16 Jun 2010 : Column 137WH

16 Jun 2010 : Column 137WH

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 16 June 2010

[Dr William McCrea in the Chair]

Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Jeremy Wright.)

9.30 am

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): It is pleasant to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. Let me say straight away that it is unfortunate that this debate is necessary. All of us in the last Parliament hoped that when we were re-elected, the issue described as "MPs' expenses" would have been dealt with once and for all. Enough controversy occurred in the last Parliament. Let me make it clear to the chair of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, and the interim chief executive, that I have no wish to conceal from the public in any way the amount of money that we claim. I am sure that that applies to other colleagues, whichever party they belong to. Indeed, I was one of those who strenuously opposed the attempt to exempt Parliament from freedom of information legislation. If we claim public money-and it is public money-the public are entitled to know what we claim. That is not at issue, and it is important that that is understood.

It is perfectly understandable that in the closing stages of the last Parliament, as you know, Dr McCrea, IPSA was unanimously agreed to without any vote. My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), who is present in the Chamber, put the reasons why a new body should be set up, which we all understood. However, what has occurred since we returned after the election has put these issues back on the agenda. The reason for that is simple: the system that IPSA introduced, without any consultation with Members, is complex and difficult. When it comes to legitimate claims-obviously, all our claims should be legitimate-for constituency offices and related bills such as council tax, rent, telephone, electricity and so on, it is difficult to get any sense out of IPSA.

The person whose title is "independent expenses compliance officer" was quoted yesterday in the press as dismissing the complaints as coming only from older MPs. I am not here to apologise for my age. I am no more responsible for that than I am for the colour of my skin, my racial origin or my gender. However, over a third-35%-of the Members are new to the House of Commons and they cannot be dismissed as "older MPs". Presumably, those MPs coming to the House for the first time are somewhat younger than me-I would be surprised if that was not the case-but it is not a matter of saying that they should "get used to it", because that is nonsense. Criticism coming from new Members is no less than that coming from those of us who have been re-elected.

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I think that I am correct in saying that my hon. Friend was elected to this House for the first time in the 1960s. In The Guardian yesterday, Mr Alan Lockwood commented
16 Jun 2010 : Column 138WH
that most MPs were happy with the system and he made some pejorative statements. If he were to hear a complaint against my hon. Friend, or if my hon. Friend made a complaint about IPSA, does he think that he would get a fair hearing?

Mr Winnick: I am not going to take up what the independent expenses compliance officer said. I do not think that his comments deserve any response from me; they speak for themselves. However, if the situation has been difficult for returning Members-as many of us are-how much more difficult has it been for new Members? It must be an outright nightmare for them, and that is set against a background in which they would find it far more difficult to criticise the system because their local paper might say, "Look what they complain about the moment they are elected." At least returning Members have constituency offices, however difficult it is to get IPSA to agree on rent and related matters. New Members have to start from scratch, without being able to go to IPSA and say, "This is what we want to do. Is it legitimate? Is it within the rules?" Those are elementary questions, but they will not get any answers because, at the moment, the system does not provide for anything of that kind.

Mr Tom Harris (Glasgow South) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend find it perturbing that although it is virtually impossible for Members of Parliament to get a face-to-face interview with a senior IPSA official, it is extremely easy for almost any member of the press to do so?

Mr Winnick: I take that point entirely. If IPSA spent as much time trying to resolve the genuine difficulties of new and returning MPs as it gives to the press, that would be an advancement. The national press will say, as in one recent article, that MPs are too obsessed with their own position. However, what we want to do is on behalf of our constituents; it is not about our salary. Perhaps our salary has not been paid in full due to a technical fault, but that is not the subject of today's debate. We are not going to town about that, far from it. If we want to have constituency offices and to get matters resolved, it is so that our constituents can come to our constituency offices and we can pursue their complaints. IPSA gives the impression that our concerns are all about ourselves, and that is what it tries to get over to the media.

Mr Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate; it is a subject that I feel passionate about. Is it not wrong that long-standing, loyal staff find themselves in the predicament that, as a consequence of the ceiling that has been set, they might be made redundant?

Mr Winnick: Indeed, and I shall come to that.

Several hon. Members rose-

Mr Winnick: I would like to make some progress as I know that a number of colleagues wish to speak. IPSA's justification is that the system works. I do not claim to be an expert in computer technology. My secretary makes the claims. I am not sure that when she was appointed, many years ago, that was one of her jobs. Be that as it may, it could be argued that whether or not we are acknowledged computer experts, that is the system.

