PM Attacked On Expenses ‘Silence’

(BBC) – TORY LEADER DAVID CAMERON has accused the government of a ‘big omission’ by not making any mention of MPs’ expenses in the Queen’s Speech.

Either ministers were ‘incompetent’ in not realising new laws were needed to implement reforms, or were afraid of Labour backbenchers, he said.

Sir Christopher Kelly, author of the reforms, said he was ‘disappointed.’

But deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman said laws had already been passed to allow reforms to be brought in.

Sir Christopher’s committee on standards in public life carried out a six-month inquiry in the wake of the scandal about MPs’ expenses and made a series of recommendations earlier this month to change the system.

While he was conducting his review the government rushed through legislation to set up a new body, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, with the power to implement the Kelly review’s recommendations.

But Sir Christopher said in his report that the new authority did not have sufficient powers and should be made responsible for MPs’ pay and pensions, as well as expenses, and be given tougher enforcement and investigation powers, among other changes.

‘It is disappointing therefore that today’s Queen’s Speech did not contain measures to address the changes we believe to be necessary affecting the remit, powers and independence of the new body being established to regulate expenses,’ Sir Christopher said in a statement after the Queen’s Speech.

‘There is no reason why the relatively straightforward legislation needed in this area should prevent the new regulatory body from getting other important changes under way.’

Mr Cameron said there were 11 separate measures which needed to be passed into law in order to implement the Kelly report; but accused Mr Brown of ‘a great big silence’ when challenged to bring them forward.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme leaving expenses out of the speech was a ‘big omission.’

‘Either the government is incompetent and hadn’t realised that Kelly’s report requires these laws to be passed or they are frightened of their own backbenchers, or perhaps they don’t think cleaning up the House of Commons is as important as they said it was.

‘One of the most important legal changes that still has to go through is putting MPs’ pay and pensions on an independent statutory footing so that MPs in the future can’t fiddle with their own pension and their own pay.’

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg also said new legislation was needed, specifically to force MPs to disclose their financial interests.

He had been arguing for days that the Queen’s Speech was a waste of time — as so little time remained for MPs to pass laws before the next general election — and the government should concentrate instead on sorting out expenses and the economy.

Following Sir Christopher’s statement, Number 10 said the prime minister was ready to bring forward any legislation needed to complete his reforms ‘on a cross-party basis as required.’

But Ms Harman, who is also Commons leader, told the BBC: ‘I think that the things Sir Christopher has recommended can and will be taken forward by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority.

‘I don’t want anyone to think that we have simply not taken the action that was necessary.’

Some recommendations, like the proposed ban on employing relatives, did not require legislation, she said.

She accused Mr Cameron of creating a ‘smokescreen’ adding: ‘It’s not true to say that loose ends have been left and we are somehow half-hearted about this.’

But she said: ‘I will need to reassure Sir Christopher that the things that he wants done, will be done, those legal changes that he doesn’t agree with can simply be dealt with by not bringing them into effect.’

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Bercow Tells MPs To Lobby IPSA Over Claims Rules

(Telegraph) – JOHN BERCOW, the new speaker of the House of Commons, has urged MPs to lobby the new independent body set up to oversee their expenses if they are unhappy with Sir Christopher Kelly’s recommendations.

In a letter sent to all MPs yesterday, Mr Bercow pledged that MPs will have the ‘chance to express concern about any unintended consequences of the proposed changes.’

The letter will add to fears that MPs may seek to delay and water down the introduction of the reforms recommended by the Kelly inquiry.

It is feared that a ‘public consultation’ on the plans may lead to their introduction being delayed until after the next election despite Sir Christopher warning that they must be brought in within months.

The Government has set up a new Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) which is charged with introducing the new system and policing its subsequent operation. The new head of IPSA has pledged to introduce a new scheme in ‘early spring.’

Sir Christopher has urged IPSA to introduce his recommendations in full although some MPs are hoping the scheme will be watered-down by the new authority.

Mr Bercow warned MPs that the public would ‘not look kindly on anything which was perceived as deliberate procrastination.’

However, he said: ‘The procedure for detailed implementation of reform will soon pass to IPSA, which it is assumed will take Sir Christopher’s conclusions as its steer. There will, nonetheless, be a period of public consultation in which members will make contributions.

‘… there is much that can be added to the debate about the practicability of individual measures which the Ipsa will have to contemplate, and there is the chance to express concern about any unintended consequences of the proposed changes.’

Last weekend, Harriet Harman, the leader of the House, indicated that Ipsa may seek to alter some of Sir Christopher’s recommendations.

Yesterday, Ms Harman and Gordon Brown appeared to give their full backing to the Kelly inquiry proposals although Sir Christopher said he had still not been fully reassured.

The chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life said that he was ‘mystified’ by Ms Harman’s suggestion that the proposals would be shaped by Ipsa.

