The Operation of Parliamentary Standards Act 2009

Written evidence from Unite Parliamentary Staff Branch

1. We are the Unite Parliamentary staff trade union branch representing staff of MPs, both in Parliament and in constituency offices. We have over 500 members from all political parties, and work on a cross-party basis to represent the view and concerns of our members and the wider staff who work for MPs. We would like to thank the Members’ Expenses Committee for the opportunity to make a submission to this inquiry into the operation of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009.

Value for money for taxpayers

2. The bureaucratic nature of the expenses system under IPSA has meant staff spend longer each week processing expenses. According to our staff survey conducted in January and February this year, around 70% of staff who processed claims under the old system spent less than an hour a week doing this, with much smaller proportions spending longer. Under the new system, only 8% reported spending so little time; whilst 58% reported spending 3 hours or more a week, and 26% reported spending more than 5 hours each week processing claims.

3. This is reflected in the recent National Audit Office (NAO) report on IPSA. The NAO estimates that the cost of MPs’ and their staff’s time in dealing with expenses is about £2.4 million per year. This equates to an additional 80 people employed solely to administrate MPs’ expenses, on top of IPSA’s 88 members of staff in 2010/11. In addition they found that 38% of submitted claims cost more to process than the amount claimed.

Accountability

4. As the burden of processing claims has shifted so dramatically to MPs’ staff, this has meant a lack of transparency in the cost of the process. While IPSA’s budgets are published, there is no indication of the huge amount of input required from the staff of MPs. This gives a wholly misleading impression of the bureaucratic costs, particularly in any comparisons with the previous system.

The ability of Members to fulfil their duties effectively

5. Time spent processing claims is time that MPs’ staff are not doing the other duties for which they are paid and which constituents expect of them. These additional burdens on MPs’ offices have not been matched by increased resources; indeed staffing budgets have been cut in real terms.

Fairness for less well-off Members and those with families

6. The family-friendliness of Parliament is not only a problem for MPs, but also for their staff. IPSA has removed the salary supplement of £8 a day towards the cost of childcare for staff of MPs employed after May 2010. This means there is a two-tier system between pre-may 2010 staff who continue to receive the supplement, and post-May 2010 staff who are only able to salary sacrifice.

7. Some of our members who were made redundant after the last election when their Member stood down, and have since secured accommodation with another MP, are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet because of this change. It is a backwards step and sends a message that Parliament is not a family-friendly place to work. If experienced staff are forced to leave working for MPs just because they have children, then a great wealth of knowledge and experience will go with them too and constituents will receive a poorer service.

8. We believe IPSA should reinstate the childcare supplement for all MPs’ staff who need it, and cost savings instead be sought in the operations of IPSA itself, such as the £47,000 ‘Conferences and Events’ budget line in the IPSA Annual Report and Account for 2009/10.

Other issues we would like to raise with the Committee

9. The employment terms and conditions of MPs’ staff have been badly affected by the switch to IPSA. There is a feeling amongst many MPs’ staff that they have been unfairly penalised as a result of the MPs’ expenses scandal. For instance, redundancy terms have been downgraded to the statutory minimum and staffing budget limits have been cut as a result of the decision to take employer contributions towards staff pensions from the staffing budget instead of a central House of Commons fund.

10. Yet despite the significant impact IPSA has on the working lives of MPs’ staff, the body is under no legal requirement to consult with the groups that represent MPs’ staff. Although we are granted occasional meetings with IPSA, it took many months after the creation of IPSA for us to obtain a meeting of all the staff groups to discuss our concerns.

11. Clause 5 (4) of the Parliamentary Standards Act lists the groups IPSA must consult in preparing or revising the expenses scheme. This list includes the Speaker of the House of Commons, the Leader of the House of Commons, MPs, and relevant government departments and committees of the House of Commons. As MPs’ staff are affected by any revisions to the scheme, we would like the two cross-party staff groups, the Unite Parliamentary Staff Branch and the Members and Peers Staff Association (who have a joint memorandum of understanding with the House authorities) to be added to this clause in any future revision of the Act.

12. A full copy of our staff survey conducted in January and February this year is attached for the Committee to review. Although some improvements to the IPSA system have since been made, the survey touches on many issues that are still relevant to MPs and their staff today.

October 2011

Prepared 15th November 2011