16 Jun 2010 : Column 139WH

Let me, however, give some illustrations in order to challenge what IPSA has said. One new MP-not of my party-told me that since he was elected, 80% of his time has been spent being an administrator. He did not consider that to be the reason he stood for election. If my party had won that constituency, it is likely that the Labour Member would be in precisely the same position.

Another colleague-not a new Member-said that he had spent four hours trying to submit a claim for the cost of petrol to and from his constituency. Four hours, and then the system crashed. On "Newsnight", which some colleagues will have watched, a newly elected Conservative MP was shown using a computer. She said that trying to deal with the computer system set up by IPSA was far more complex than working as a GP in the national health service. Why should that be the case? Why should MPs, be they Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat, have to do that? We should not be spending hours and hours on such matters; we should be getting involved in the things that we were elected to deal with in the first place. It is indefensible that IPSA should have set up a system that is so difficult and complex, and which, particularly for new Members, has made life a nightmare.

Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that 20 central London MPs have, on a cross-party basis, signed a letter to Sir Ian and held meetings with IPSA to highlight the historical problems that we have had in balancing our budgets-a difficulty greatly exacerbated by the changes in the rules? The penultimate sentence of our letter states that

Mr Winnick: I am sure that that is an important and interesting intervention.

Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): On computers, I managed to get access to the expenses system using my own password-

Hon. Members: Hear, hear!

Dr William McCrea (in the Chair): Order.

Phil Wilson: However, the expenses that appeared on the screen were those of another MP. A member of my staff managed to get through to IPSA to point that out and was told that it was a computer glitch that would be sorted. In my view, that is not a computer glitch but a gross intrusion into another Member's privacy, and it needs to be looked into before we go any further.

Mr Winnick: My hon. Friend's point is valid, and I hope that it will be noted by IPSA. I am not sure whether IPSA is represented here today-I shall talk about its senior personnel in a moment.

Another of my hon. Friends said that trying to deal with IPSA was like dealing with a brick wall. That sums up the experience very well. IPSA has provided a helpline, but if there ever was an anti-helpline, that is it. In many instances it is impossible to get through, and if
16 Jun 2010 : Column 140WH
one does, one gets no information but is told to send an e-mail. One would have thought that if a helpline is provided, it should be a genuine one. Time and again, colleagues have complained that they send e-mails to IPSA and spend a great deal of time doing so-as Members of Parliament, we should not be spending anywhere near as much time on that as we do-but they receive no response at all. One would hope that one could phone somebody, apart from the helpline, and get information, but that is out of the question. IPSA will not give out another phone number.

Allegations have been made about rudeness to staff. I do not blame the staff employed by IPSA for the problems. They are not responsible. If any colleague, from whichever party, has been rude, that is wrong and I would be the last person to defend them. Responsibility lies with the chair and the chief executive of IPSA and not the staff, many of whom, apparently, are interns who were employed only because of their technical knowledge of how to work the computer system. They are not in a position-they admit as much-to give advice to any Member.

Mr Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): My hon. Friend, like those others of us who were here before the last election, will easily recognise the difficulties that everyone encountered last year, when the whole expenses and allowances fiasco was dragged through the press. I have every reason to believe that those involved in setting up the IPSA system visited the Scottish Parliament and spoke to the staff in the allowances office there, who are held in high esteem. The point was raised: why do we not have such a system? It now appears that IPSA visited and paid no attention whatsoever to the advice and help that was given.

Mr Winnick: I would like to have the response of the chair of IPSA to my hon. Friend's very important point about the Scottish Parliament.

Regarding submissions, if IPSA says that it is absolutely vital that the system is online, so be it, but I do not see any reason why that is necessary. Why can we not make submissions in writing, with all the documentation? Of course the documentation should be checked thoroughly-there should be no repeat of the embarrassment and shame that was brought on Parliament as a result of the abuses, although we should bear in mind that most of those involved in the abuses are no longer in the House of Commons-but no reason has been given why submissions cannot be made in writing. If approved, they could immediately be put on the IPSA website. In that way, those who cannot sleep at night unless they know what their MP is claiming can be satisfied. All the information will be on the website, so everyone will know the details immediately a claim has been submitted and approved.

Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr Winnick: I will give way to my hon. Friend, who does not usually like to get involved in controversy.

