To be published as HC 1484 – ii

House of commons



committee on Members’ Expenses

The Operation of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Dr Ira Madan

Peter Riddell and Matthew Parris

Evidence heard in Public Questions 67–114


1. This is a corrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.

2. The transcript is an approved formal record of these proceedings. It will be printed in due course.

Oral Evidence

Taken before the Committee on Members’ Expenses

on Tuesday 11 October 2011

Members present:

Adam Afriyie (Chair)

Guto Bebb

Mr Edward Leigh

Rt Hon Nick Raynsford

Joan Walley

Stephen Williams


Examination of Witness

Witness: Dr Ira Madan, the House’s Consultant Occupational Physician, gave evidence.

Q67 Chair: I would like to welcome Dr Ira Madan to our session. It is quite a short session today. This session is about trying to discover from third parties the impact of the Parliamentary Standards Act-that is, the way that it is operating-on MPs. But rather than from the mouths of MPs, we thought it was a good idea to hear from third parties who have had experience of MPs and the way that they operate. That is why you are here today, and thank you very much for giving up your time, and thank you very much indeed for your written evidence, which was pretty comprehensive.

What we want to do today is very quickly pry a little bit more into that evidence and get some numbers or proportions on the number of MPs involved, and just speak a bit more freely about the observations that you have made in writing.

The first question from me is, broadly speaking, roughly how many MPs have been to see you since May 2010, approximately?

Dr Madan: I have the exact number. It is 62.

Q68 Chair: What proportion of those Members who came to see you were new Members to Parliament in 2010?

Dr Madan: It is approximately 50%, so it is about half old and half new.

Q69 Chair: Half and half. Can you confirm that the MPs were not coming to see you because they had a complaint to make, but that you were asking them questions as part of your routine medical screening process, if you like? Is that how these things arose?

Dr Madan: Yes, absolutely. Members are offered a medical screening every three years and the first part is undertaken by a nurse, who will assess cardiovascular risks, and I will go on and look at the findings from the nurse assessment and ask them more specific questions. In the introduction, I specifically ask on job satisfaction and control over workload, because those are known to be risk factors for poor mental wellbeing, so I specifically ask those questions, and it is there that IPSA has come up as an issue on job satisfaction, and it is usually that opening part of my process.

Q70 Chair: Am I correct in thinking that you have worked in Parliament for about 13 years, something like that?

Dr Madan: Yes, since 1999.

Q71 Chair: Do you also practise in other organisations as well?

Dr Madan: I am employed by Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Trust and I am contracted here for one day a week.

Chair: So you have a view of other organisations and similar sorts of issues. Thank you very much indeed. I am going to hand over to Joan, who is going to ask some questions about the impact of the new legislation on MPs.

Q72 Joan Walley: I wanted to see how much it is impacting on stress levels, as well. Just looking at the medical assessments that you have undertaken since May 2010, you said that in 50% of cases IPSA may have been identified as a contributing factor to health problems. In those cases, what kind of health problems have you identified?

Dr Madan: It is very hard to isolate health problems per se. I think what I can say is that the frustrations and difficulties that Members are experiencing with IPSA are contributing to poor mental wellbeing. If people do become unwell, it is normally not just one factor that I can identify; it is a balance. It is an effort/reward balance that I would normally look at, and I think the efforts that MPs are putting into their work have increased for a variety of reasons, and one of those is IPSA. I think the rewards have decreased, so it is just another part that is tipping the balance. That is my opinion.

Q73 Joan Walley: How much would you say that those problems have arisen since May 2010? Would you say those same problems existed in a different form before IPSA came on the scene?

Dr Madan: There were different problems that people expressed, but those problems remain, and I think there have been additional things since May 2010. IPSA has been a large part of that, from what Members are telling me. Members say-particularly the people who were here before 2010, and I will exclude the year from May 2009 to May 2010, because that is an exceptional year; apart from that year, prior to that-that the bureaucracy of IPSA has increased their workload. They find it increasingly frustrating to deal with IPSA. They have concern that the way the expenses are reported by IPSA is picked up by their local constituency press, where there can be some fairly vitriolic reporting.

I think the other things that have increased pressure on MPs is FOI-that has definitely increased it-and the increased ability of constituents to readily contact Members via e-mail in particular. This is as I understand it from Members as they have reported to me. As an occupational physician, one of my roles is to look at trends, and what comes across very strongly is that IPSA-the bureaucracy, the facelessness, the local reporting in media and the effect on their families-is a large component of the increased effort required from Members.

Q74 Joan Walley: It would be interesting to hear a little bit more about your sense of what the impact has been in terms of families.

Dr Madan: Again, I can only give my view of what Members have said; it is not my role to criticise the system or anything else. Members have told me that they are not able to claim for fares for their children coming up to Parliament. That might have changed recently, but I am not entirely sure about that. Quite a few Members initially were in hotel rooms while they were trying to find accommodation, and when they found accommodation, it was in rented flats that were very small , which made it very difficult for their family to visit them in London. I particularly remember the October school half-term last year. It is half-term for schoolchildren but Members do not have recess during that time, and several Members told me that they could not facilitate their family coming up to London to be with them during that time and it caused quite a lot of friction.

Q75 Joan Walley: Do you find, in a sense, that Members are not spending time with their families simply because of the difficulties of overcoming the accommodation issues?

Dr Madan: Yes.

Q76 Joan Walley: In terms of time spent with families, to what extent would you say that was part and parcel of the workload that comes from being an MP anyway, and that you should not expect to have time with your families?

Dr Madan: I agree with that. It is just part and parcel of being a Member. I think most Members would agree with that as well, but I think it is the duty of Parliament-this is my view as a doctor-to ensure that within the work role of Members, Parliament should facilitate family support and access to families as far as is possible and not obstruct it. I feel quite strongly that Members have a very tough job. It is not always appreciated, I think, by press and public, and having the family support and social support is a very strong factor in protecting mental wellbeing. That is known in all professions, not just Members. That is a well known fact. There is plenty of evidence to support that. Therefore, I think, given the pressure that is placed upon Members with their long working hours and being away from home, everything should be done to support time spent with family.

