There is no political capital to be won defending MPs on expenses. The media is not ready and nor is the public. The pendulum has not swung back. The coalition government does better by trumpeting its plans to do away with large numbers of MPs altogether, ostensibly to “lower the cost of politics”. In today’s prime minister’s questions, however, David Cameron unexpectedly took on the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (the body set up in the wake of last summer’s expenses scandal to set policy and process MPs’ claims).
Cameron was responding to cross-party fury that IPSA has not only lumbered parliament with a dysfunctional new computerised system, but also adopted what many MPs regard as a vindictive, petty-fogging and demagogic approach to policy. In a hearing with IPSA chief Sir Ian Kennedy a few days ago, for example, Lib Dem MP Bob Russell reflected the frustration of many at the way a bug-ridden, clunky system is draining parliamentary resources that would otherwise be deployed in the service of constituents.
“If each MP and their staff are giving five hours a week to filling in forms, electronic records, and the rest of it – a considerable underestimate – that works out at 3,250 hours a week, or the equivalent of 93 full-time jobs,” Russell calculated.
That, he added, was on top of the 77 members of staff IPSA employs for little more than a payroll and expenses function. He also noted IPSA’s plans to hire three communications officers, whose principal role, as he saw it, would be as spin doctors out to “undermine the integrity of Members of Parliament”.
But the problem to many minds is not the system per se – that will sort itself out in time – but the fact that so many MPs now believe they are having to subsidise their parliamentary duties, in some cases by thousands of pounds. That’s fine for those whose successful careers in the private sector have left them tidy nest eggs. But a parliament of “monks and millionaires”, as Michael White of the Guardian put it, is hardly going to deliver an inclusive system of representation. That’s why pressure has been building on Cameron to take a stand.
At PMQs, David Davies, Conservative MP for Monmouth, gave the PM the chance. Davies noted that it was “not standard practice in the public sector for workers to fund their offices and equipment out of their own pockets – and then to negotiate a bureaucratic obstacle course in order to get the money back if they’re lucky”. Could the prime minister, he asked, say whether he thought this was this was “a good system for members of parliament or whether it’s undermining efforts from MPs on all sides of the house?”
“What is necessary is a properly transparent system, a system with proper rules and limits which the public would have confidence in,” Cameron replied. “But what we don’t need is an overly bureaucratic and very costly system and I think all those in IPSA need to get a grip on what they are doing and get a grip on it very fast.” This was manna for many, especially the backbenchers who have lately taken to sleeping rough in their offices after late night sittings rather than attempt to claim back the expense of a hotel from IPSA.
But the deeper problem is that IPSA, MPs and the constituents they serve are now paying the price for a rushed reform undertaken in the middle of a crisis in the months before an election. Through the vehicle of the expenses system, IPSA acknowledges that it is trying to offer an answer to a question that has in fact yet to be settled in public debate: what is the job description for a 21st-century legislator? And what does he or she need from the public purse to do that job properly? It will not satisfy anyone until those questions are answered.