Select Committee on Members Estimate Committee Second Report



OFFICE COSTS

32. How should Members' constituency offices be paid for? Currently, the Incidental Expenses Provision (IEP) is designed to cover the costs of office and surgery accommodation, equipment, supplies, services, some communications and some staff travel. Claims against the IEP can be paid directly to suppliers by the Department of Resources or paid by the Member and claimed back. The Committee has already decided that such claims for more than £25 per item must be accompanied by receipts.

33. The SSRB reported that on average Members spend £5,000 a year on renting offices in their constituency, but that office rental costs vary between £14 and £30 per square foot. Some find the cost of renting in their constituency prohibitive. We have heard from other Members that the size and geography of their constituency requires them to have offices in two different places. For good reason, practice varies among Members about whether to maintain a constituency office and how many staff to base there.

34. In their 2006 report on House of Commons Accommodation, the Administration Committee said:

"Members need to be given clearer information on the number of staff they can expect to accommodate at Westminster: up to two… Control over the number of Members' staff can best be achieved by encouraging Members to locate their staff away from Westminster; but this will only be successful if they can do so economically and in a way which suits their working practices. Currently, some Members find it difficult to afford a constituency office and are tempted to base all their staff within the Estate. In an environment of high office rental costs, to provide more of an equal playing field may require significant targeted incentives. The costs of office accommodation for Members and their staff at Westminster are met in full from the budget for the House of Commons Administration rather than from Members' allowances. Accommodation and related costs for staff located in Members' constituencies might be funded in the same way: this should be investigated."[13]

35. The SSRB has recommended that "office and 'surgery' lease or rental costs should be met in full up to a maximum area of 800 square feet, this area to be reduced by 100 square feet for each member of an MP's staff who is based on the parliamentary estate. Before renting or leasing premises an MP must obtain a certificate from an independent chartered surveyor stating that the premises are suitable for the purpose and that the cost is reasonable in relation to typical office premises in the constituency."[14] Some aspects of this recommendation—the strict maximum of 800 sq ft and reductions of 100 sq ft for each staff member based in Westminster—have been described by some Members as unworkable. But there may be some merit in the idea of central provision of constituency offices. We have asked the Department of Resources to undertake work with professional surveyors to advise on the practicality of implementing this recommendation.

Is the central funding of constituency offices—instead of MPs paying for them out of the Incidental Expenses Provision—a sensible idea in principle? If so, what needs to be done to make it work in practice? What are the likely costs?

36. The SSRB also recommended changes in the Incidental Expenses Provision (IEP) to cover office costs:

  • that it should be renamed "Other Office Expenditure"
  • that the maximum be reduced by £2,500 for each member of an MP's staff with a workstation on the parliamentary estate
  • that IEP should be reduced by £2,500 to take into account the introduction of the Communication Allowance
  • that, before any such reduction, the maximum should be £13,839.

37. The recommendation to reduce the IEP by £2,500 for each member of an MP's staff who has a workstation in the Westminster office is described by SSRB as

"seeking to make the choice of where an MP's staff are located cost neutral. We are not seeking to influence that choice. An MP who employs staff based in London will normally have to pay higher salaries than for staff outside London… On the other hand, an MP who bases staff on the parliamentary estate does not have to pay rent and other costs… We believe this is a balanced and economically sound approach."[15]

Is the SSRB's "cost neutral" approach between location of staff at Westminster or in constituencies broadly correct? Are there possible unintended consequences?

38. As with the other areas of expenditure, it remains an option to continue the current arrangements for office costs but with tightened rules and improved claims and audit processes.

What improvements to the operation of the Office Costs Allowance would achieve greater transparency?

Would it be better if all allowable bills for office expenditure were met directly by the House without any reimbursement to Members?

Alternatively should Members have a budget for office costs which would be subject to audit as in a small business?


13   Third Report, 2005-06, HC 1279, paras 150 and 140. Back

14   Recommendation 23, para 5.29. Back

15   para 5.31. Back


 
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