‘I think I am fairly reassured. There is always wriggle room, we are talking about politicians after all,’ Sir Christopher said.

He added it would be a ‘shame’ if Ipsa amended his proposals.

Referring to Ms Harman’s comments, Sir Christopher said: ‘I saw those words and I was a bit mystified by what they meant.

‘Technically it is absolutely right: it is not our job to implement the changes; it is the job of the independent authority set up by Parliament.

‘They are independent people and they will make up their own minds. I think it would be a shame if they didn’t realise that what we produced after a lot of discussion with all sorts of people, including many MPs, an exhaustive process of consultation, was a considered and reasonable and proportionate set of proposals.’

Last night, the new head of IPSA appeared to indicate that he would not allow his work to be delayed by MPs.

Sir Ian Kennedy, the chairman-designate, said he would start work ‘immediately.’

The authority will set out its proposals for a new ‘fair and effective’ expenses system in a consultation paper to be approved by its board in early December. He said there would then be a brief period for consultation with the new scheme in place early next spring.

He made clear that the authority will be ready to hear MPs’ concerns during a ‘wide but not time-consuming’ consultation.

Sir Ian said: ‘Let me be clear, this authority is independent — of Parliament, Government and of any other particular interest — and we will be independent in drawing up the proposals and in implementing them.

‘Public faith in Parliament has been severely hit by the events of the last few months and I have no illusions about the scale of the task ahead. It will take time and effort to earn back the trust that has been lost.

‘This work is already under way, and I and my colleagues will ensure that it is taken forward with rigour, pace and objectivity, listening all the way to the public.’

Disgraced Politicians To Be Stripped Of ‘Golden Goodbyes’

(Telegraph) – MPS WHO STAND DOWN FROM PARLIAMENT IN DISGRACE after being caught up in the expenses scandal could be stripped of their lucrative ‘golden goodbyes,’ The Daily Telegraph has learned.

Reforms to the expenses system drawn up by Sir Christopher Kelly and due to be announced next week include a proposal to strip scandal-hit politicians of parachute grants of up to £65,000, which retiring MPs are currently entitled to.

Unlike the majority of his other proposals, which are due to be phased in over a five-year period, with some not starting until after the general election, Sir Christopher and his committee will recommend that this reform is implemented immediately.

That means that MPs who announced that they would be retiring at the election after their questionable expenses claims were made public – often at the behest of their party leaders – would be denied golden goodbyes of up to a year’s salary.

Resettlement grants of between £32,328 and £64,766, depending on length of service, were designed to help MPs who resigned or lost their seats in an election adjust to life outside Westminster.

But they have come under criticism amid suggestions that many of the worst abusers of the expenses system are staying on in Parliament until the election rather than resigning immediately in order to pick up the grant.

Since The Daily Telegraph’s expenses disclosures began at the start of May, 46 MPs have announced that they will be quitting at the next election, including many who were caught up in the scandal.

Just one, Labour’s Ian Gibson, who used his expenses to pay for a designated second home, which he said he shared with his daughter three nights a week, stood down immediately, forfeiting his right to the resettlement package.

The others, including Elliot Morley and David Chaytor, who were blocked from standing for Labour at the election and are waiting to learn if they will face criminal charges over ‘phantom mortgage’ claims, remain as MPs.

Margaret Moran, the Labour MP for Luton South who claimed £22,000 to treat dry rot at a seaside house 100 miles from her constituency, also announced that she would stand down; but continues to draw a salary and, like Mr Morley and Mr Chaytor, is currently on course for a resettlement grant.

A number of prominent Conservatives who announced their resignation amid widespread public anger at their expenses also remain in Parliament, including Douglas Hogg, who announced his departure soon after The Daily Telegraph disclosed that he included the cost of cleaning his moat when claiming his second home allowance.

Tories Peter Viggers, ordered by party chiefs to stand down as MP for Gosport when it emerged that he had claimed for a floating duck island, and Anthony Steen, who spent thousands on gardening at his multi-million pound estate, which he said ‘looked like Balmoral,’ both also remain in the Commons and are in line for resettlement grants.

Under Sir Christopher’s recommendations, to be unveiled in a Commons statement on Wednesday, parachute payments would be phased out altogether after the next election.

He will go further and suggest that those found to have abused the expenses system or broken other rules of the House before the election should also face the prospect of losing out on the generous payments.

In his report, Sir Christopher will propose that the Committee on Standards, the group of MPs who decide on punishments to be levied on Members found to have broken rules, begin by including as one of their sanctions the right to remove resettlement grants.

The move would not involve any legislation, as it is in the discretion of the Committee to set punishments for errant MPs.