Q77 Joan Walley: Finally, looking at the pressure that you refer to and the stress levels, and there is a lot of discussion about stress and safe working conditions, would you say that stress levels have increased substantially since May 2010 or not really that much at all?

Dr Madan: I find it quite hard to talk about stress because, as a doctor, I find it hard to define what stress is. I think, when we talk about pressure, it is probably easier for me as a doctor to conceptualise poor mental wellbeing. I think, yes, it is poorer, excluding the year from May 2009 to 2010. There is less job satisfaction, more frustrations and longer hours, and the bureaucracy that IPSA has introduced is contributing to the frustrations and, as I say, the pressure of the job.

Q78 Chair: This applied to the new intake MPs after May 2010 in addition to MPs who had been here before. They have found it equally stressful, even though they were not part of the scandal, if you like.

Dr Madan: Yes, I think they have. Initially, when I saw Members who had been here prior to May 2010, I think a lot of the frustrations came from them, but now it seems to be as much the new Members. Initially, they struggled with the system of having to find their own staff and find their own accommodation, and several Members have said to me that had had to take out loans to secure their accommodation and there was a delay in IPSA funding that. That seemed to be a big factor. Now they complain about the time it takes to fill the forms out, and particularly the way that it is reported in their local media and the way that IPSA will report that.

Q79 Chair: Given that MPs’ reputations are important to them, or the most important thing, do you think that the public pressure from the reporting, or misreporting, in the local media is part of that reward/effort balance that has tipped further the other way since 2010?

Dr Madan: Absolutely. Definitely, I think that is one thing that is overwhelming, from my point of view. Members say to me is that they still have people telling them jokes about expenses. If they go to the hairdresser, for instance, people will say, "Are you going to put this on expenses?" They say, "Okay, it might be funny for the first one or two times", but it gets right up their noses and it is a lot of pressure. People will pick anything up in the local papers, and I know for a fact there have been a few Members who have had to claim a lot on their expenses. Some Members do not claim. They tell me they will not claim because they know it is going to be in their local paper and it is going to be picked upon. Some Members who, for various reasons, need to claim everything to support themselves or their family-I have to be very careful here; I do not want to identify anybody-feel that they are being scrutinised. They might be very high up on the list of high-expending Members, and they feel that that is unfair when other Members may not need to claim so much because they have other income from elsewhere. Again, as a doctor, I would feel that it is unfair for them to be penalised in that way.

Q80 Mr Raynsford: You stressed in your earlier evidence that you only work one day a week here at Westminster and the rest of your professional life is working with patients elsewhere.

Dr Madan: That is not quite right, sorry. I am employed by Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust. I only work part-time and I also do academic work. Currently, my only clinical work is here, but previously I have had a lot of experience as an NHS consultant in occupational health.

Q81 Mr Raynsford: Right, so this may not be possible for you to answer, but what I am trying to get a feel of is whether the kind of pressures that you have encountered in relation to expenses claims among MPs is replicated in other fields; whether you have people in other professions and other activities facing similar levels of stress, or whether there is something unique about the Westminster situation.

Dr Madan: There is something unique about the Westminster system. As far as the claiming for expenses is concerned, I think it is unique here. Currently I am not doing clinical work elsewhere, but I was first appointed as a consultant in the NHS as full time in 1993, so I have near 20 years’ experience working in the NHS and also on contracts for private sector industries that contract into the NHS for occupational health, and I have not come across this anywhere else, or any other employees who are concerned about the bureaucracy of the system.

Q82 Mr Raynsford: Can I then ask you whether there are other pressures, not necessarily to do with the expenses, that impact on other professions, other groups of people, which are not replicated in the case of MPs, so that MPs are less afflicted with other pressures than comparable groups of people, in your experience?

Dr Madan: Yes, definitely. If we could talk about comparable people, so we are not talking about people in manufacturing industries, which clearly have other risks that are involved, but if we talk about other white collar workers and professional groups, yes. For instance, with the medical professions as an example-I do NHS occupational health-consultants would have pressures of the caring duties towards patients and conflicts and ethical conflicts that they quite often cite as a pressure of their job that MPs would not have.

Q83 Guto Bebb: Just turning to the issue of Members with disabilities, I understand that you report to IPSA in relation to any additional allowances required by Members who suffer from any form of disability. Generally speaking, when you have had discussions with IPSA on this issue, have you had any problems with getting them to agree to any recommendations that you have made?

Dr Madan: I write a report to IPSA, so I don’t have a discussion with IPSA; I just write a report on the functional disabilities, not the medical details of Members but the functional disabilities and what they might need to fulfil their duties in Parliament. No, not that I am aware of. I have seen four Members for those assessments since May 2010 and, as far as I am aware, they have received the allowance as they requested.

I know that two Members with disabilities have been very concerned about the information that I have supplied in the IPSA report-even though it doesn’t have medical details-being made public, and they specifically asked me to write at the top of the hard copy I sent to IPSA to say that they only want the information to be kept in hard copy and not to be scanned and not to be kept in electronic format, which I have complied with.

Q84 Guto Bebb: The second point in terms of Members with disabilities is that obviously there are differences between the way in which you might identify the need for some equipment, for example, to support a Member, or the allowances. My understanding is the equipment will not be funded by IPSA, but the allowances will. Have there been any issues in relation to that dividing line?

Dr Madan: No, I don’t think so. There have been a few problems internally with the parliamentary ICT Department providing software, but that has been resolved. We, as a department of the Safety, Health and Welfare Service, can ask Access to Work to provide equipment.

Q85 Chair: Dr Ira Madan, I have been quite surprised by some of the evidence you have just given us there, especially with the comparison to other walks of life. I very much appreciate your written evidence and I very much appreciate you taking the time to come here today. As I say, this session is really about third party experience of the work of MPs and the impact of the Act, and I very much appreciate your input today.

Dr Madan: Thank you.

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Peter Riddell and Matthew Parris gave evidence.

