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16 Jun 2010 : Column 142WH—continued

Mr Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich West) (Lab/Co-op): Last week, I received a letter telling me that I had not submitted my bank details to IPSA so that I could be paid. That struck me as a little odd as I was actually paid, and the money was put in my bank. Today's edition of The Times contains the statement that many MPs have not submitted their bank details to IPSA. First, I would dispute a communications policy that
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allows such information to be divulged. Secondly, I deeply resent the implication that MPs are somehow engaged in a conspiracy to avoid giving IPSA their bank details and getting their pay. Lastly, I would ask that we apply what pressure we can, perhaps collectively, to get the National Audit Office to look at these procedures to see whether they give the public value for money.

Mr Winnick: That is a good point. I spoke about the compliance expenses officer, who is supposed to be an independent watchdog, but that person is appointed by IPSA and occupies its offices, so I do not know how much of a watchdog he is.

I have yet to find a single Member of Parliament of any party who is in favour of what IPSA has done-if there is one, they should quickly put their hand up-and I am not likely to find one among the 47 colleagues who have come along today, presumably to support the criticism of IPSA.

To a large extent, IPSA is working with the mindset that we got into such a position in the previous Parliament-that we were so embarrassed and shamed-that the public will not be on our side. That is a possibility. If that is IPSA's mindset, it is unfortunate. However, I hope that I have made it clear today that we are not complaining for ourselves, but because what has happened since we returned after the election is undermining the work that we do as Members of Parliament on behalf of our constituents. That is our concern: our constituency offices and the bills to be paid. The system that is in operation should not be so complex or difficult that, as I mentioned, a colleague has to spend, unbelievably, four hours trying to process a petrol claim.

The public should understand that this is not a matter of a few pounds. Normally, when people talk about expenses, it might be a matter of a cab fare-not for us, of course-a meal and the rest of it. However, when our expenses-the constituency rent, the bills, our rented accommodation and the rest-are totalled up, they come to quite a substantial sum. That sum is perfectly legitimate and above board, and I am not aware that anyone has suggested otherwise. We hope that it will be processed properly and without taking too much time.

I hope that IPSA's chair and interim chief executive understand that our criticism is justified and that we have merit on our side. I also hope that they will come to grips with the situation as quickly as possible and end this rather embarrassing position, which has seen us having to come here to discuss the issue again. Following what happened in the previous Parliament and the setting up of IPSA, we had all hoped, as I have said, that this issue had gone for ever.

Several hon. Members rose-

Dr William McCrea (in the Chair): Order. I draw Members' attention to the fact that I will start the winding-up speeches at 10.40 am. I want to get as many of the Members who requested to speak into the debate as possible.

9.56 am

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): I wish to declare an interest as one of the many Members of Parliament who have been deemed to be a London-area
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MP with a constituency outside London. I also wish to state that I am among the many MPs of all political parties who were not asked to pay one penny back by Sir Thomas Legg.

I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) on initiating the debate; he has done a great service to parties in all parts of the House. New Members, in particular, might well ask how it is that they arrived in the House on 6 May to find the expenses scheme creating such enormous difficulty for them and, indeed, for returned Members. It is therefore worth stating that that occurred because the final IPSA scheme was published only on 29 March. On the very same day, it was brought into being, when the Speaker laid it before the House without debate, consideration, the opportunity for amendment or a vote. I hasten to say that that comment represents no criticism whatever of the Speaker; that was the procedure laid down by the House in the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009. That is why we are in this situation, debating a scheme that has hitherto been wholly undebated and that is incapable of amendment or vote by Members of the House.

I want to focus on one fundamental issue, which has thus far, I believe, received no consideration inside or outside the House, although I drew it to the attention of IPSA's chair, Sir Ian Kennedy, in my letter to him of 21 December last year. That issue is the interface between parliamentary privilege and IPSA's decisions. I should make it absolutely clear that the aspect of parliamentary privilege to which I am referring has nothing whatever to do with the application of the criminal law to MPs' expenses. I am referring to a quite different aspect of parliamentary privilege-the privilege of freedom from obstruction in the performance of parliamentary duties.

I have taken advice from the Clerk of the House as to the ambit of that privilege. He has drawn my attention to page 75 of "Erskine May", under the heading "What constitutes privilege". He has also drawn my attention to page 143, under the heading "Obstructing Members of either House in the discharge of their duty", the first paragraph of which reads:

He has also drawn my attention to the report of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, at paragraph 264, where, among the contempts of Parliament that are listed, are

I do not, of course, suggest that IPSA is in the country of assault, but there are serious issues to be raised about obstruction.