The Standards Committee is responsible for taking action after an MP has been found guilty of breaching the rules of the House following an investigation by John Lyon, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

Yesterday, it ruled that Tony McNulty, the former home officer minister, should repay £13,000 and apologise to the House after Mr Lyon found that he had breached the rules by using his expenses to subsidise the living costs of his parents, who he allowed to live rent-free in his taxpayer-funded second home.

Earlier this month, the Committee was criticised after it failed to demand Jacqui Smith, the former home secretary, repay any money despite Mr Lyon ruling that she had wrongly designated a spare room in her sister’s London house as her ‘main’ residence, allowing her to claim second home expenses on her family house in her constituency.

Sir Christopher is said to believe that the Committee would come under public pressure to use the sanction of stripping disgraced MPs of their resettlement grant if it was made clear that this was an option available to and expected of them.

Dozens of MPs are thought to be facing sleaze inquires after Mr Lyon received a deluge of complaints in the weeks and months after the start of the expenses scandal.

The House of Commons has refused to disclose which MPs are under investigation, or even how many. But they are known to include Shahid Malik, the Communities Minister who claimed the costs of renting office space on the ground floor of his designated main home in his constituency, Anne Main, the Conservative MP for St Albans, who claimed for a flat in which her daughter lived, and Mr Morley and Mr Chaytor.

David Wilshire, who announced his resignation this month after claiming £100,000 in office expenses, which he had paid to a company owned by himself and his partner, has referred himself to the watchdog.

In Parliament yesterday, MPs continued to voice their anger at being denied a vote on Sir Christopher’s recommendations, which are also expected to include a ban on mortgage claims, a bar on the employment of relatives, and an end to second homes for those living within commuting distance of Westminster.

But Harriet Harman, the Leader of the House, said: ‘We recognise that it is not appropriate for this House to set our own allowances, we recognise that the public don’t want us to set or administer our allowance system.

‘The fact is this summer we voted that we will not do so any more when we voted to establish the independent Parliamentary Standards Authority.’

The Legg Letters

WHILE THE PRESS PACK rightly pursues errant MPs for their comments on the Legg letters they have received, it is worth remembering that Sir Thomas reports to the Members’ Estimate Committee (MEC), which is headed by six MPs whom are themselves tainted by the expenses scandal.

The six committee members, lest we forget, are:-

  1. John Bercow, the Speaker and Conservative MP for Buckingham, who ‘flipped’ his second home from his constituency to a £540,000 flat in London and claimed the maximum possible allowances for it. His expenses files reveal he also twice charged the public purse for the cost of hiring a chartered accountant to complete his annual tax return.
  2. Harriet Harman, Leader of the House of Commons and Labour MP for Camberwell and Peckham, who hired Scarlett McGuire for ‘consultancy’ services on the public purse. She also claimed for party political propaganda and bought expensive gadgets.
  3. Sir Stuart Bell, Labour MP for Middlesbrough, who claimed £750 for food in December 2005, reduced to the maximum monthly amount of £400, and designated his second home as a flat in London and claimed £1,400 a month rent. He is also an outspoken critic of Legg setting ‘retrospective rules.’
  4. Nick Harvey, Liberal Democrat MP for North Devon, who had to be reminded twice by parliamentary officials to submit receipts with his expenses claims.
  5. David Maclean, Conservative MP for Penrith and The Border,
    who spent thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money renovating a farmhouse before selling it for £750,000.
  6. Sir George Young, Shadow Leader of the House of Commons and Conservative MP for North West Hampshire. Young claimed the maximum second home allowance on his London flat for the past two years and also billed taxpayers for the cost of a video camera so that he could broadcast clips of himself at work on YouTube.
Sir Thomas Legg

Sir Thomas Legg

Public calls for Legg’s inquiry to be broadened from its original remit of carrying out an independent review of second home allowances claimed since 2004/05, are, therefore, unlikely to be satisfied. Diligent Legg is trying his best to make the most of a bad deal; but the fact remains that he is no more than a rabbit sent forth on a foraging mission before returning to the set of foxes that dispatched him. He cannot publish anything without it first being approved by the MEC. 

Sir Christopher Kelly

Sir Christopher Kelly

The battle to uncover the full extent of corruption in our Parliament is likely to drag on for some time. Next month will see the publication, by Parliament, of another set of MPs’ expenses (suitably redacted) and December will see the final report from Legg and the results of the inquiry headed by Sir Christopher Kelly.

This issue will not go away; but it will only be resolved to the public’s satisfaction in May, at the next general election.

Only then will it be possible for the electorate to ensure that any sitting MP, whom has been tainted by the expenses scandal, is not returned to Parliament. And it will be up to the local press to ensure that their citizens are kept fully informed.

… (14/10/2009) – ‘All MPs should be subject to an investigation by HM Revenue and Customs’

… (28/10/2009) – Speaker John Bercow Ensures ‘Flippers’ Get Away With It