Q86 Chair: Matthew Parris and the Rt Hon, I understand now, Peter Riddell, welcome to this evidence session of the Members’ Expenses Committee. The aim of the inquiry is to investigate the operation of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 as amended in 2010, which created IPSA, to see whether or not that Act is achieving its aims in all sorts of things, like value for money, raising the public confidence in Parliament, not deterring Members from claiming and so on. The reason we have invited you here today, with your experience both of writing about and being around this place for so many years, is to get some third-party input as to your views of the current arrangements, and any general observations you can make about the standing of MPs in the public domain and any contribution that the expenses or allowances or salary system has to that public perception.

Peter, you have written a book on the subject, which is on the esteem in which MPs are held, and I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it. It said all the right things. It pressed all my buttons. Please feel free to be deeply critical of MPs when necessary as well. One of the propositions you make is about the effectiveness of MPs and about the fact that they may need to demonstrate-we will come to this a bit later as well-that effectiveness. Do you consider the reform of the expenses system, as it stands now, so that it supports MPs better in the way that they do their jobs and in discharging their duties, is part of helping to make MPs more effective in the way that you describe?

Peter Riddell: No. What I meant by that point in my book was that the damage caused by the expenses row was not enormous to trust in MPs, because trust was already low. The interesting aspect of the polling, which is now over about two and half years, is that it has lowered the esteem for Parliament as being an effective governing institution. I regard that as much more damaging in that way. That is what I meant by that.

In relation to the creation of IPSA and so on, I think it has largely passed the public by. This is very much an internal argument between you and IPSA, although possible changes would have public repercussions. If one looks at it in public opinion terms just very briefly, there was massive damage initially, and then you get a number of people standing down from the House at the election. You had the prosecutions, people going to jail and so on. I am sure that, if your staff monitor press references to it, there will be a very sharp decline, apart from the prison cases, in the last year. That is not to say it is all internally satisfactory, but in terms of public perception, it has done that.

Has that restored faith in Parliament? No, because I think that what I mean by effectiveness is that it is your broader work, not so much how you are paid and how you get expenses, that affects that. If you can demonstrate your broader effectiveness, your ratings and things that people care about-I would say the work of the Backbench Business Committee is relevant to that in that topics that people care about are raised-and so on and so forth, that is more important than what happens with your expenses, provided there are not any more scandals. That is what I meant by that.

Q87 Chair: The reputation of MPs and the reputation of this place appears to be, even historically, at a pretty low ebb, for the all the reasons you describe and possibly many others. Do you think it is just totally unrealistic to seek to persuade the public, or even the media, that changes may be necessary to make the Act work better? Is it a futile exercise to try to persuade the public that that is necessary, or shall we just get on and do the right thing, even if it may not sit well with public opinion initially but may enable MPs to do their jobs better? Do you think we should be totally entranced by public opinion of the moment, or do you think we should look at doing the right thing?

Peter Riddell: Just briefly, I do not think the public particularly cares about the detailed system. What I would say is that the events of 2009 are so recent that to move away from an independent system by which you receive expenses would be wrong. It would be seen as you paying yourself, which was, in effect, with a very lax system, what happened. It was an internal system without proper checks and balances, and I think there are real problems in moving away from that. That is not to say that it cannot be improved in many ways.

I also think that the really big issue is moving away from receipted expenses to allowances. That is the only one that will strike a public chord. The rest of it is detail. You might take a hit in the Mail or The Sun or whatever. They would have a go at you whatever you do, but I think that is the one that would be difficult.

Matthew Parris: Just to comment on your first question to Peter. I think the way in which the effectiveness of MPs has been damaged by all this is in terms of their own self-regard, their own self-esteem. If you do feel that you are the laughing stock of the nation and of your constituents and of the media, however thick skinned you may be, it gets you down after a while. I think it hits self-confidence. Self-confidence is almost the main fuel of a Member of Parliament, particularly a backbench MP, and once that goes, everything goes.

I would incline to the view that the public and the media are not going to like anything that MPs decide with respect to their expenses, so you should really concentrate on getting a system that you think is right for you and let the media take care of itself. We have not been invited to give opening comments and I do not want to do anything so pompous, but I do think that the whole thing has been absolutely ridiculous. It is completely overblown, largely got up by The Daily Telegraph and then helped by a lot of others. I think enormous injustices have been done to the reputation of the House and to the careers and reputations of individual Members, and you have ended up with what I cannot imagine to be anything but a burdensome and overblown system. I don’t know how many people there are in my own organisation, The Times, to deal with expenses, but I cannot think that it is anything like IPSA.

Peter Riddell: Could I just say that, of course, you have the most sympathetic possible people commenting on MPs here. Matthew is an ex-MP; myself, I have written a book ‘In Defence of Politicians’. You would have very different evidence from a lot of my ex-colleagues or Matthew’s current colleagues.

Chair: We are receiving much of that evidence in writing at the moment and it will form part of evidence.

Q88 Mr Leigh: Matthew, when you and I arrived at the Commons-you in 1979, I in 1983-as you know, the system was effectively an allowance system. I do not know what the housing allowance was. Say it was £1,000 a year, but you will remember that we were told, basically, there was an allowance and you just divide it by 12 and you claim the monthly allowance. Then the system started to deteriorate and become ridiculous because there was one colleague, who will remain nameless, who did not bother to have a second home at all. It was felt at that time they had to justify each item of spending and they were told they were still going to get an allowance for £1,000 a year, but they were then trying to make it up, and that is how some people ended up in prison, and the rest is history. You would know the story as well as the rest of us. But it was originally an allowance system. In other words, it was not an expense system.

If we return to that allowance system, basically a flat-rate taxable allowance, so that you received, say, an allowance to broadly compensate you for living away from your main home, and you decided whether you want to live in a five-star hotel or sleep on a park bench, it was up to you, and it was taxed, from your experience as a political journalist, what do you think would be the public reaction to that?

Matthew Parris: Firstly, I do not entirely agree with your definition of how we saw it. I did see it as an expenses system and I did try to at least take a stab at how many miles I had driven in the constituency and to and from the constituency. I did have a mortgage to pay and the cost of the interest alone on that mortgage was already greater than the housing allowance, so there was no problem there. I think it was a sort of curious hybrid, half-way between a proper expenses system and an allowance system.

