UK Politics

MPs attack new expenses system as 'indefensible'

The new Commons expenses system is "indefensible" and must be sorted out quickly, MPs have said.

The body that administers expenses came in for fierce criticism at a packed MPs' debate.

New procedures had been "badly thought through" and people were unable to get answers to simple questions, MPs said.

But body chairman Sir Ian Kennedy told the BBC while it might have got some things wrong, adjustments were being made and the rules were not "complex".

Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) officials have accused some MPs of conduct bordering on rudeness to their staff and urged members to "show their responsibility to making the new system work" in the wake of last year's expenses scandal.

Prime Minister David Cameron told BBC Radio 2's Jeremy Vine show: "If that has happened it is not acceptable. Even in the House of Commons we should try to be polite at all times... there is no justification for MPs being abusive."

'Nightmare'

There was widespread agreement among parliamentarians that the old system had to change but Ipsa has been the target of fury from many MPs, whose complaints include late payments, a computer system that does not work and budget cuts for staffing.

Senior Labour backbencher David Winnick said in the debate - attended by nearly 50 MPs - that while he had argued for independent regulation of expenses, MPs could not now get answers to "elementary questions".

"It is indefensible that Ipsa should have set up a system so difficult and complex," he said.

"Particularly for new members it has made life a nightmare."

Mr Winnick said it was virtually impossible for MPs to get through to Ipsa's telephone hotline and said one MP had taken four hours to process a claim for petrol.

'Not whinging'

Labour's Ann Clwyd said she would not have stood again as an MP if she had known "what a hassle this system has meant".

"We are not whinging MPs," she said. "I really object to that title. We are raising matters which are quite legitimate to raise because they affect our performance as MPs."

Later she told the BBC at least 175 MPs had had to "lay off staff" because they had been told they would have to cover staff pension contributions.

Lib Dem MP Bob Russell described Ipsa as an "administrative monster" and said it should relocate from expensive offices in central London to an "industrial estate in Romford" to save costs.

Among others to highlight problems were Labour's Jim Sheridan, Barbara Keeley, Helen Goodman and Emily Thornberry and Conservative MPs Richard Bacon and Sir John Stanley.

Jack Straw, who introduced legislation to create Ipsa under the last government, said it had been "imperative" to get it in place by the start of the new Parliament and it must be independent.

But he recognised there were some "anomalies" and that MPs were "paying the price" for bad behaviour by a minority of former MPs with their expenses claims.

For the government, Cabinet Office minister Mark Harper said Ipsa was taking a number of "welcome" steps to increase communication with MPs, including face-to-face "surgeries" from September.

'Complete break'

But he said ministers "will keep its role and functions under review".

Sir Ian Kennedy told the BBC he did not have "any evidence" of the online system being slow and one MP had spent an hour complaining on the telephone "half of which could [have] be spent filling in the online application".

"It's not a complex set of rules - it's the sort of thing you or I live with every day," he said.

He said as far as he knew, every MP had had their salary paid and lots of expenses had already been paid - even though until recently about 50 MPs had not given Ipsa their bank details.

"Wherever there is a case put to us with sufficient evidence, we will look at it," he said. "We want to improve the system."

He said "inevitably" there were some "teething problems" which they were working through.

A "productive" meeting had already been held with London MPs about office rental costs, he said, and changes had been made on extending loans, allowing some business class tickets when they were cheaper than standard class.

Sir Ian told the BBC some MPs found the system "easy peasy" while others struggled with the "big cultural shift" of having surrendered power over their expenses.

He added that some MPs had "not treated the staff at Ipsa as they entitled to be treated" although in "many cases" MPs had realised that and apologised.

He suggested that although expenses were being paid out - MPs were still out of pocket: "That goes not to an expenses system but to a much wider question about the general remuneration of MPs."

The watchdog has given more information about how it may handle complaints against MPs over their expenses.

Under draft proposals, its compliance officer would have the power to fine MPs up to £1,000 for repeated failures to repay incorrect claims and MPs under scrutiny could be questioned in public.

The watchdog also wants to publish more details on claims than before, including fuller information about journeys made by MPs at taxpayers' expense and salary details of family members employed in Parliament.

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