?

The hon. Gentleman is trying to draw me into a much wider debate about public transparency, but this is not the right time for that. He will know that there are ongoing discussions between the BBC and the National Audit Office about various issues, and I am sure that they will carry on. I am not going to take his invitation to dwell on those issues today.

I want to return to the annual review that IPSA undertook. I think it is fair to say that it made some changes to the scheme and has made it better and easier for Members to operate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor said, it has effectively given us more discretion about judging what things are relevant to our parliamentary duties and carrying out our responsibilities. That then raises some other questions, which is welcome. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh), who chairs the liaison committee, acknowledged the progress that has been made on office costs and on travel, although he acknowledged that there was work to be done in other areas of expenses. It is worth saying that there has been progress, although I know that many Members think that there has not been enough and needs to be more.

Members referred to value for money, which is specifically mentioned in the motion. It is worth setting out a little more detail. The right hon. Member for Leeds Central referred to the NAO report. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has received a letter from the Comptroller and Auditor General setting out the details of that. The NAO is going to carry out a study of IPSA, and the report will be produced before the summer recess.

An interesting fact of which Members should be aware is that the NAO is going to survey all serving Members of Parliament asking about their experience of IPSA and the expenses scheme. It is moving quite swiftly on the study. It is going to send out questionnaires this coming Monday—16 May—allowing us a fortnight to respond before the Whit recess, and it has asked for Government support in encouraging Members to participate. I do not think, having listened to the debate, talked to several of my colleagues and heard what the right hon. Member for Leeds Central said about his conversations with the parliamentary Labour party, that Members will need much encouragement to send back their responses. They should take this opportunity to focus on how well the scheme is working, including value for money and ease of use, so that the NAO can take that into account.

It is encouraging to hear that the NAO will survey Members. Will the NAO’s value-for-money audit include the cost of the vast amount of time spent by Members and their staff doing work that was previously done elsewhere?

The Comptroller and Auditor General makes it clear that all the NAO’s work will be independent and evidence based. The answer to the hon. Lady’s question is that it is for Members to provide the NAO with that evidence. The NAO has a brief to look at the public sector as a whole; as its masthead says, it is “Helping the nation spend wisely”. If Members feel, as a number have said today, that there is a problem not just with the bureaucratic system, but with the time spent administering it by them and their staff, who are employed at public cost, they should take the opportunity to furnish the NAO with that information. I might be going a little beyond my remit here. I do not know how detailed the questionnaire will be. There might not be a specific question about this matter, but I suspect that there will be. If Members provide this information, the NAO will be able to take it into account. It is no good the NAO just looking at the scheme and the direct costs incurred by IPSA. If, because of the way IPSA is operating, it is putting an extra burden on our offices, which are funded by the taxpayer, the NAO should take that into account. The hon. Lady’s point is therefore very helpful, and Members should give the NAO as much information as possible, so that it can write a sensible, evidence-based report with recommendations. No doubt those recommendations will then be considered by the Public Accounts Committee, as is the usual process, and the Committee that we are setting up.

The Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, which was passed in the last Parliament, amended the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 to give IPSA a general duty to behave in a cost-effective, efficient manner, and to support MPs to carry out their work efficiently, cost-effectively and transparently. IPSA therefore has a statutory duty to do what it does transparently and independently, and cost-effectively. The NAO report will help to advise IPSA on whether it is complying with the duties it has to carry out under the law that set it up.

Will the Minister assure that House that when all this excellent work has been done and the Committee makes its recommendations, the Government —I know that he cannot give any absolute promises—will seek to give us a fair wind so that we can implement them?

As with all reports from Committees of this House, the Government will look carefully at the recommendations. I do not think that my hon. Friend would expect me, given that the Committee has not even been set up, let alone started its work, to give assurances that the Government will carry out its every recommendation. The Government will of course study its recommendations. If its recommendations are about process, the scheme and how IPSA operates, they will be for IPSA to consider. Only if they are recommendations for legislative change will they be for the Government to recognise. Every Member who has spoken in this debate has confirmed that they are in favour of an independent and transparent scheme for paying our costs. Clearly, even if Members thought that there were issues, they would not immediately want the Government to rush into legislating. The right hon. Member for Leeds Central said wisely that when this House legislates on such matters in haste, it often comes to repent it.

