UK Politics

MPs' expenses: Watchdog targeted in Commons debate

MPs in the Commons
Image caption The MPs' expenses scheme was overhauled after last year's scandal

MPs have aired their frustrations about their new expenses scheme - set up in the wake of last year's scandal.

They passed a motion put forward by Tory MP Adam Afriyie criticising the complexity of the scheme and urging the watchdog to simplify the system.

Mr Afriyie said he had cross party support and suggested the new system was "frustrating" the work of MPs.

The debate came as the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority publishes 22,000 MPs' expenses claims.

Ipsa was set up in the wake of the expenses scandal, to restore faith in the way MPs allowances were run - it is operating an overhauled system, much of which was based on the findings of a seven-month inquiry into expenses last year.

Mr Afriyie opened the debate by asking whether it was right that the system should "frustrate the work of democratically elected MPs".

He said his motion had cross-party support and called for Ipsa to "get a grip on a system that is taking MPs' time away from constituents and is costing the tax payer far too much money".

But former home secretary David Blunkett suggested that a review of the rules by Ipsa in January was a better time to look at the issue in a "non-adversarial" way: "We need to reflect on the reaction of the public a year ago," he told MPs.

Mr Afriyie said he had put forward the motion in a "disinterested fashion, not for our own purposes". He said he expected the debate to be reported as "MPs whinging about their conditions" but said: "What this debate is about is saving the taxpayer money and ensure people's voices are heard in this place and not hidden."

He said the system favoured wealthy MPs: "If a Member does not have sufficient resources to subsidise themselves in their role, they are then ensnared in a vice-like grip which is designed to bring them into disrepute with every single receipt that's produced for every single personal item."

Labour MP Ann Clwyd said there would have been more MPs at the debate but they were still "fearful of the press": "I still feel angry that because of the activity of a few members of this House in the past that we were all smeared... by the belief that we are all crooks. I resent that very much."

'Anti-MP stories'

She went on to suggest that "anti-MP" stories were being leaked by people at Ipsa - adding every time there was a debate on the expenses system, a story would appear in the press the day before.

A new MP, Labour's Liz Kendall said she had taken on one of her predecessor's members of staff but when he asked for statutory paternity pay the new rules would not allow it because they did not allow for "continuous employment".

Conservative Roger Gale acknowledged that some MPs in the previous Parliament had behaved in a way that was "less than honourable... but change for the sake of change, change on a basis that 'my shirt is hairier than yours' is not a way of taking this forward".

And fellow Tory Sir John Stanley was annoyed that, as he represents a constituency in Kent, he can no longer claim for a second home in London - he said the new rules did not take into account the fact that "door to door" his commute was two hours' long.

But Labour MP John Mann suggested there was a "special Westminster club with its desire for a special status in society" and said he refuted the suggestion MPs were unable to do their jobs with the new system: "I can do my job with the new system. I can do it as well as I did it in the past."

He said Ipsa was improving "month by month" and there was an "issue of principle" that MPs had to "cede responsibility" for running its expenses scheme to an independent body.

Mr Afriyie's motion "regrets" the "unnecessarily high costs and inadequacies" of the new expenses system and calls for a simpler scheme for office expenses and calls for time to be made available for MPs to amend the legislation which set it up, if the system is not improved.

Having an external, independent regulator for MPs' expenses was a key recommendation of a seven-month inquiry into the system last year.

But a committee of MPs - the Speaker's Committee - proposes Ipsa's members and signs off its cost estimate. It requested £6.46m for its administrative costs for 2010-11.

Ipsa is conducting an annual review of its rules and is consulting MPs and others about the way they work and has already introduced some "simplifications" to the way it administers them, including allowing direct payments to landlords for rental charges.

Before the debate on Mr Afriyie's motion, MPs passed a motion to give Parliamentary Standards Commissioner John Lyon more powers to publish more widely fast-tracked expenses inquiries, which have been criticised in the press as "secret deals", and to initiate investigations without first receiving a complaint.

MPs also passed a proposal resulting from last year's expenses inquiry to put non-MPs on the Commons standards and privileges committee - which rules on action taken against MPs who Mr Lyon has found to have breached the rules.

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