The Operation of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009

Written evidence from the Hansard Society

The evidence presented in this submission is largely drawn from two sources:

a) new research conducted over the course of the last year for the Hansard Society’s ’A Year in the Life: From Member of Public to Member of Parliament’ project. [1] This explores the early experiences, attitudes and perceptions of those Members elected for the first time at the May 2010 general election (primarily through three surveys [2] over the course of their first year in office, supplemented by oral interviews). This research is not yet complete and some statistical analysis is still ongoing. However, we have outlined below some interim findings that we believe may be pertinent to the Committee’s areas of interest.

b) the Audit of Political Engagement: now in its eighth year the Audit is an annual health check on our democratic system. It provides a unique benchmark to gauge public opinion across Great Britain with regard to politics and the political process. Based on findings from an annual public opinion poll, the report explores public attitudes to a range of political engagement indicators that track knowledge of and interest in the political system; the degree of public action and participation in politics; and the public’s sense of efficacy and satisfaction with the democratic process. The 2010 report had a special focus on MPs and Parliament. [3]

In the interests of transparency, it should be noted that the Director of the Society’s Parliament and Government research programme, Dr Ruth Fox, was invited in 2009 by the then acting Chief Executive of IPSA, to become a member of its new Implementation Advisory Panel. This body met on only a handful of occasions and had only an informal advisory function; it had no direct powers nor any responsibility for actions taken by IPSA in relation to implementation of the expenses scheme. Views among the Panel members were often divided and the body acted in effect as no more than a sounding-board for the acting Chief Executive and his staff in the early months of IPSA’s existence. Notes of the meetings are publicly available on the IPSA website.

A Year in the Life findings


Eighty-five per cent of the new MPs were dissatisfied with the induction provided by IPSA in the early days of the Parliament, in comparison to high levels of satisfaction with all the aspects of induction provided by Parliament and their parties.

Six months later, asked about their satisfaction with IPSA in the second survey, 79% still said they were dissatisfied with it, with many citing it as having a negative affect on their personal lives. The response rates were:

Very satisfied 2%

Fairly satisfied 9%

Not very satisfied 42%

Not at all satisfied 37%

Many comments focused on the IPSA system being ‘too bureaucratic’, ‘inflexible, counter-intuitive’, ‘cumbersome and time-consuming’.

In the third and final survey distributed in March 2011 a few MPs acknowledged that IPSA was improving, but even these MPs maintain that the system remains overly bureaucratic and takes up too much time for both MPs and their staff.

A number of specific aspects of the IPSA scheme were highlighted as a matter of concern:

a) the changes to the start-up arrangements meant that many MPs found their early months in office a real financial struggle; many had incurred significant personal financial costs as candidates and this was then compounded, to an unreasonable degree, by being required to fund the set up of their constituency office and then subsequently reclaim the costs from IPSA, payment of which was often delayed leaving many MPs in debt for a period. (This should also be considered in the context of salary levels: many MPs took a significant salary cut on becoming a candidate and/or an MP (see below)).

b) Many MPs are understandably uncomfortable with a system that requires them to personally pay invoices for items, including office basics (e.g. constituency telephone bills, office stationery), and then claim it back from IPSA with the money being repaid into their personal bank accounts. As well as being open to public misunderstanding, this process assumes that MPs can afford to pay out what are often substantial sums from their own pocket and then claim it back, sometimes receiving the money only many weeks later. Every MP’s financial circumstances are different but clearly such a process is more manageable for some than others and will impact most detrimentally on MPs of modest means.

Salaries / affordability of the system

Members of Parliament earn £65,738 per year and for more than half (56%) of the new MPs who responded to our survey this represents a salary decrease. Almost one third (31%) report having taken a pay cut of £30,000 per annum or more.

Just 13% saw a salary increase of £30,000 per annum or more, which means that 87% previously earned more than the London average wage of £33,380.

It should be noted that some of the new MPs report that they are still paying off student loans.

The new Conservative MPs on average earned more than Labour Members prior to election, with 65% of Conservatives seeing a reduction in salary (45% of them faced a drop of more than £30,000 p.a.) compared to 39% of new Labour MPs. (Too few new Liberal Democrat MPs were elected in 2010 to make a statistical comparison in this study.) The new male MPs also tended to be better paid prior to their election, with 63% reporting a fall in income compared to 44% of women Members.

It is clear from our research – and reinforced by the recent National Audit Office study of all MPs conducted for the Public Accounts Committee – that a number of Members are not claiming for some expenses for which they are eligible for fear of media attention and public opinion and because the IPSA system takes so long to navigate that many decide it is not worth the time spent in order to process small expense items.