The Government will look carefully at the considerations that the Committee makes, and I hope that IPSA will look carefully at them. If the review is carried out in that spirit, I think that it will be very productive.

I want to underline the importance of the point that the Minister has just made. Will he assure us that the Government’s response will scrupulously and absolutely uphold the independence of IPSA?

Yes; I have said that several times and it is important. Although this House has many new Members, it is important that we remember why we got to this position. We have to ensure that we move things forward, and focus on independence and transparency. We have had debates recently on our pay, and the consideration of our pay will be moved across to IPSA in the not-too-distant future. Its independence is important so that people have confidence. The Committee, when it is set up, will have to remember that the recommendations it makes about the scheme and the operation of the scheme will be made to IPSA.

Does the Minister accept that when we legislate in haste, as we did in 2009, such legislation sometimes has to be revisited and amended with the benefit of hindsight?

I made a distinction in my remarks. Clearly, if the Committee, or indeed the National Audit Office, makes recommendations about value for money and cost-effectiveness in the way IPSA operates, IPSA will pay attention to them, as with all its recommendations. It may be that the Committee makes recommendations about legislative change. However, we do not want to go back to a system in which the Government—heaven forbid—or the House start to micro-manage the details of the scheme. We have an independent system with transparency, and it is important that we stick with that. The Committee needs to bear that in mind. There will be two important audiences for what the Committee recommends. In the same way that we should not legislate in haste, we should not re-legislate in haste and change things further. The Committee needs to bear that in mind when it considers this matter, and should not immediately leap to the conclusion that we have to change the entire structure of the system.

There is a third audience: the taxpayer. Ultimately, nobody is independent of the House of Commons, because the House of Commons is not for us, but for the people—we represent the people and the taxpayer. If serious recommendations are made and IPSA ignores them, the House of Commons has a right to vote on its estimates and to reduce the amount it spends on administration.

My hon. Friend makes the position very clear. A structure has been set up with the Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which heard evidence from IPSA this week and questioned it about its estimate. More work is being done to deal with the hon. Gentleman’s point about cost-effectiveness and IPSA’s budget to ensure that at this difficult time for public expenditure, IPSA is as efficient and cost-effective as possible. However, it would be a mistake if we immediately leapt away from an independent, transparent system, which is what the Government, the Opposition, and every Member who has spoken in this debate supports. We cannot have an independent system and simultaneously give it instructions on how to do its job.

The Government look forward to the Committee’s work and give a commitment that we will look at its recommendations with great care. I will obviously not make any commitments about what we will do until we have seen the report. The Committee should do a thorough job and we look forward to its report. We also look forward to seeing what the NAO has to say. I think that that is a sensible way forward. On that basis, the Government are very relaxed about the motion in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor.

I am delighted that the Committee is being set up. I expressed an interest in that Committee. It is time for us to have a calm, careful look at the 2009 Act, as amended in 2010. I hope that all hon. Members, in a non-partisan fashion, will support me and the House in establishing this Committee. We must ensure that the review is thorough, that it is consistent with decisions that have been made, and that the recommendations are robust in defence of the taxpayer and in the pursuit of openness and accountability for Members. Above all, we must ensure that this place and parliamentary democracy function correctly, and that the schemes that are put in place for Members support the work that they do and, preferably, are a lot less costly than they are at present. I urge Members to support the motion.

Question put and agreed to.


That it be an instruction to the Committee on Members’ Allowances established under Standing Order No. 152G (Committee on Members’ Allowances) that it review the operation of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 and make recommendations, giving due consideration to ensuring:

(a) value for money for taxpayers;

(b) accountability;

(c) public confidence in Parliament;

(d) the ability of Members to fulfil their duties effectively;

(e) fairness for less well-off Members and those with families; and

(f) that Members are not deterred from submitting legitimate claims.