Harriet Harman Says MPs’ Expenses Overhaul May Be Blocked

(Telegraph) – RADICAL PROPOSALS to overhaul the system of MPs’ expenses drawn up by an independent review may be blocked, Harriet Harman has warned.

Ms Harman, the Leader of the Commons, said it would not be fair for MPs to be forced to sack their spouses or other family members working in their offices.

She also indicated that plans to stop MPs living in the London commuter belt from having taxpayer-funded second homes may prove unacceptable.

For months, the Government has led the public to believe that recommendations drawn up by Sir Christopher Kelly would be introduced quickly without MPs becoming involved.

Mr Brown has said it would be supported as long as it was ‘affordable,’ while Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, said all parties would accept the proposals ‘unless they are in the realm of complete irrationality.’

However, the Commons Leader said that an outside body would now decide whether to implement recommendations from the Kelly review.

This new ‘independent’ body will work under the auspices of a small group of senior MPs – many of whom have faced questions about their own expenses – sparking fears over its impartiality.

The MPs will be responsible for approving the appointment of executives running the new Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA).

Sir Christopher was appointed to draw up a radical overhaul of the expenses system in the wake of The Daily Telegraph’s disclosures.

However, his work has been fiercely opposed by some MPs who are threatening to rebel against the Prime Minister if the proposals are introduced. David Cameron is thought to back the introduction of Sir Christopher’s recommendations in full.

Asked whether IPSA could reject Sir Christopher’s proposals, Ms Harman said: ‘It’s entirely a matter for them. But they will, I’m sure, want to draw on his important work.

‘But it’s a matter for them to decide, not for Sir Christopher Kelly and not for us either as MPs.’

Gordon Brown will meet Sir Christopher today and is expected to warn that the reforms must not turn politics into the preserve of the rich, according to Downing Street aides.

However, it is not clear why Mr Brown is issuing such a warning to the official watchdog – or why his feelings are being made public – as Sir Christopher’s report and recommendations have already been sent to the printers.

The comments may therefore be designed to placate Labour MPs.

Sir Christopher, the chairman of the Committee for Standards in Public Life, will set out his recommendations on Wednesday.

He is expected to recommend that MPs are only allowed to rent a second home and that the taxpayer will not pay mortgage interest in future.

MPs will also be banned from employing family members under his proposals. Those living within an hour’s commute of Westminster will also be unable to claim for the cost of a second home.

When details of the proposed package emerged last week, they were attacked by many MPs who described them as ‘nonsense’ and ‘ludicrous.’

Ms Harman appeared to yesterday back opposition to the ban on family members.

She said: ‘If Sir Christopher Kelly recommends that MPs shouldn’t be able to employ any family members for the future and if that’s what the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority decides I think two things: firstly there shouldn’t be any shadow cast over the existing spouses who are working very hard.

‘I think it would be wrong to judge them all as not doing a good job, I don’t believe that to be the case.

‘Secondly, I do think it would be fair not to sack existing spouses who are working for MPs. I think if they are going to suggest something it should be for the future, they can’t simply say “you have all got to be made redundant.”’

The comments from the leader of the House are likely to lead to intense lobbying of IPSA from MPs. More than 100 MPs currently employ members of their families.

On Sunday it emerged that Nadine Dorries, the Conservative MP, has employed another of her daughters to work in her office after she failed to find work after graduating.

There are also growing fears that MPs may seek to influence the composition of the new IPSA board.

The chairman and other senior members of the authority have yet to be appointed – and their appointments have to be sanctioned by the Speaker and a secretive committee of MPs.

Several of the MPs on the committee have spoken out against Sir Christopher’s recommendations sparking fears that they may not wish to appoint a strong, impartial head to run IPSA.

For example, Sir Stuart Bell who sits on the new committee, said that Parliament may wish to ‘amend’ Sir Christopher’s recommendations.

‘The House would want to look at these recommendations very carefully, they will want to debate them and have the opportunity, should they so wish, to amend them,’ he said.

Other members of the committee include Don Touhig, a Labour MP who led a backbench revolt against previous plans to tighten up the rules on MPs expenses, and Sir George Young, the shadow leader of the House, who previously chaired the Committee which punished MPs who broke Parliamentary rules.

The Committee has been criticised for failing to clamp down on abuse of the expenses system.

The composition of the new committee which will oversee IPSA was quietly announced in an evening session of Parliament last Wednesday. Several MPs complained that no younger or more progressive politicians were selected for the committee.

IPSA will also have to consult the new committee on the final revised package for MPs’ expenses.

Downing Street sources sought to play down Ms Harman’s remarks. They said she was expressing a ‘personal view’ in relation to MPs’ employment of their relatives or spouses.

A well-placed source added that IPSA’s role was to introduce the Kelly recommendations and that any changes would be ‘small practical issues’ not ‘big show stoppers.’

… (Telegraph, 02/11/2009) – Our democracy depends on this clean-up – and it’s not going well

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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.’

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

MPs Threaten To Defy Expenses Enquiry

(Telegraph) – MPS HAVE THREATENED to defy an official inquiry into the Commons expenses scandal led by Sir Thomas Legg by refusing ‘unfair’ demands to repay questionable claims.

Independent auditors will on Monday write to up to 500 past and present MPs to highlight concern about their use of parliamentary allowances, before inviting them to refund the public purse.

But in an astonishing act of defiance, a spokesman for the MPs complained that many would not accept orders to repay claims which were approved by the Commons fees office.