Mr Skinner: I think my hon. Friend is now at the kernel of the subject: the online system. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield
16 Jun 2010 : Column 141WH
(Phil Wilson) that he reported a breach of security-that is what it was-when an e-mail was sent to him in error. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) agree that that is not an isolated case? I have a letter here that was sent to me on 2 June. It belongs to another Member of Parliament. I have sent it to IPSA and told it about the mistake, and I have heard that several other Members have had similar e-mails, not destined for them. That is a serious breach of security. We all know that three Ministers in the previous Government lost their jobs because of dodgy e-mails, and the IPSA system will end in tears if we are not careful. This debate is not about IPSA itself, as my hon. Friend said at the very beginning, or about its being an independent body. We all welcome that, and voted for it. It is about the fact that the system is not secure. Already, in just a few weeks, we have seen many breaches of security. IPSA must look for a different system to get the show on the road, and then everybody will be satisfied.

Dr William McCrea (in the Chair): Order. Interventions will have to be interventions, not speeches.

Mr Winnick: My hon. Friend has touched on an important question, which I mentioned earlier: why are we having this debate at all? Why was the issue not resolved in the previous Parliament? Why are we back to the point where the media can say that MPs are discussing what they call their expenses again? My hon. Friend has mentioned other matters on the Floor of the House, and IPSA should take them up immediately.

I take the view that the most senior people in IPSA-the chair and the interim chief executive-should understand the widespread concern that is reflected in the attendance at this debate. This is not an attempt to undermine IPSA or to undermine the concept of what we claim becoming public knowledge as quickly as possible. It is an attempt to get those responsible to recognise that there are genuine difficulties, which it is up to them to resolve.

The chair of IPSA receives £700 per day, plus what are called "reasonable expenses". Whether or not those expenses have to be claimed online, I do not know. That is the equivalent of more than £100,000 a year for a three-day week. The chair is a distinguished public servant-I do not question that for a moment-but he has a responsibility to get a grip on the situation. The interim chief executive is paid somewhere between £105,000 and £115,000 per annum. That is quite a sum, and one would hope that someone in such a senior position and with such a substantial salary would recognise the considerable disquiet, to say the least, among Members of Parliament and staff. The Unite parliamentary branch has expressed much concern that some of its members could be made redundant as a result of the changes.

Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): I put on record that I am here today only because of the inordinate amount of time that I spend on IPSA matters when I should be seeing to the interests of my constituents. Is it not the case that the system has been badly thought through and hastily and sloppily introduced, and that the impact is not just on MPs but on staff, not just in terms of redundancy but in the fact that IPSA has completely overlooked the payment of maternity and sickness leave?

16 Jun 2010 : Column 142WH

Mr Winnick: I totally agree.

I mentioned IPSA's chair and interim chief executive. A communications director is also being advertised for, with a salary of up to £85,000. Apparently, one is not enough, and the intention is to appoint two others. Inevitably, one asks oneself why on earth IPSA requires three, or indeed any, spin doctors. My debate is about Government policy on IPSA, and I know that the Minister will do his duty by explaining what that policy is. However, it would be interesting to know why it is necessary to have three spin doctors, with the salary of the most senior being advertised as £85,000.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a serious impact on Members' families as well as an effect on staff? One of the most serious issues, in addition to all the points about administration, is that once children reach the age of six the entitlement to accommodation is cut off and spouses are given no travel allowance. Does my hon. Friend agree that IPSA is behaving not only independently but above the law? Is it not clear that that discriminatory rule will impact on not only the way we do our jobs but who can be elected and who can do the job?

Mr Winnick: My hon. Friend could not have set out better the effect on family life. We could go back to the situation that we had many years ago when only those with independent means could become Members of Parliament. That would be a very undesirable state of affairs to say the least, and I am sure that that view is not confined to Labour Members. I see no reason why family life should be undermined in that way.

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Lab): May I just go back to my hon. Friend's point about communication officers? Does he agree that the real issue with IPSA is that there are no channels of communication? There is no way of having contact to resolve issues about parts of the policy that it is has imposed without consultation and that are not fit for purpose.

Mr Winnick: I mentioned how difficult it is to get in touch with IPSA, apart from with its interns, whom I would be the last person to criticise. I have not seen the chair or the chief executive. Where are they? Do they come to the House of Commons? They apparently have very luxurious accommodation in central London, but why do they not come here? Why can we not meet them? Have they imposed some sort of rule that means that they cannot meet Members of Parliament? Parliament has been back for two or three weeks, but anyone who has seen the chair or the interim chief executive is fortunate. I would not recognise them-I might try to remember them from their photographs, but that is about all.

Next Section Index Home Page