Monday, June 15, 2009

My Submission On MPs' Expenses

The closing date for submissions to the "Inquiry Into MPs' Expenses" which is being run by the Committee on Standards in Public Life was 5 June. I have been informed by the Business Manager of the Committee that over 600 submissions have been received. Yet since the Committee opened a web-site for the publication of these on 14 May, only 73 submissions have so far been posted. And tomorrow sees the Committee's first evidence session!

I had felt that I should not publish my own submission on this blog until it had first been posted on the Committee's web-site. But that could take some time given the current rate of progress. The Committee's Report could be out before then. So it appears below, less my home address and signature.

2 June, 2009.

Dear Committee Members,

This is a submission for your inquiry into MPs’ expenses.

I was the Member of Parliament for North East Derbyshire from 1987 to 2005. I gave evidence to your Committee in 1995, which appears on pages 66 to 70 in Volume 2 of your Committee’s First Report (Cm 2850-II). *

Throughout my parliamentary career I was obliged to operate under an expenses system which I always felt was fundamentally flawed. Yet I had to make use of it if I was to be in a position to undertake both my parliamentary and constituency work. Although the remit of your Committee’s initial enquiry in 1995 differs from that of your current enquiry, you will see that some of my concerns were expressed in my earlier evidence.

I always felt that rather than the responsibility being placed upon MPs to operate expenses’ claims, matters should have been transferred instead to a body equivalent to that which provides facilities for MPs on the Commons’ Estate. I have come to see that this body should be controlled by an independent outside body, or even run by that outside organisation. This new body should be responsible for providing a list of services which MPs could draw from. This approach forms the basis of the points I make below.

(1) Initially I will draw from my own experiences, although I am aware that MPs undertake their duties in a wide variety of differing ways. Changes may also have been made in some of these types of arrangements since 2005.

A great deal of my time as an MP was taken up with desk work. At Westminster, I was provided with a range of facilities on the Commons’ Estate for this purpose. These provisions did not come out of my expenses, apart from the peculiar arrangements under which the use of House of Commons paper and pre-stamped envelopes and cards are debited against an MP.

Eventually I was provided with a suitable room off the Upper Committee Corridor. It contained two desks, two typists’ chairs, two lamps, a telephone, a computer with a printer, a notice board, four filing cabinets, a book case, a storage unit, a waste paper bin and an easy chair which could be used also as a bed (for at one time the Commons’ had numbers of all night sittings). Initially, I shared the room with Ken Livingstone who was then an MP. But he eventually moved out into an office elsewhere on the Commons’ Estate. The second desk which he left behind proved useful, as it provided a base for members of my staff from my Constituency if they visited the Commons. There were also copying machines available for use on matters related to my work. These were at the end of the corridor where my room was situated.

An Assistant of mine who was based elsewhere in the Commons worked for me on Parliamentary rather than Constituency matters. He had a room of his own with its own separate set of facilities. Yet he also needed to visit my office and undertook desk work there on occasions.

When I ceased to be an MP, the rooms of my Assistant and myself and the contents as described above were all taken back for the Commons’ Estate. For they had owned them all along. I merely removed the considerable number of private files, parliamentary papers and books which I owned.

I feel that similar facilities should be provided for an MP in his or her own Constituency on the same pattern which operates on the Commons’ Estate. This would replace the need for an MP to be provided with an Office Costs Allowance. When an MP retires, the facilities he or she had used would remain in the hands of the body which had provided them in the first place.

To ensure that an MP’s demands for office facilities have limits placed upon them, he or she would draw them down from lists showing the range of provisions available and these would need to contain details of the maximum combinations of provisions which could be obtained. In some cases perhaps in rural constituencies, an MP and their Constituency Staff might prefer to work from their own homes. Suitable arrangements could be made for this.

In other cases, the MP might wish to set up a separate Constituency office. They could make recommendations for the hire of such accommodation to those running the scheme. This body would need to ensure that the MP’s request met their own requirements in terms of both costs and accessibility for local constituents. The relevant body would then be responsible for the payment of the rent, rates and office running costs.

(2). All other expenses provisions for MPs would also be ended and further regimes of service provisions would be put in their place.

a. An MP’s Staff appointments could be restricted to cover, say, no more than 100 hours total work a week. Whilst the MP could recommend who he or she wished to appoint, the body running the scheme would be responsible for checking that nominees were suitably qualified for their posts. This body would also be responsible for determining such Staffs’ contractual arrangements, salary scales and eventual redundancy arrangements. It would itself handle the finances involved. It would also instigate occasional checks to ensure that such Staff were performing their contracted duties.

b. Rented furnished or hotel accommodation in London would be available for MPs from Constituencies outside of the Capital. Initially MPs would themselves need to make provisional arrangements for such accommodation, within a set price limit. The contractual arrangements and payments would, however, be operated by the new body. When an MP retired or sort to move into fresh accommodation, that body would decide whether it would itself purchase the facility for potential use by another or a future MP.

