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.’

Committee Appointing Parliamentary Standards Team Have Questionable Record

(Telegraph) – THE HEADS OF THE NEW INDEPENDENT PARLIAMENTARY STANDARDS AUTHORITY will have to be approved by a committee of MPs with a questionable record over expenses and improving the transparency of the system.

The special ‘Speaker’s Committee’ is headed by John Bercow. The new speaker employs his wife as a ‘research assistant’ and previously ‘flipped’ his designated second home for expenses purposes.

Other members of the committee include Sir Stuart Bell, who has already attacked Sir Christopher Kelly’s recommendations. The Labour MP also employs his wife.

Don Touhig, another Labour MP who employs his wife, is also on the committee despite successfully leading attempts to block reform of the MPs’ expenses system last year. He previously argued that employing independent auditors to scrutinise claims was a waste of money.

Sir George Young, the shadow leader of the House, is the Conservative representative. Sir George headed the Standards and Privileges Committee which oversaw MPs behaviour. It has been criticised for failing to clamp down on abuses of the system. He employs his daughter.

Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrat representative, is the spokesman for the committee which established the previous discredited system of expenses.

The final member of the committee is Liz Blackman, a former Labour whip accused of going on last-minute shopping trips at the end of the financial year to use up her second-home allowance.

The Committee’s membership was announced on Wednesday evening in the House of Commons without public fanfare and with little opportunity for debate. Several MPs have complained over the composition of the group.

Bob Spink, our local MP, said: ‘How can the public have confidence in a so-called independent Committee that is made up of the usual suspects who have so patently failed to carry public confidence with them over the years?’

David Winnick, a Labour MP, said: ‘When it comes to the names, inevitably the question will arise: why these people? Who nominated them?

‘It is in no way to criticise those [MPs] when I say that I would be far happier if there was some sort of system whereby we could elect the Members involved, embracing, of course, the three political parties.’

Harriet Harman Accused Of Ignoring Inquiry Warning

(Guardian) – THE LEADER OF THE HOUSE, Harriet Harman, was warned by Labour whips in early September that the inquiry into MPs’ expenses by Sir Thomas Legg was going off the rails and likely to lead to a complete rethink of the rules, the Guardian has learned.

Senior sources say Harman did nothing to act on the advice, opening the way for the public relations disaster that has hit parliament this week. The furore has also derailed Gordon Brown’s efforts to focus on the policy differences on the economy between Labour and the Conservatives.

It is thought that a few MPs are facing bills they simply cannot repay in the short term and are looking to take Legg to court on the grounds of natural justice. Harman has become the focus of blame for many Labour MPs angry that they are being required to pay tens of thousands of pounds they were told they could claim.

There is deeper despair at the prospect of expenses remaining at the top of the political agenda. One minister said: ‘There is a danger the general election will be conducted in an anti-politics atmosphere that had such a disastrous effect on Labour’s vote in the June European elections.’

It was also reported that the Speaker, John Bercow, twice urged Legg to drop his plan for caps on cleaning and gardening expenses but was twice rebuffed. Bercow decided it would be improper to try to interfere further with an independent audit.

The spokesman for the Speaker insisted he had not asked Sir Thomas to drop the limits, however. They discussed only whether the limits should be cash or a percentage of expenses claimed, he said.

Anger across the parliamentary Labour party, including in the cabinet, is also being directed at the prime minister for setting up the inquiry, arguing that it has prolonged the agony and was a panic response to Tory and Lib Dem initiatives.

One senior figure said: ‘We were led up the garden path by Gordon. I have never known a prime minister to be heckled at a meeting of the parliamentary party as he was on Monday. Not even Tony during the Iraq war got such a rough ride.’

Setting up Legg also ran counter to Brown’s demands on Harman in the early summer that the issue was closed down by the summer.

Downing Street only realised the scale of the problem posed by Legg’s approach in the middle of last week. It was also claimed that his unexpected assertiveness had left the government floundering on how to discipline MPs who refuse to pay up.

MPs have three weeks to make representations to Legg in response to the letters either demanding specific repayments, requesting further information or giving MPs the all-clear. Legg has applied his own annual limits of what he thinks was reasonable to claim – £1,000 a year for gardening and £2,000 a year for cleaning – and has asked those who exceeded these amounts to repay the difference.

He is also demanding greater details about mortgages involving “the buying or renting of a second home from a close relative, a company in which he had shares or a close associate such as an employee”.

More of his demands were disclosed by MPs today. The Conservative MP Brian Binley was thought to be required to repay more than £50,000, but he has told his local paper he has been cleared.

Married Tory MPs Sir Nicholas and Ann Winterton may have to return more than £100,000. Sir Nicholas refused to disclose the contents of his letter, but said he was ‘satisfied with its contents.’

One Labour MP is facing a bill of £16,000 and is seeking legal advice on how he can challenge Legg’s finding. But No 10 still believes most Labour MPs will pay rather than be seen to be defying the public.

Lord Mandelson, the business secretary, said he recognised that some MPs faced real difficulties, but added: ‘We have got to take this on the chin. If it requires some pay back that is a necessary price to pay.’

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

Taxpayers Foot Bill For Mole Hunt

(Telegraph) – JOHN  BERCOW, the Commons Speaker, is privately overseeing a taxpayer-funded inquiry to identify who leaked details of MPs’ expenses claims, The Sunday Telegraph has disclosed.