There are problems with an allowance system. They have it, to a degree, in the House of Lords, and if the press wanted to have a go at Members of Parliament, they would then find Members of Parliament who clocked in, so to speak, to get the allowance and did not do anything while they were here. Also, as far as the Inland Revenue is concerned, if something is in the nature of a salary, it had better be called a salary. My own view, and I have been writing it for years and never made any headway, and do not expect to, is that MPs’ salaries should be doubled and almost all their expenses abolished. As that is not going to happen, I suppose there is no point in detaining you.

Q89 Mr Leigh: It is useful that we get your point of view. Is that is your point of view?

Matthew Parris: Yes, it is.

Q90 Mr Leigh: Do you think it affects public confidence that the MPs’ staff salaries are referred to as MPs’ expenses, or Members’ expenses? Is that a problem?

Peter Riddell: I agree with Matthew about moving back to an allowance system. The Lords may find they have some problems then, because, as Matthew says, watch Westminster tube and you will see a number of peers leaving after they have clocked on to get their daily allowance. What I would suggest is a recategorisation, because exactly the example you use, of your staff, should not be classified as an expense. It should be paid separately and it has to be legitimate to avoid the Derek Conway problem. It has to be a legitimate staff thing, and that can be monitored. I do not think it should be terribly difficult to monitor. That should not count as an expense. I agree entirely that the lazy populist journalism and some pressure groups classify everything you get as an implication that it is usable, disposal money, which is a nonsense. I think that needs to be recategorised.

In relation to a narrower category of expenses, it should be properly reimbursable. In some respects, in a different mechanism from now, I think bills should go directly to IPSA and things like that. That, indeed, is the gist of some evidence, which, in my role as Chairman of the Hansard Society, the Hansard Society has submitted to you. I think that is a way around it. You can narrow that, but it would be very difficult to go back to a pure allowance system now.

Q91 Mr Leigh: Do you think the present system is dissuading capable people, people without private means, from becoming MPs? Is it any different from your experience of 20 or 30 years ago?

Matthew Parris: I doubt it. I do not see any diminution in the quality of people coming in.

Peter Riddell: In many respects, it has led to an increase, actually.

Mr Leigh: An increase?

Peter Riddell: If you look at the last intake on all sides, rather high quality people, I think.

Q92 Mr Leigh: So we could be paid anything you like? We could be paid nothing?

Peter Riddell: I am as enthusiastic about markets as you are, Mr Leigh, but I don’t think the market works purely. The supply and demand balances are imperfect and I wouldn’t want to get into neo-endogenous growth theory on this. I do not think it works perfectly like that. However what I think there is-and we will see this a bit at the next election, whether some new MPs first elected, not just people who are affected by the reduction of number of seats on the boundary changes and all that, do feel that-is a discouragement factor. I do not think it stops good people coming forward, but one of the differences is that when I first reported-it may have been during Matthew’s first Parliament, so over 30 years ago-you did have more of a class division, if I might put it that way. Many more working class Labour MPs did not expect much of an income. Now, on the Labour side, you are talking about, on the whole, public sector professionals, and on the Conservative side, private sector professionals, with a few very wealthy people and a very, very few ex-manual workers on the Labour side. Therefore, the income levels are up on the Labour side and people expect an income. The data that the Hansard Society has collected shows a substantial number of the new MPs of the Chairman’s intake did suffer quite a loss of income coming into the Commons.

Q93 Mr Leigh: Mr Riddell, Mr Parris has been very clear about what he thinks: basically, all the expenses should be abolished and they should just get double the salary. What is your view? How would you solve this problem, if you were in charge?

Peter Riddell: As I have written several times over the last 10 to 15 years, salaries ought to be higher. It is never going to happen. It is the fault of Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition. It doesn’t matter what party they are, they have all ducked it. They should have dealt with it right at the beginning of Parliament, but that is over now. I would have a higher starting salary, I would simplify the whole system and I would transfer over and exclude, effectively, a lot of what is counted as expenses. I don’t think staff salaries should be. I think a lot of costs you incur, office equipment and things like that, should be directly reimbursed, so it should be a much narrower category of expenses. There are also very solid procedural things that you and many of your colleagues have raised. I think the fundamental nature of the independent payment has to stay.

Q94 Joan Walley: I just really wanted to tease out that point. You seem to be suggesting that, because MPs’ salaries should be higher, that would somehow negate the need for there to be funding for our offices. You are not suggesting that MPs, whatever their salary is, whether it is lower or higher, should be paying for the costs that are necessarily incurred?

Matthew Parris: I am, yes. Yes, I am. I think that MPs should be paid generously and left to find their expenses out of their own pocket.

Q95 Joan Walley: So you are effectively suggesting that they should operate as a private business?

Matthew Parris: Yes. If a doctor needs a receptionist working in, say, private practice, I assume that the doctor will pay the receptionist out his or her own pocket. I do not see the need for separate heads of-

Peter Riddell: I do not agree with that. I favour a higher salary full stop. Not a doubling, but £15,000 more, something like that, and also a proper mechanism for then increasing it, which is a curse as well, as you well know. I do believe you should have expenses, but I think they should be properly defined expenses. Your researcher or the person you have in your constituency doing case work-because another aspect of it, which is absolutely clear, is the amount of case work MPs deal with has increased substantially for all kinds of reasons, a change in the role of the state and all that, and it is probably going to increase further in the next few years for obvious reasons. I think you have to have that, but that has to be ring-fenced from what we define as expenses.

Matthew Parris: One of the reasons case work has increased so much is that Members of Parliament can now, on expenses, have a much larger staff than they used to, so they do more, but there is, in the end, no logical ceiling to the amount of case work that a Member of Parliament could do in their constituency. You could employ 100 people and still be very busy. In the end it needs to be limited by the funds available and also by what an MP can themselves properly oversee, or you end up, in fact, running a little industry in your constituency and shadowing the work of local authorities, the health service, vicars and lots of other people, the Citizens Advice Bureau, who are all doing the same kind of thing.