c. An MPs travel costs in pursuit of their constituency and parliamentary duties would also be met by the new body. Rail warrants, air travel cards, bus passes, and electronic cards for the purchase of petrol and the use of taxis and phones would be issued on request. These would all be issued and controlled by the newly established body. It would be possible to monitor the use of such documents and cards and to place limits on their use.

d. All the above services (and any similar requirements such as the booking of rooms to hold MPs surgeries) would be provided by the new body who should be run from the Commons and would itself be subject to inspection by an outside and independent organisation, who would audit the new bodies accounts, issue an annual report and make recommendations on the development of the above system.

e. There would be no communication allowances for MPs . Local media outlets covering an MP’s Constituency would be encouraged to carry news items about their MPs’ activities and work load. There would also be available a free supply of Commons’ paper and pre-stamped envelopes and cards, sufficient to cover an MP’s needs for Constituents’ cases and for wider parliamentary issues; but restricted to such usages only.

(3). No provisions for “second homes” would be in operation other than those mentioned in 2(b) above. This arises from the following proposal. It is, however, a proposal which is made for reasons which extend beyond those of your Committee’s remit on the expenses of MPs . It involves the only constitutional change which I propose. I do, however, suggest an alternative to this at the close of this section, which falls within your remit.

No-one would be permitted to register to vote other than where they held their sole or main place of residence. When they change their sole or main place of residence, their electoral registration should automatically be transferred to the appropriate electoral register. A requirement for standing for Parliament in a specific Constituency would then be that the person concerned appears on that Constituency’s Electoral Register. If an elected MP then moved their sole or main place of residence outside of the Constituency they had been elected for, they would lose their parliamentary seat. Exceptions to this would, however, be in operation for the Prime Minister and Members of his Cabinet whilst they held their posts.

The main reason behind this proposal is to facilitate the election of MPs who will tend to have roots in the community they represent. Whilst the proposal will not exclude newcomers in a community from standing for parliament, it will aid local representation. As a spin off, it will end the need to cover the costs of any MPs accommodation other than for direct parliamentary purposes as in 2b above.

Whilst this proposal is my “ideal” solution, for the purposes of ending the expenses regime on “second homes” outside of London these entitlements could merely be withdrawn. Successful parliamentary candidates in these areas would then (in most practical circumstances) be required to find their own means of living within or near the Constituencies they represented.

(4). MPs should be expected to work full-time covering their parliamentary and constituency duties and to be motivated by a sense of public duty. Whilst these objectives can’t be legislated for, they can be facilitated in the following ways.

a. An MP’s job should be a full-time one. The taking up of further employment or outside paid interests should be banned. It is hard to see how an MP can effectively undertake his or her constituency and parliamentary duties on a part-time basis. If a ban on the holding of paid outside interests is not put in place, then at least MP’s annual tax returns should be published so that their constituents can judge their actions and priorities. An MP’s tax returns would, of course, no longer include a parliamentary expenses section if my earlier proposals were acted upon.

b. Except when an MP is ill, on short annual holidays or is dealing with a personal emergency such as the death of a close relative, no-one from their staff should act on their behalf as if they were a “substitute MP”. Normally the MP’s staff should assist the MP in their work and not act as a replacement for them. This is a matter for the body I wish to see established to check upon when investigating whether an MP’s staff are fulfilling (but not exceeding) their contractual commitments.

c. The time-table for the Commons should no longer allow for lengthy summer breaks of 12 to 13 weeks. Normally, the Commons should not sit during August. For the rest of the year (outside of emergency sessions) it should sit for a total of at least 30 weeks, but never be in recess for more than a fortnight. This time-table is designed to ensure that an MP will always have a reasonable access to parliament to pursue their constituent’s concerns and for what they see as other emergency needs. This adds to the need for full-time MPs .

5. Whilst my proposal in (3) above would end the practice of MPs spending public funds on second homes outside of London, the sweep of my proposals are not directed at finding means to reduce the overall costs of providing the nation with parliamentary representation. They are directed instead at ensuring that public funds are directed at providing needed services and that the schemes in operation will no longer be open to abuse by (or be burdensome to) MPs . For instance, under my proposals no MP would be in a position to ever acquire any Commons’ financed property nor facilities which they would then own.

6. A breakdown of the costs of supplying services for each MP will need to be published annually.

7. With the end of an expenses regime, the myth that MPs are self-employed for tax purposes will end and they can than be classified as being employee’s of the House of Commons.

8. Some of the principles I have raised were included in my evidence to your Committee in 1995. The major change in my stance since then is that in 1995 I was opposed to any outside supervision of parliament on these matters. This is because I am a strong believer in the need for an MP to enjoy full parliamentary privileges in order to be able to pursue his or her constituents’ interests and for wider political concerns. Recent revelations (which I knew nothing about earlier) have, however, convinced me that such privileges are inappropriate when it comes to the regulation of an MP’s individual financial operations.