Perceptions of ‘savings’ under the IPSA scheme should therefore be considered in the context of a) a reduction in the number of entirely legitimate claims by Members which may not be sustainable in the medium to long-term; and b) the ‘cost’ in terms of the time of MPs and staff associated with navigating the expenses system.

The following free text responses received to the survey, are illustrative of the concerns expressed about the operation of IPSA and the expenses system:

‘The failure of IPSA to pay bills direct means I have over £5,000 of invoices that I simply cannot afford to pay from salary/ I am regularly subsidising expenses by circa £1,000 per month which IPSA fail to repay in a timely way.’

‘I am finding financial survival to be a hard juggling act with my family in XXXX and me in London. Even if we wanted to we couldn’t relocate to London. I would not advise any aspiring politician to be an MP if they had a young family and had not private financial means or were supported financially by a union. No young worker could possibly support or survive as an MP under the current financial constraints.’

Most damning of all was the remark that ‘If I'd known about IPSA beforehand I would not have stood’.

Working hours

The 2010 intake arrived in Parliament expecting to work long hours in their new role – on average they anticipated working 60 hours per week, with eight hours travel on top. However, three months in, almost half (47%) admitted that their expectation had been too low. Of those who felt their estimate had been about right, the average working week was 67 hours plus 10 hours of travel.

By the time of the second survey in March 2011 the new MPs were working even longer – on average 69 hours per week with many working considerably more.

There is no difference in the hours worked by male and female MPs, but those MPs without children reported a longer working week, averaging 72 hours per week compared with 65 hours for those with children.

Division of time

The new intake split their working time 63% in Westminster and 37% in their constituencies. Labour MPs report spending slightly more time at Westminster (68% compared to 61% among Conservatives), as do female MPs (64%) compared to male MPs (61%).

Despite spending more of their working week in Westminster, it is constituency casework that takes up the largest portion of time for new MPs (28%), followed by constituency meetings/events (21%) and the Commons Chamber (21%).

Indeed, while there is roughly a 60% / 40% split in the working week in favour of Westminster, in terms of the tasks that new MPs are undertaking it is 60% / 40% split in favour of local constituency activity.

Impact on personal life

The long working hours and the division of time between Westminster and their constituencies have a significant effect on the personal and family lives of the new MPs. Almost all the MPs responding to the survey reported real difficulties.

There is a strong sense that many of the new MPs find the lifestyle attached to the job to be overwhelming, although some acknowledge that they expected the challenges and went into the job with their eyes open. Nonetheless they identify loss of family time, communication with friends, financial hardship, and ill-health as real and detrimental consequences of becoming an MP.

Telling remarks about these challenges included:

‘Thank goodness my wife is supportive and I have no children. I have virtually no life of my own now.’

‘Personal life? It’s devastating.’

‘What personal/family life?’

‘The job is without boundaries and extremely difficult to switch off.’

Changes to the expenses system on its own cannot address some of these challenges. Effective MPs are needed in order for Parliament and our system of representative democracy to function successfully. These findings – that the new MPs are working long hours to the detriment of their personal and family lives – raise questions as to whether the current systems and modes of working are the most appropriate and effective. It underscores the need for a review of the role of MPs not just to build an improved political system but for the very well-being of MPs themselves and to ensure that becoming an MP remains an attractive proposition in order to attract the best candidates in the future. However, it is clear that some adjustments to the expenses system can ameliorate some of the unnecessary difficulties that currently bedevil the working life of MPs.

Recommendations for reform of the IPSA system

1. Consideration should be given to changing the system of payments still further so that MPs do not have to incur significant direct costs themselves as a result of paying invoices for basic office items (e.g. constituency phone bills) and then have to reclaim the money from IPSA. Under the previous expenses system, invoices were generally submitted to the Fees Office who arranged payment of them directly with the supplier. This would help to reduce the financial pressure on MPs and remove the perception that MPs are receiving significant payments into their own personal bank accounts; a situation that is open to great misunderstanding and could lead to problems in the future.

2. The concept of ‘expenses’ and what items are included in this definition by IPSA when communicating information to the media and wider public should be reviewed. The inclusion of staff salaries in the statement of each MP’s expenses, for example, is clearly misleading.

3. We are opposed to IPSA’s decision to publish information about all cases they are investigating for breaching the expense rules before the investigations have run their course and any allegations have been proven. It is unacceptable that MPs should be tainted in the public domain as ‘expenses cheats’ for what may be, for example, genuine administrative errors or indeed mistakes made by IPSA’s own staff. It would be better if information about ‘breaches’ were made public only in those cases where breaches are confirmed and disciplinary steps are therefore being taken.

Public attitudes to MPs, the expenses scandal and its aftermath


The expenses scandal did not result in a fundamental realignment of views about MPs and the political process. For the most part, it merely confirmed and hardened the public’s widely held scepticism about politicians rather than changed their views.