Q96 Chair: We are going to move on to some questions on the ability of Members to fulfil their duties, which is one of the primary purposes of the Act. It is very clear that Members must be able to fulfil their duties. Just before we do, I have one quick question on value for money, which obviously is going to be defined in all sorts of different ways. It strikes me, with the simplifications you describe, and much of what you describe, Peter, is that one could save an awful lot of money-we are talking millions in terms of administration-if the classes of allowance or the way in which it was done was just simplified. Of course, there will be a trade-off in terms of the amount the journalist could enjoy seeing in terms of the detail, but there is a tension between the costs of administrating a system and then the level of checks that are made on legitimate expenses that are claimed. I just wondered if you could talk a little bit about that tension; that if one were able to reduce cost, the simplification means that the granularity of the detail of what is seen is swept away to some degree.

Peter Riddell: I think some of the cost point can be overdone. There were hidden costs in the old system. We know what IPSA costs because it has several accounts that are overseen by a parallel Committee to this one and so on, so I think you can overdo that point. The argument for simplification is on its own terms, not a cost one. It is the burden on Members versus transparency. I would argue simplification just so it is a fairer system. What people want to know-arguably, query, do they really want to know?-is legitimate because you are receiving public money. Anyone receiving public money should be accountable for it. That is absolutely fundamental in whatever route, form, that takes. I think you can simplify that, but you would still be accountable for the big items, and so you should remain.

Q97 Chair: Thank you very much. Is there a question of which type of accountability and the way-

Peter Riddell: Taking staff costs off generally and equipment costs directly would, from what I understand from talking to your colleagues, make quite a difference.

Chair: Understood.

Matthew Parris: You do need to cost Members’ own time in filing and making their expenses, and the time of their staff. When I was a Member, I cannot imagine that I spent more than quarter of an hour a month on expenses, and it is certainly not like that now.

Chair: Yes. Thanks to the Hansard Society and the National Audit Office, we know that there is possibly £2.5 million worth of costs in MPs’ offices for completing the forms and doing the work at the moment. That is the kind of trade-off I was thinking of in terms of expense versus the rigidity.

Q98 Stephen Williams: Before I deal with the questions I was going to ask, can we come back to this issue that, if we were all paid a very substantial salary and, therefore, operated as a small business, we should, therefore, pay for items as if they were a business? I am just wondering what you think those items should be, because Peter was saying you would narrow down substantially what was a personal expense and take out things like staff salaries. What would be left that a Member of Parliament could claim genuinely as a personal expense? I am struggling to see what it is that I do not incur simply because I am an MP.

Peter Riddell: Well, housing, travel. Look at the contentious items.

Stephen Williams: The housing I incur because I am an MP.

Peter Riddell: No, sorry. What I am saying is taking out of the expenses you charge. I do not agree with Matthew, as you know, on his suggestion of just doubling the salary and doing away with the rest of it, because it does not take account of different parts of the country you represent and so on. It is different for Nick Raynsford, who is a boat ride down the Thames, and those who are quite some way away. I would say that the categories that would still come under expenses, which of course are incurred because you are an MP, would be the travel and housing, which essentially have been the most controversial ones anyway.

Q99 Stephen Williams: Yes, but they are incurred because we are Members of Parliament. We have to travel from Stoke, North Wales, Bristol and Lincolnshire, and would not be incurred otherwise, so they are expenses of doing the job. They are not personal in any sense. It is just how they have been portrayed.

Peter Riddell: Yes, but otherwise you eliminate the category entirely. What I am saying is, taking salaries out, which is misdescribed-I know they are to do with being an MP, but they are MPs’ expenses.

Matthew Parris: I would allow travel expenses, which are plainly, literally part of the job. I am not sure about housing expenses. If you do not want to have to maintain a second home, then arguably you should not seek a constituency in a place where you are going to have to maintain a second home, and that would be a real decision that people could take if the salary was adequate.

Peter Riddell: I regard housing and travel as perfectly legitimate expenses and identifiably so. I wonder how the present Government Deputy Chief Whip from Orkney and Shetland would manage on that basis. I know he is a hardy soul, but-

Q100 Chair: At the moment, IPSA under the Act is administrating several different allowances, so even though the allowances have not gone, they are there. For example, there is a London supplement, which is clearly an allowance of a few thousand pounds, if you are in London, so you do not claim for individual items. These things already exist. I just wondered, Matthew, about an extension on your idea that there is a flat salary or Members’ allowance, if you like, and then just with a simple regional supplement, whether you are in Wales or Scotland. But there is still, with the essence of what you are suggesting and with the essence of 1911, a way of achieving that. Are you a purist on this or would you-

Matthew Parris: No, anything that simplifies is good.

Chair: Thank you very much.

Q101 Stephen Williams: I come back, Chairman, to the broad-brush question I was going to ask. What sort of beast do you think IPSA should be? This is one of the issues that I think several people are struggling with. Is it a regulator of MPs and a regulator of what it is reasonable for a Member of Parliament to do, or is it a payment body that facilitates the work that Members of Parliament feel they should be doing in order to fulfil their duties both to Parliament and to their constituents?

Matthew Parris: Members of Parliament should decide for themselves what they should be doing, and if they make the wrong decisions, their constituents can get rid of them. IPSA ought to be the equivalent of that department in any large organisation that deals with the expenses of employees. I have absolutely no idea why IPSA seems to be so huge or to employ so many people. For 650 MPs, I do not see why you would need more than four or five people to man that office.

Peter Riddell: I do not think that is feasible at all. I do not agree with Matthew on that. I do not think the size of IPSA-I am sure it can be slimmed down a bit-is particularly the issue. It is the burden on you that is the issue. I do not think it is particularly large, given the complexity of your lives, in that respect at all. I do not see that.

