Inquiry Told Radical Reform Needed To Restore Trust In MPs

(Telegraph) – SENIOR FIGURES IN BUSINESS, the armed forces, charities and the church have lambasted MPs for abusing their expenses and told an inquiry that major reforms are needed to restore public trust in politicians.

The inquiry into the MPs’ expenses system by the Committee for Standards in Public Life, chaired by Sir Christopher Kelly, has been deluged with submissions by members of the public voicing their anger following revelations that substantial numbers of MPs were abusing the system.

Over 700 members of the public, official bodies and eminent individuals have submitted proposals for reform, an unprecedented response for such an inquiry.

The overwhelming majority have criticised the behaviour of MPs and accused them of letting down voters, putting further pressure on politicians ahead of the party conference season.

Sir Christopher’s findings will be published next month before a separate investigation into which MPs abused the system, headed by Sir Thomas Legg, reports in November.

It can be revealed that Sir Thomas told the Commons authorities five years ago that the expenses system was ‘indefensible.’

He was one of two auditors who submitted an internal report to a committee of MPs warning that the arrangements could bring Parliament into disrepute, and calling for greater oversight of claims.

However, his report was kept secret and his calls for reform were dismissed by Michael Martin, the then-Speaker.

Individuals who have made submissions to Sir Christopher’s inquiry include General Sir Michael Rose, former Adjutant General of the British Army; Sir Philip Mawer, the former Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards; Lord Baker, former Education Secretary under Margaret Thatcher; Tom Frawley, the Northern Ireland Ombudsman; Michael Rush, Emeritus Professor of Politics at Exeter University; and Sir Michael Bunbury, the City businessman.

Among their suggestions are that MPs be banned from employing family members and that no MP should profit from the sale of a second home subsidised by the taxpayer – two of the common practices which most aroused public fury.

The Sunday Telegraph has previously revealed how MPs whose controversial claims for accommodation costs, food and furniture were exposed during the expenses scandal have written to Sir Christopher to claim they were victims rather than offenders.

Around 80 MPs submitted their views to the inquiry, many expressing resentment at the public’s anger and calling for existing expenses arrangements to be retained.

One backbencher, Eric Illsley, Labour MP for Barnsley Central, said in his submission: ‘It cannot be right to maintain that MPs should not have claimed this money after being encouraged to do so by the Fees Office.’

Such views are at odds with the calls for reform submitted to the Sir Christopher’s committee from organisations, eminent individuals and ordinary members of the public.

A joint submission by the Baptist Union, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church said: ‘Citizens expect public servants to serve the public interest with fairness and to manage public resources diligently.’

Barrie Skelcher, 77, a retired nuclear industry safety officer from Leiston, in Suffolk, suggested MPs should be housed in a converted warship on the River Thames, close to Parliament, to save on accommodation costs.

Dr Leonard Long, 70, a former director of Age Concern, said public mistrust was borne of a lack of scrutiny, accountability and control over the way MPs were paid and reimbursed for expenses.

He said: ‘This lack of probity is embedded in a system where MPs determine their conditions of employment. MPs have regarded the expenses system as a means of enhancing their overall remuneration.’

Official bodies and campaigning groups which submitted comments included the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, The Electoral Commission, the Unlock Democracy campaign, the Hansard Society, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, the Standards Board for England and the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

The Telegraph‘s investigation into the abuse of the expenses system shocked voters and led to widespread condemnation of Britain’s political class.

Sir Christopher’s committee opened its inquiry with the aim of drawing up a set of rules ‘which are trusted by the public and which give MPs the support they need to do their jobs.’

Sir Thomas Legg will tell every MP, by the end of this month, whether there are any concerns about their individual expenses.

It has emerged that in 2004, when Sir Thomas was an external member of the House of Commons Members Estimate Audit Committee (MEAC), he and another committee member, David Taylor, drafted a paper highlighting problems with the MPs’ expenses system and calling for a complete review of the rules.

The paper said the House faced ‘reputational risks from lacking a clear and defensible system for ensuring accountability for public money. It called for expenses claims to be policed with ‘random checks’ to ensure that taxpayers’ money was being spent properly.

But when the paper was forwarded to Mr Martin, in February 2005, he rejected the call for reform.

In particular he said that the Members’ Estimate Committee — the body in charge of the Commons authorities, which he chairs, and which is overseen by MEAC — ‘was not minded to pursue the issue of external verification any further.’

Soon afterwards the Commons authorities launched a desperate four-year struggle to prevent details of generous Westminster allowances ever becoming public.

The details of the auditors’ warning are revealed in an annual report of MEAC which says:-

‘Since the creation of the MEAC in 2004, the Committee has been concerned about the matter of auditing of Members’ expenses and allowances, and has discussed the need for appropriate governance, audit and assurance on a number of occasions.

‘In December 2004, the two external members put a paper to the Committee drawing attention to the reputational risks to the House of not having a clear and defensible system for ensuring proper accountability for the public money expended on MPs’ allowances.

‘The paper proposed that… a proper system of audit, going behind Members’ signatures, should be introduced (taking the form of random checks) to verify the propriety of their use of the money so expended.

‘The Committee’s then Chairman forwarded this paper to Mr Speaker, who replied in February 2005 that the MEC was not minded to pursue the issue of external verification any further.’

The revelations are a further embarrassment for Mr Martin, who resigned in June over the expenses scandal — yet is to be elevated to the House of Lords.

Submissions to the Kelly inquiry can be read in full at:

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