Under my proposals MPs’ expenses would be zero, yet they would be provided with the services they need under a system which none of them could abuse. MPs’ costs beyond their salaries would be covered in a similar way to those in operation for Government Ministers, although they would remain much less costly. There would be no need to increase MPs’ salaries as a means round the current expenses’ scandal.

Yours sincerely,

Harry Barnes.

c.c. Gordon Brown MP.(I have made some minor amendments to a copy of the above which I posted to 10 Downing Street on 31 May, 2009.) **

* I have asked the Committee to attach my former evidence to the above.

** I sent a covering letter with this, but there has been no reply.


calgacus said...

Good ideas and you obviously have lots of valuable experience on this subject Harry.

I agree with 99% of them - especially on banning MPs from taking payments other than their salaries to prevent conflicts of interest.

In fact i've got a petition on the number 10 website on exactly that. Would you sign it and forward it to anyone else you think might sign it?

My only uncertainty is about preventing MPs from choosing their own staff. If the body deciding who is qualified and who isn't is appointed by the government or party leaders i'm worried it could lead to backbench rebels and members of small parties having staff they can rely on vetoed and being made to take staff loyal to the government or party leaders who would report back to them on whatever that MP was planning to do or say - but i suppose if, as you suggest, MPs get to choose staff and the office can only say yes or no that wouldn't be such a problem.

All the best,

Harry Barnes said...

calgacus: An outside body would supervise or run my system. On the whole that would tend to ensure that MPs would come up with adequately qualified staff when making their recommendations. I will look up the Downing Street web-site, even though they have ignored my letter to them.

Harry Barnes said...

Duncan : Done. I am number 225.

calgacus said...

Thanks very much Harry

Blogger Brader said...

Harry I support the idea of MPs being residents of their constituency but...
How about a NE Derbys MP being a resident of Chesterfield (very accessible and central to all constituents) or what about an MP with a family who has been embedded in a constituency which is then subject to a boundary reorganisation and is selected for the new consituency but does not live in it?
In local Govt just renting an allotment in your ward is sufficient. For County Councillors you must be resident in the County but not neccessarily in your ward. So I think your proposal will need to take account of MPs that have good reason to live v near to their constituency. ...Martin

Harry Barnes said...

Blogger Brader/Martin : There is always room for any of my proposals to be tweaked as long as their overall purpose remains in place. Note the final paragraph to my point 3.

Democritus said...

Gordon Brown's home in Dunfermline for example thanks to scottish boundary changes is now in the neighbouring constituency.

I don't see the value in this change. Is the idea that Tony Blair could never have contested Sedgefield? If so it is surely shutting the stable door long after the horse has bolted. Martin Bell would have been scuppered too and byelections would be far less entertaining!

My other caveat is over staff. Like yourself I strongly believe in MPs privileges and would not want their right to manage their staff as they see fit infringed. If another body were to take over as the employer they would be responsible for complying with the duties of an employer and this could quickly become intrusive as well creating divided loyalties among staff. Moreover issues around political activity might appear - though existing staff transferred under TUPE could not presumably have restrictions imposed on them - if an MPs office is not political I can't see how it can be effective! I realise that the point is to stop the Derek Conway's of this world, but proper transparency should be an adequate deterrent to flagrant abuses.

I'm also taken by the suggestion of using part of the olympic village as a London base for MPs. This facility will be modern and highly secure, with excellent transport links and available to new members from day one.

Harry Barnes said...

Democritus : In response to "Blogger Brader" above, I accepted that my idea of an MP needing to come from the constituency they resided in could be tweaked. To cover the boundary changes problem, the provision could be that they should reside either in the constituency or no more than 15 or so miles from it. Surely, each local area has a number of residents who can serve as MPs. They have the advantage of being likely to know the area and have commitments to it. Carpet baggers, would have to pick up their bags in preparation - or Parties could adopt candidates on the promise they would move into the area. They could be given 6 months or so to do this after an election.

If this is all seen as being too much, all that is needed is to stop MPs designating second homes - other than for those who need a second home in London in order to be able to work at the Commons.

I am not against using the Olympic Village (which would need security). The big chance that was missed was not using the old GLC building which is almost opposite the Commons.It is now a hotel, so it could still be nationalised.

On staff, the outside body (or internally supervised body) would have the role of checking qualifications, establishing contacts and checking against abuse. Appointments would need to be recommended by the MP in the first place, which is the best that can be done to determine their political reliability whilst giving appointees job security. Leaking of information would need to be controlled by (1) a stress on DATA protection (which MPs have to sign up to, so why not their staff?), (2) whistleblowing being an offence if payments change hands for the information (or any other gain is made) and (3)the operations of laws relating to contracts and employment.

In all of the moves I propose arrangments might need to be put in place to allow the old regime to be transferred to the new system. Many MPs have established contracts on renting or purchasing accomodation in London. On the other hand, a snap election (and defeat) can hit at that any time. Hence the need for such things as winding up allowances, at least under the current arrangments.