On your question of what type of beast it is, there was a muddle because the legislation was hurried through rapidly, and it was never clear-indeed, it changed and later the Act was revised-what it was, whether it was the payments agency. My view is it should not be a disciplinary body. It should refer things to the Commissioner and Committee dealing with Parliamentary Standards and Privileges. If there is gross abuse, it should be referred to the Parliamentary Commissioner, who should deal with it, because there is an established mechanism via the Standards and Privileges Committee. IPSA should see that you are all legitimately claiming expenses. If there is a problem IPSA should refer it. This is if there is a gross problem, not just an administrative error. That is one of the problems. It was one of the problems in 2009, when just technical administrative problems, which we all have with underpayment or overpayment of tax or whatever, appeared as something wrong. It should not be that, but if there is a gross abuse-of which there were a number of cases, of course, so I cannot ignore that-that should go to Standards and Privileges, but otherwise IPSA should be a payments agency essentially.

Q102 Stephen Williams: Should it just be an accountancy function, not a regulatory function?

Peter Riddell: You cannot totally divorce the two. There has to be a compliance aspect too. You have to-

Stephen Williams: So it has compliance within it?

Peter Riddell: Yes.

Matthew Parris: But I do not see the need for this enormous superstructure in the first place. There must many bodies that employ as many men and women as the House of Commons and that do have systems of expenses and that handle it without all this. I do not know what county councils do, I do not know what district councils do, I do not know what a large number of public bodies do, but all you need is a few people in an office with some pocket calculators, some screens and a book of rules. I simply cannot understand how IPSA has come about or what the need is for it.

Q103 Stephen Williams: In your conversations with Members of Parliament, or your observation of how we are performing, do you think IPSA is enabling Members of Parliament to fulfil their duties, or is it obstructing Members of Parliament from fulfilling their duties?

Matthew Parris: It just seems to be enraging them.

Peter Riddell: I think it was a necessary change that needs sorting out.

Q104 Stephen Williams: This was partly answered earlier. While I agree there will never be a shortage of people from whatever party wishing to be in this place, is there any danger at all, in fact, that some person who could be a good Member of Parliament, who could contribute to their community, is put off from coming here simply because of the remuneration or the expenses regime, and then democracy is impoverished as a result, or do you think it does not matter?

Matthew Parris: I do not. I would like to advance that argument because I am hungry for any argument for paying Members of Parliament properly, but it just is not my observation, in fact, that capable people are being put off. No doubt you could find a capable person who was put off, much more put off, I would have thought, by the indignity that surrounds being an elected MP these days, and IPSA is part of all that too.

Peter Riddell: I go some of the way with Matthew on that, but I think the problem is more-and we will see this if people depart at the end of this Parliament voluntarily-the burden of it and the time spent in form filling and things like that, rather than necessarily the salary level. I do take the market argument. I favour higher pay, not quite the increase that Matthew said, but I accept there will always be plenty of people willing to put themselves forward, and many high quality people. The interesting question is whether high quality people say, "It is just unacceptable for our family lives, and we are put under an intolerable burden, and the scrutiny and all that," although it is interesting that the public discussion has died down an awful lot.

Q105 Chair: Just one supplemental question to that. It seems to me that there is a slight challenge in the way it stands at the moment with the bureaucracy and the form filling and the £2.4 million of costs in MPs’ offices just to fill these forms in and get it done, and then of course the bi-monthly publication, where local coverage shows that some MPs have claimed too little and are accused of being cowardly and not claiming what they should do because they were caught out before, while MPs who claim in the higher up table are said to be claiming far too much. So it is a no-win situation.

I just wonder if you can comment on this. It seems to me there is a danger, not about new MPs necessarily coming in, but about existing MPs being in two different classes: those who can afford to write a cheque and keep their reputation by not claiming things, and those who cannot afford to do that, the lesser-off MPs, who are then ensnared within the system and constantly have their reputations undermined, fairly or unfairly.

Matthew Parris: It is going to be inherent for so long as there is a general public and media view, and we do need to distinguish between the public and the media view sometimes, as long as it is a general public and media view that there is something inherently disgraceful in claiming anything at all if you are a Member of Parliament, which to some degree is the view at the moment. But, of course, as in any other field of human endeavour, those people who do not have to worry too much about where the next penny is coming are at a comparative advantage.

I have thought right from the start when this scandal broke that the distinction has not been properly made, and should be, between what people claimed for and what claims were met by the fees office. I can well see that it might have been the case, and might still be the case with some people, that people being not sure what claims were allowable and what were not, just put the claim in and left it to the fees office, or IPSA now, to decide. To have seen reputations like Douglas Hogg’s, for instance, absolutely wrecked-and there is not a man of greater honour or integrity than Douglas-just because he was foolish enough to say a moat instead of a ditch and foolish enough just to put the claim in and see whether it was allowed or not is quite wrong. The public are completely confused between claims that were put in and claims that were paid. I think only the latter is of any interest to your constituents.

Peter Riddell: On one point there, I think IPSA wanting to be not only a personal interaction has moved to the opposite extreme. I agree with Matthew. One of the points is it should just be consultation because some things are borderline, quite legitimately, just as people do with the Inland Revenue when they are doing their tax thing or doing it through an accountant. You should be able to consult more, and I think they moved so far away from some of the stuff that happened in the fees office and the allegations of bullying and so on. It has gone too far in the opposite direction, so I agree with Matthew on that.

Also, as a point on that, which also is a point made in Ruth Fox’s evidence to you on behalf of Hansard, there should not be publicity when an investigation is happening. It should only be if it is an adverse result. That is exactly the same principle as should be applied by Standard and Privileges. It is not so much whether an MP is being investigated, it should be if they are found wrong, because otherwise there is presumption of guilt that is very difficult to work out. We can blame a lot of the press and there are a lot of legitimate complaints, but MPs also need to be a bit more robust about what they do for people. I find you are all rather defensive sometimes about what you do, curiously, feeling, "Well, no one is going to listen to me anyway, so there is no point in putting up any argument".