The Clerk of the House has made it clear to me that the privilege of freedom from obstruction applies only to work in connection with parliamentary proceedings. It does not apply to constituency work. However, he has also confirmed to me, in writing, that the protection of MPs from obstruction in connection with parliamentary proceedings applies whether the House is sitting or not. So, just as the IPSA scheme and any obstruction occurring under it applies throughout the year, the protection from obstruction for MPs applies equally throughout the year.

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The issue before the House is whether IPSA is obstructing Members of Parliament in the discharge of their parliamentary duties, other than their constituency duties, by, for example, forcing them to spend many hours a week travelling, when they could be working in connection with their parliamentary duties; or whether in countless other ways, as we heard from the hon. Gentleman and in interventions, it is obstructing Members in the efficient and effective discharge of their parliamentary duties.

Helen Goodman: The right hon. Gentleman makes a fascinating and pertinent point. Is he aware that some of our colleagues have been told that they cannot recoup the cost of going to conferences on subjects that are of relevance to their work in the House and their constituencies? Is not that precisely the sort of issue that would be covered by the points he has made?

Sir John Stanley: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making that important point.

No one can say with certainty at the moment whether IPSA is violating the privilege of freedom from obstruction; that is a matter for the House of Commons only. Equally, no one can reasonably deny that the issue must be addressed by the House, as early as possible in the life of this Parliament. We are in an unprecedented situation. Never before in the history of Parliament has a statutory body outside Parliament been created with the ability to introduce rules that directly impact on the ability of Members of Parliament to perform their parliamentary duties. It is clear that the boundary between the authority of IPSA and the ambit of the parliamentary privilege of freedom from obstruction needs to be defined. It is at the moment wholly undefined. For that reason, the issue must be placed at an early date before the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. I intend to achieve that, with, I hope, the support of other Members. I hope the Minister will agree that the issue of the boundary between the authority of IPSA and the privilege of freedom from obstruction needs early consideration by the Committee.

10.5 am

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) on bravely initiating the debate on behalf of other Members. Many of us have felt totally frustrated in the past months, particularly during the expenses scandals, and I blame all the party leaders for failing to protect Members of Parliament. They vied with one another to wear the most painful hair shirt. They have thrown us to the dogs.

This is my 26th year in Parliament and I have never felt as humiliated as I was during the expenses scandal and during the general election. I had nothing to apologise for, but in our constituencies people shouted "You're all the same; you're all crooks." I object very strongly to that. I am not a crook. The majority of my colleagues are not either.

Because of IPSA I have spent many hours on accountancy, clerical work, and repeating that clerical work because forms have not been received or have been lost, and I should not have had to do that. Also, when one is doing that work from constituency offices, the online system often breaks down and cannot be accessed.
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Members spend a lot of time hanging around waiting for it to come back. I agree that it would be much better if the work could be done in writing. We all know that we are asked to repeat things; we are asked to send original receipts, which then get lost. We must keep photocopies of the originals and produce those again.

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): We have an online computer system, but I also submit every receipt in writing and must establish my own internal office system to track the fact that I have sent the receipts. I submit the information in writing and online, and therefore duplicate the process. I am not against computer systems, but I want to find a way in which my right hon. Friend and I can do things once, not twice.

Ann Clwyd: I agree; and, by the way, I want to say to the press that we are not whingeing MPs. I object to that title. We are raising matters that it is legitimate to raise because they affect our performance as Members of Parliament. If anyone describes me as a whingeing MP again-and I do not know if any members of the press are responsible for such expressions-I ask them please to come and see me.

Andrew McDonald said in a letter to me dated 9 June that IPSA had met almost 600 MPs face to face at the induction sessions. I must have been at a different induction session, because the person dealing with my induction was a civil servant from the Department for Work and Pensions who is not even a member of IPSA. Where were the people who should have met me face to face? Were they the people who smiled and nodded at me on the way into the induction session? Will they please introduce themselves next time as members of IPSA, so that I can acknowledge them? It has been impossible, as we have already heard, to talk to somebody responsible at IPSA. Instead, we are asked to submit things in writing, which is time-consuming.

IPSA is hosting training sessions around the country for MPs' staff. Again, I object that there is not one training session in Wales, so my member of staff is expected to travel to Bristol for it. That cannot be right.

Mr Kevan Jones: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the problem with the so-called induction system or briefing session was the fact that it was designed only to show us how to use an incompetent computer system? First, if we raised any questions, staff could not answer; secondly, the default position with IPSA seems to be, "Put it in an e-mail." My right hon. Friend may have experienced the fact that even if we send e-mails, we get no replies.

Ann Clwyd: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The comments made by other Members show that we have all shared these experiences. Indeed, I can hardly sit down now in the Tea Room without somebody talking to me about IPSA. Of course they do, because it takes up such a great amount of our time, but it should not be taking up our time in that way. The organisation cannot even get our salaries right; it says that that is an administrative error, but with all the staff or accountants that it has working for it, how on earth can it make an administrative error? I suggest that it is totally incompetent if it cannot get the simple matter of our salaries right.