A former intelligence officer has been investigating the source of the leak since May, when the Telegraph’s exposé of the expenses system began.

Hired under the auspices of the former Speaker, Michael Martin, he has continued work under Mr Bercow, who was elected Speaker in June.

The mole hunt is estimated to have cost hundreds of thousands of pounds — senior intelligence officers typically charge £5,000 a day — and has continued despite widespread support for the Telegraph’s investigation from the public and senior politicians.

The Sunday Telegraph has also learnt that the Stationery Office, a privatised agency that handled MPs’ expenses, employed a private security firm called Detica, a division of BAE Systems, to conduct its own, unsuccessful attempt to uncover the source of the leak. On May 8, the first day of the Telegraph’s disclosures, it even contacted MI5, which declined a request to become involved in a leak inquiry.

It comes as MPs face further scrutiny in The Sunday Telegraph over their ‘junketing’ and as a new survey from MORI reveals that trust in politicians has reached a 25-year low.

Last night the Speaker’s Office refused to reveal the figures involved in the mole hunt. A spokesman said: ‘This is an internal inquiry so we don’t say how much it’s costing.’

The ferocity of the Parliamentary hunt for the mole also stands in stark contrast to the slow inquiries into MPs accused of abusing the expenses system. Almost five months after the Telegraph exposé began, no MP has yet been formally penalised.

The Stationery Office (TSO), a privatised Government agency which handled the MPs’ expenses files, employed the private security firm Detica, a division of BAE Systems, to conduct its own investigation.

Detica, which specialises in detailed forensic investigations, is understood to have analysed about 300 computers in an unsuccessful attempt to uncover the source of the leak. It is not known who paid for this probe.

The police have refused to investigate the leak despite being called in by the Parliamentary authorities.

The Sunday Telegraph has also learnt that on the morning of Friday May 8th – the first day of the Telegraph’s disclosures on MPs expenses – the Stationery Office also contacted MI5. It is understood that MI5 quickly declined a request to become involved in any leak inquiry.

Mr Martin was forced to resign at the height of the expenses scandal amid criticism that he was obsessed with finding the leaker – rather than reforming Parliament.

David Cameron, the Conservative leader, said that the information leaked to the Telegraph was ‘without question a positive development for the country.’

The full inside story of the expenses scandal is disclosed in No Expenses Spared, a new book written by two of the Telegraph’s investigation team.

The source of the MPs’ expenses leak has co-operated with the book. He disclosed that he decided to release the information because of the failure of the Government to properly equip troops for Afghanistan.

Several serving soldiers were moonlighting on the project preparing MPs’ expense claims for public release to earn money to buy essential kit including body armour.

The expenses mole has remained anonymous amid ongoing concern over the ‘witch-hunt’ to uncover him. It is not clear what action the Parliamentary authorities are hoping to take against anyone identified as the source after the police ruled out a criminal prosecution.

Well-placed sources have disclosed that decisions taken by the Parliamentary authorities in the preparation of MPs expense files may have jeopardised their security.

Most official sensitive documents are given a formal security marking – ranging from “restricted” to “secret”. There are standard procedures across Whitehall which stipulate how documents of different security markings are handled.

However, the Parliamentary authorities under the auspices of Speaker Martin neglected to give the MPs’ expenses files a security marking.

Although security was initially tight, there were concerns standards may have slipped during the latter stages of the project.

Last night, a spokesman for the Stationery Office said: ‘We have conducted a thorough internal investigation with the help of an independent auditor and found absolutely no trace of a breach in our security. TSO has an impeccable record for security.’

A Detica spokesman declined to comment on the cost or length of the investigation, saying: ‘I’m sorry, but for confidentiality reasons we do not comment on the detail of individual client relationships.’

Speaker Bercow Prepares To Spin Kelly Recommendations

(Press Gazette) – COMMONS SPEAKER John Bercow has appointed a former journalist as a special advisor on a salary that could be worth up to £107,000.

Tim Hames, former chief leader writer for The Times, has been hired by Bercow to deal with the media during the aftermath of recommendations on MPs’ expenses made by sleaze watchdog Sir Christopher Kelly.

He will be a Grade One status special advisor, paid between £87,000 and £107,000 a year. It is thought to be the first time a Speaker has taken on a staff member with that title.

Hames told the Press Association he would start work on 2 November and would spend around a third of his time dealing with the media.

Sir Christopher, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, intends to publish his final proposals on MPs’ expenses in October.

Hames said: ‘The House’s reputation is not what we would like it to be; I’m making the case that despite all that has happened over the last few months, Parliament is a good thing.’

He will initially take on the role as a ‘short-term arrangement’ until next summer.

Hames said he was probably not the first special adviser to a Commons Speaker; but the first one that had had his role formalised.

‘I’m absolutely sure that past Speakers have had someone act as an informal adviser in their staff,’ he said.

He will step down as head of communications for lobby group the British Venture Capital Association at the end of October.

Bercow, Tory MP for Buckingham, was elected Commons Speaker in June.

Last week senior UKIP MEP Nigel Farage announced he would stand against Bercow at the next general election.

By convention, Speakers remain politically neutral, and the main parties do not field candidates in their constituencies.

A Commons spokeswoman said Hames would help Bercow in his role as an ‘ambassador for Parliament.’

Bercow was keen to promote Parliament as much as possible, and Mr Hames would be aiding him in an ‘outreach’ programme for local communities and schools, she said.

… (Telegraph, 08/09/2009) – The Speaker should be above using spin