Q106 Mr Raynsford: I have been very struck by the contrast between the really very pessimistic tone of both your written submissions to us and a lot of the comments you have made, such as Matthew’s view that doubling the salaries is the right outcome but it is never going to happen. That has been, in a sense, your prevailing tone, but the detail of your comments have all been about a series of pragmatic reforms that look attainable. If I could just summarise what I think is the thrust of those pragmatic reforms, it is: slimming down IPSA, no directors of communication for example, picking up the point in your Spectator article; focusing on being an effective Payments Agency with main disciplinary functions going to the House of Commons Commission or the Standards body; a greater focus on direct payment where possible to take out bureaucracy; the reclassification of staff salaries and costs as other than an expense; a focus on housing and travel; more scope for pre-claim consultation to determine whether something is appropriate, and no publication of those discussions. That sounds to me like quite a significant reform package, which is attainable, but in your evidence, Peter, you say there is absolutely no point in these MPs whingeing. "Protests for MPs against IPSA are likely to be counterproductive in their impact on public attitudes and portrayed by a generally hostile media as self-interested and whingeing".

Peter Riddell: They are totally compatible.

Mr Raynsford: Are we just wasting our time discussing this pragmatic reform programme or not?

Peter Riddell: No. Those remarks are entirely compatible. The key word there is "whingeing". It is the way you do it that is the key to that. If you do the "Poor us. Pity us", which is what I meant by "whingeing", you will get nowhere with your voters and with the public as a whole, and it will be totally counterproductive. If you do it in a practical, pragmatic way, say, "This makes more sense", you will achieve things. That is not to say it will make the slightest difference, honestly, to public attitudes. It goes back to the Chairman’s initial question: should you get on with it anyway regardless of public attitudes? What I am saying is the tone in which you do it should not be one of outrage, "Poor us". That is what I meant by "whingeing", and I stick to that completely. Get on with it in a practical way, not that I think it will necessarily produce great benefits in public attitudes.

Q107 Mr Raynsford: I am going to pick you up on another point, because you end your written submission to us by saying MPs should really concentrate on proving their effectiveness and that is the only way to change public attitudes, but we know very well that there is a complete conflict between what local opinion is, where most people think their MP on the whole is doing a good job, and general views about MPs, where they mostly think we are a complete bunch of wasters. How can we possibly, by proving our individual effectiveness, ever overcome that problem?

Peter Riddell: What I am arguing is that sorting out what we are discussing today is a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition. There is, as you say, a complete divorce between those in Greenwich saying, "Great guy, Raynsford, fantastic", but then down the river, "Absolutely hopeless". That gap has narrowed a bit. The expenses scandal did not do wonders for that necessarily, but it is still there. There is a still a clear gap between individual MPs and Parliament as an institution. But it is to show Parliament is more effective as an institution. It is to press on with things that demonstrate its effectiveness at holding the Government to account and raising issues your voters are concerned about. I am not saying it is a panacea, far from it, but that is what you have to do.

Matthew Parris: I think the changes that you may contemplate making to the expenses system should be justified on their own merits, and probably can be. They cannot be justified on their likelihood of making the public love Members of Parliament, which is not going to happen for a while. To a degree, the whole expenses fuss has been a result of public dislike and distrust of its political class rather than a cause of it; that people have been unconsciously looking for a stick with which to beat the legislature. At some deep subliminal level, there is a feeling that we have not been very well governed for the last 15 or 20 years and that we have somehow been led astray. That is translating into a contempt for the whole political class. Were that to change, you would need a real game-changer. It will not just be achieved by patient, diligent constituency work and telling people a little bit more about it. It will be achieved by the House of Commons at some point, and I cannot imagine what the issue will be, doing something pretty heroic as a House of Commons. When that happened, it will be a game-changer. You could perhaps begin to shift that underlying distrust of the House as a representative institution.

Q108 Mr Raynsford: Coming back to Peter’s comment, I accept entirely that we will get nowhere if we are seen to be whingeing, but is it possible to present a pragmatic reform programme, including cutting down IPSA bureaucracy and identifying where it is an unnecessarily expensive and probably unnecessarily restrictive regime, without being open to the accusation of whingeing?

Peter Riddell: The tone with which you do it is the key. Some of the tone of the anger last summer and early autumn (2010) I put in the whingeing category, however justified you felt it was. It was pretty soon after the expenses row; it was only 12 or 15 months. Now things are at a lower level. There is less public interest, less media interest, and also some people have gone to prison. Don’t ignore the cathartic effect of that. It is more possible than it would have been a year ago to do that. I don’t say you get thanks for it. I am sure you will get some unhelpful headlines, "MPs try to get out of" and all that. You will get some of that, but I think that is, in practical terms, doable.

Q109 Guto Bebb: Can I just go back to one point you made in relation to the fact that MPs in their own constituencies seem to be more popular than they are on a national basis? You mentioned the fact that that gap is narrowing.

Peter Riddell: It did narrow in 2009 to 2010.

Guto Bebb: I was just wondering, because in my experience the issue of transparency is an important one. In terms of IPSA, I think it is important that there is transparency in terms of the expenses scheme. But due to the fact that IPSA has undertaken to publish league tables every two months, it seems to me that those league tables have been completely ignored by the national media but they are being picked up on by the local media. I remember coming home back in November last year, I think, to be told by my daughter that I was top of the league. I was top of the league of the most expensive MPs in Wales. Now, obviously I should be grateful to IPSA for allowing me to be top of the league for once, but the question I am asking in effect is: is the sort of publication process where you do a league table every two months damaging, and transparency would be better served by having expenses published on a regular basis as part of a package of reform? If you had expenses published every time they were paid, in other words a real-time system, would that avoid these very false league tables?

Peter Riddell: I agree with you, every two months is completely ludicrous; it is mad. Real time gets to exactly the problem the Chairman raised of cost. If you do it in real time, everything is incurred. Unless you have wonderful IT systems, the cost will go up. I am not an expert in that at all, but I think the trade-off is there. Certainly, having league tables every two months is mad and ludicrous. I can see an argument for real time, but again it gets into expense, cost and all that.

Q110 Guto Bebb: I was only asking, with the cost of IPSA being £10,000 per MP, surely the real time can be afforded within the current budgets.

Peter Riddell: Yes, but you take my point.

Guto Bebb: Yes.