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Mr Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): As with the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), the young man who came to explain the system to me could not answer any of my questions. Does the right hon. Lady agree that it was not his fault? He had been an administrative back-office person in the private office of the former Lord Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw). Those who are responsible are those who put him into that job without giving him the answers.

Ann Clwyd: That is disgraceful. It puts unfair pressure on those people. We expect answers and if we do not get answers we obviously feel frustrated. I have not yet screamed or shouted at anyone, or banged the table, but I am getting to the point of saying that I would not have come back to Parliament if I had realised what a hassle the system would be for me and my staff. I would not have returned. That is a shocking thing to have to say, because throughout my time here I have enjoyed being a Member of Parliament; to spend my time now having to do this kind of thing irritates me beyond explanation.

I note that the Leader of the House is here. He will know that a few weeks ago in business questions I raised this matter in response to a question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North. My hon. Friend did not receive an answer to his questions; he was told that no one was responsible for answering on behalf of IPSA. I then discovered that the Deputy Prime Minister would have policy responsibility for IPSA; the Leader of the House told me that in reply to my question. If the Deputy Prime Minister is responsible for IPSA policy, he should be here listening to this debate. I am sorry he had to send his right hon. Friend to take the flak on his behalf. I would like to know what "policy" means. If answering questions on IPSA is not part of policy, what is?

Mr Winnick: The reply to the questions I tabled to the Leader of the House was that no responsibility falls on the Government for what are basically day-to-day matters. Downing street then said that it was the responsibility of the Deputy Prime Minister. I put the same questions to him, but got the same response. It is not its fault, but the Table Office now blocks all questions on the workings of IPSA. The organisation is a law unto itself; it is impossible, except at business questions, to raise issues by way of parliamentary questions. That in itself is pretty disgraceful.

Ann Clwyd: I totally agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that we allow enough time for the poor man who has to answer the debate to give a comprehensive reply.

I read again in the paper this morning that MPs will be given face-to-face advice surgeries with officials, starting in September. At the moment, advice is given largely via telephone helpline and e-mail. None the less, despite the complaints of MPs, Sir Ian said that it is not a complicated expenses system. Who is he kidding? It is complicated, and I object very strongly on behalf of my fellow Members that the system has been imposed upon us and that nobody seems to be accountable.

Mr Donohoe: Is my right hon. Friend aware that we cannot talk to IPSA but have to speak to an agency in Manchester called Calyx? When we ask a question, all the staff there can do is to say, "We'll call you back; we have to get in touch with IPSA." Surely that is ridiculous.

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Ann Clwyd: It is all ridiculous. We must have answers today, because we are not going to put up with it. Of course it is right that the expenses system should be transparent. We all agree with that-nobody disagrees-but we disagree with the way that IPSA is operating and the extra stress that it causes Members of Parliament.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): Further to what the right hon. Lady said about information being given in different regions, an information day was held in Northern Ireland on Monday. I believe that four MPs were notified about it-a total disgrace, given the other difficulties that we are expected to deal with-and as a result, hardly anyone turned up.

Ann Clwyd: That is yet more evidence that IPSA is not working.

I have been trying to finish my speech, Dr McCrea; I have tried to resume my seat twice. I now do so.

10.17 am

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on raising the real threat to the operation of this Parliament and to the ability of democratically elected Members to do the job for which they were elected. I sincerely hope that the Minister was listening and will give feedback and take action. I hope that the leader of the council-[Laughter.] It could almost be a council, could it not? I hope that the Leader of the House hears what has been said and takes immediate action. Our work is being seriously interfered with and Parliamentary privilege is therefore being compromised.

I have not yet found a Member of Parliament who thinks that IPSA is doing a good job, but we should acknowledge and appreciate that its staff-those who are trying to do the job-are wading through treacle, just as we are. It is down to the Government-my Government-to put it right.

I am not technically proficient, so it goes way over my head, but those MPs who do know how to operate the computer system are spending many hours on it-or their staff are doing so. We had a simple system before and a few Members made it go wrong, but that was to do with second homes. I am not aware of anything seriously affecting the way that our staff operated. Why should they be penalised? Why should they suffer because of the sins of MPs? Why should new MPs have to tolerate a system that would not be tolerated in any other walk of life?

I have been to IPSA-I doorstepped it. If I can do that, I am amazed that no investigative journalist has done so. I can tell colleagues that the accommodation is luxurious-the best that I have ever seen and better than anything in a Cabinet Minister's office. The work done there could easily be done from an industrial estate in Romford. IPSA does not have to occupy very expensive offices in central London.

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