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