Q111 Joan Walley: I was going to ask some questions about media perception but, in a way, I think you covered those at the start, saying really that MPs should just get on and do what is the right thing to do and the media will take care of itself in terms of coverage that MPs get. I am just thinking perhaps more so in terms of your evidence, Peter, and this quote that you have, "The key is to increase knowledge about what MPs do both in Westminster and in their constituencies, and for MPs to highlight what they are doing on behalf of their voters." That cannot be done without there being some cost to it, whether or not it is in time, whether or not it is in resources, whether or not it is in just the whole way in which Parliament and MPs within Parliament are presented. I just wonder whether or not you feel there is any role or responsibility for the media and for the press to be involved in that, particularly the lobbying journalists as well. How do we look at how Parliament is reported? Obviously MPs are component parts of that. I am just thinking about the Hansard Society as well; how we get this engagement.

Peter Riddell: As Chairman of the Hansard Society, we do our bit, and a little more funding would be gratefully accepted; considerably more funding. Why should I be unambitious?

Joan Walley: I did send your report to the Kidsgrove Youth Parliament yesterday.

Peter Riddell: Certainly we do our bit, but I would not claim we are more than a soft voice in a gale, in practical terms. But Mr Bebb raised an interesting dilemma, which is the difference between my former colleagues in the lobby who report national politics and what is reported locally, which of course is much patchier now with the decline of lots of local and regional papers. That is the distinction. I think the engagement should be between you and local papers. What is said nationally is not relevant to an individual MP in their consistency, unless it is particularly bad. Sometimes I feel there is almost a fatalism by MPs in relation to the local paper or the local media-local media is much more than papers now; it is websites, it is community and so on-of just explaining more of what they are doing.

Matthew Parris: I do not agree with Peter that MPs need to be more positive about what they are doing. All the MPs I know are forever shouting from the rooftops about how hard they are working for their constituents. They feel that nobody is listening, and I think a lot of the time no one is listening, but I don’t find MPs are backward in coming forward with their achievements as constituency MPs. Local newspapers are dying and, I suppose, in about 10 or 20 years, there will not even be any local newspapers, so that cannot any longer be the main means. If you are suggesting, for instance, that The Times should have a page every day that is dedicated to recording the good things that MPs are doing in their constituencies, the press is just not like that. It would not happen.

Q112 Joan Walley: I think the point is, do the media have a responsibility to report in some way, given that so much has changed over the last 50 years?

Peter Riddell: Let me take the point. Parliament, for your voters in Stoke, is far more accessible than it has ever been because of the internet. Anyone can click on and hear debates with a three-hour gap. They can find out what is happening in committees. No one has to buy a bit of paper, buy Hansard; it is all online. The Information Department is trying to improve that, and an awful lot has been done in that way. In many respects, Parliament is very accessible, and with imaginative use of the internet can be made more so. I am not a pessimist. I am an optimist. I must admit I spent far too much time talking about the decline in reporting in the papers of Parliament. That is long dead and, anyway, a lot of it is very boring. If you want to find out what your MP is doing, it is dead easy. Just have a couple of clicks on the internet.

Matthew Parris: I am not sure that the public, as opposed to perhaps political commentators in the media, think that an MP’s main function is to do things in the constituency, to open a Pelican crossing or make representations about the roofing of an old people’s home and that kind of thing. They know MPs do that, and they like to see their MP doing that, but I think a lot of people would think that an MP’s main job is what they do at the House of Commons in Westminster, and that is where I say that sooner or later the House of Commons will do something heroic, and that will change the atmosphere far more than a million petitions about the right speed limit for a village in the constituency.

Q113 Stephen Williams: Can I ask what might be a mischievous question? Matthew said that Parliament need to do something heroic, and he wasn’t quite sure what it was, in order to restore the reputation of the House of Commons. The only thing that constituents and friends have said to me recently that they thought Parliament had done a good job on was duffing up Rupert Murdoch in a session somewhat like this, of course the ultimate employer of both of you at some point in your careers. Do you think that the perception of parliamentarians would be improved if it was set in the context of what the people who report what Parliament does are paid, what their expenses regimes are, whether indeed they pay the receptionist at The Times out of their salaries as you suggested earlier?

Matthew Parris: I pay my secretary out of my salary.

Stephen Williams: They are very keen to write everything about what we claim, but we know nothing about what the lobby gets paid in this place.

Matthew Parris: No, absolutely, and most of us get paid a good deal more than most of you.

Joan Walley: Together.

Peter Riddell: On that point, when I worked for The Times until the middle of last year, one of my jobs for 15 years was signing off expenses. It wasn’t Matthew’s, because Matthew was a freelance, and as he said, Matthew pays his secretary out of what he earns as a freelance. Every single item of expenses on The Times had to have a receipt, every single item, and that has been true for 20 years. There were abuses in my early years in journalism, although not where I was working because I was on the Financial Times then, but it is mainly because of the HMRC. They will not allow any expenses, so there was an absolutely strict expenses regime. Everything had to be totally, literally down to the last penny in that.

On what we are paid, that is where I was employed, as Matthew, by a private sector employer, and that is up to the employer. Certainly, as a journalist I was paid more than MPs were, and that is up to the market. I do not think you have any right to know what we earn. However, there is disclosure on the journalists’ register of any other income or any other activities we have, and I think that is dead right. It should be full disclosure so no one is abusing their position if they have a pass here. What we earn is a private matter, otherwise you have full disclosure of all-do you know how much your doctor or whatever are earning?

Q114 Stephen Williams: A doctor’s salary would be known, pretty much.

Peter Riddell: Not so much now. Not now. Your colleagues are fighting battles on that today down the other end of the House. I think, certainly on expenses, the old abuses of the past are gone, but I would not deny there is an element of hypocrisy in a lot of press comment sometimes when I read about MPs’ salaries, not the views that Matthew and I have, written by people who earn, in many cases, at least a third more than an MP earns.

Matthew Parris: I was just going to say, up to a point-Lord Copper-on expenses, it is perfectly true that journalists do have to submit receipts for their expenses. How the receipts are obtained has sometimes, in the past, been another story.

Chair: On that happy note, I have to say thank you very much indeed for providing evidence today. I think it has been thoroughly enjoyable. I feel enthused and I feel that we MPs must be far more heroic in future, and I hope that this Committee will play a role in that activity. Thank you very much indeed.

Prepared 2nd November 2011