Sir Stuart Bell, who sits on the Members Estimates Committee — which will rule on whether to accept the Legg inquiry’s findings — said that if the investigation asked MPs to pay back approved expenses, it would amount to a change in ‘criteria’ and would be unfair.

He suggested that if the audit, led by Sir Thomas, a former civil servant, strayed outside its ‘remit’ in this way, then MPs would be justified in refusing to pay the money back.

The threat to defy the Legg inquiry risks reigniting public anger over the expenses scandal and is likely to overshadow the return of Parliament today after the summer break and party conference season.

The public has already made clear its dismay at MPs who tried to excuse their questionable claims by explaining that they were ‘within the rules’ that existed at the time. However, some are said to be poised to call in their solicitors in an attempt to avoid repaying any money.

The prospect of MPs challenging the inquiry will alarm Gordon Brown and David Cameron, who are keen to draw a line under the affair.

Sir Thomas and his team began scrutinising MPs’ expenses claims dating back five years in the wake of The Daily Telegraph’s disclosures about widespread abuse of the system.

He is said to be applying a ‘reasonableness test’ to the task and is thought to be taking a critical view of claims, such as excessive bills for cleaning or gardening, even where they were approved by the Commons fees office.

He is writing to MPs who he feels should either repay money to the taxpayer or provide further information about questionable claims.

His inquiry, which was ordered by the Prime Minister, will ultimately report to the Members Estimates Committee, which will decide on whether to accept the inquiry’s recommendations.

But speaking on Radio 4’s World at One, Sir Stuart suggested that Sir Thomas might have ventured beyond his remit.

‘The MPs will have in their breast pocket a letter from Sir Thomas dated July 2, saying that his review will be carried out in accordance with the rules at the time and the standards that applied at the time over the past five years,’ he said.

‘I think many MPs, if they read the newspapers, may feel he’s not staying within that remit, he’s not respecting the decisions that were made by the fees office in accordance with the rules at the time.’

As the Members Estimates Committee has the final say over whether the Legg review should be implemented, Sir Stuart’s words raise the prospect of MPs refusing to repay money on a wholesale basis.

Even if the Legg recommendations are accepted by the committee, a number of MPs — including many among the 100-plus who have announced their retirement at the next election, and others who have privately made up their mind to go — are said to be planning to call in legal advice to challenge the rulings.

As Sir Thomas has no legal powers, MPs who refuse to accept a recommendation that they repay expenses cannot be forced to do so.

While it would be possible for reluctant MPs to be referred to the parliamentary watchdog, the worst sanction open to the Commissioner for Standards is suspension from the House.

And with any sleaze inquiry likely to last many months, certainly beyond the election, there is little incentive for retiring MPs to pay any money back to the public purse.

John Mann, the Labour MP for Bassetlaw, said: ‘There are going to be some very bitter MPs who feel that Legg is being unreasonable.

‘I’ve heard that some are hiring solicitors. They will argue that they made decisions based on advice from the fees office. If people are asked to repay the profits made from renovating their properties, they will be pleading poverty. But if people are standing down you won’t be able to force them.

‘For those who are not staying on in the Commons or who want to become a Lord, there will be some who will refuse to pay altogether.

‘They will say that the system wasn’t a good system, the system didn’t require them to keep receipts, and it may be unreasonable in their eyes to pay up.’

The row over Legg’s findings is likely to rumble on well into the new year, at a time when tension among MPs over expenses is already high as they wait to hear the recommendations of the review being conducted by Sir Christopher Kelly, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, into the future system for parliamentary allowances.

Many are concerned that he could propose banning MPs from claiming mortgage payments, or even force them to live in rented communal accommodation.

And there will almost certainly be more expenses furore when the latest round of claims, relating to the financial year 2008-09, is made public in November.

So far, 106 MPs have announced their retirement from the Commons; but dozens more are expected to stand down before the election, which must come by June.

The row over the Legg review increases the likelihood that some of those with the most questionable claims will avoid refunding the taxpayer simply by opting to bow out of Parliament.

Sir Thomas has not examined the expenses of MPs who are undergoing police investigation, such as Labour’s Elliot Morley, who announced he would stand down over allegations he claimed for a ‘phantom’ mortgage.

Members subject to a parliamentary sleaze investigation, including the Conservative backbencher Anne Main, who submitted allowances for a flat in which her daughter lived, will also not be covered by the review, meaning repayments in both categories are unlikely for some time.

… (Daily Mail, 13/10/2009) – With the connivance of this wretched new Speaker, MPs are trying to destroy an honest man for daring to expose their greed

… (13/10/2009) – MPs’ Expenses Place Browns Authority In Crisis

MPs ‘Berate And Bully’ Officials Over Expenses Claims

(Telegraph) – SIR STUART BELL, a member of the Members Estimates Committee (MEC), which oversees Commons expenses, told The Telegraph that there was an ‘incestuous’ culture over MPs’ allowances, which continued even after the paper’s disclosures.

Giving evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which is writing new rules on Commons expenses, Sir Stuart blamed widespread abuses of the system on practices and customs that grew up over decades.

‘The culture grew up (an incestuous culture between members and the fees office) where, even to this day, a member can berate and bully the fees office,’ he said.

The rules have been tightened, and many of the questionable claims of recent years should not be permitted under the new regime. Nonetheless, Sir Stuart said, Commons authorities were still ‘bedevilled by having to deal with appeals’ from MPs.

Many members were also understood to have put pressure on Commons officials over the blacking-out of expense documents, which were published last week.

MPs’ expenses claims are overseen by a dozen civil servants in the fees office of Parliament’s Department of Finance and Administration, which is supposed to enforce the rules on allowances.