Trust in politicians generally has not deteriorated much over the course of the last few years. Nor has there been a ‘collapse of trust’ in politicians or politics as a result of the expenses scandal, in large part because levels of confidence or trust were already low.

In the 2010 Audit one quarter of the public (26%) said they trusted politicians either ‘a great deal’ or ‘a fair amount’, down just 1% on the number who did so in the first Audit report (2004). Three quarters of the public trusted politicians ‘not very much’ (48%) or ‘not at all’ (25%).

However, these figures are almost exactly the same as was measured in Audit 1 (2004) and Audit 4 (2007), though there has been a hardening among those who distrust politicians, with those saying they do not trust politicians at all increasing from 19% in Audit 1 to 25% in Audit 7.

Public discussion of the expenses scandal

In the 2010 Audit, seven in 10 people said they had discussed MPs’ expenses with their family

and friends. Interestingly, however, there was a gap of 30% between the proportion who said they had discussed the expenses scandal and those who said they had discussed ‘politics or political news’. It was as if, for many people, the MPs’ expenses scandal was somehow entirely separate from ‘politics’.

The scandal does not seem to have increased people’s interest in or understanding of politics. People were, for example, no more likely to be able to name their own MP in 2010 than they were in previous years, despite the press coverage devoted to individual MP’s expense cases in both the national and local media.

Satisfaction with MPs

Public dissatisfaction with how MPs do their jobs rose steeply – by 8% - in 2010 to a 44% rate of dissatisfaction overall. However, despite the expenses problem, and the focus on individually named MPs, only 16% of the public were dissatisfied in the 2010 Audit report with how their own MP was doing his/her job compared to 13% who said the same in the first Audit report (2004). And 38% of the public remained satisfied with how their own MP was doing his/her job; just 3% lower than the 41% who reported the same in the first Audit.

To a degree not seen for many years, the expenses controversy has opened up a dialogue about the nature of the role and function of MPs: how do they spend their time; how should they spend their time; what do the public want them to prioritise? The 2010 Audit survey consequently set out to explore some of these issues in more detail. Specifically, two separate questions were asked, enquiring about what activities the public think MPs spend their time doing; and then what they think are the most important activities that MPs should spend their time on. As a result, a ‘perceptions gap’ can be measured of the difference between what the public wants MPs to do compared to what they think they actually do. The results demonstrate that the public perception of how MPs spend most of their time is almost a mirror image of what people think MPs should actually do.

Public perceptions of MPs and their motivations

Previous research has shown that the public are sceptical about politicians’ motives. For example, an Ipsos MORI / BBC poll in May 2009 showed that 62% of the public believe that MPs put ‘their own interests’ first, ahead of ‘their party’s’ (21%), ‘their constituents’ (7%) or ‘the country’s’ (5%). Although this belief in MPs’ self-interest was undoubtedly encouraged by the expenses scandal, the public has in fact long held this view of politicians. In 1994 for example, more than half the public (52%) believed MPs put ‘their own interests’ first and only a quarter (25%) that they prioritised ‘their party’s interests’.

However, public opinion is actually more complex in this area than the above analysis would suggest. The 2010 Audit shows that although ‘for personal gain’ was perceived by the public as a major motivating factor for people to become MPs (31%), an equal number of people believed that most people try to become MPs in order ‘to help people in their local area’. Although approximately a third of people considered personal gain as a primary motivator for any involvement in politics, many more believed that it is far from the driving factor.

Based on qualitative discussion groups conducted for the 2010 Audit, a further effect of the expenses scandal seems to have been a reinforcing of the impression that politicians are different from ordinary people. The attendees perceived that the politicians had acted above their peers and had been able to act ‘above the law’. While most participants felt that MPs should not be able to do things that ‘ordinary people’ could not do, some went further and argued that in fact MPs should aspire to and be judged against a higher set of standards than ordinary people given the exalted role they seek as representatives and legislators acting on behalf of the wider public. The fact that the MPs’ expenses scandal has revealed that many MPs do not behave in this way may have further entrenched the ‘us and them’ view held by many members of the public. This will be very difficult for parliamentarians to challenge given the real and anecdotal evidence that people have now amassed to support this view.

What should MPs spend their time doing?

The most commonly held belief (of 50% of the public) is that MPs spend their time ‘furthering personal and career interests’ yet just a tiny proportion – 3% – believe that MPs should spend most of their time doing this.

The next most common activities that people assume MPs do is ‘represent the views of their political party’ (37%) and ‘present their views through the media’ (32%). Again, both of these are low priorities in terms of what the public would like MPs to spend their time on, with around one in 10 people considering these to be important activities for MPs.

Few people also believe that MPs get involved in the types of activities the public considers most important for MPs to do. Just under half of the public (46%) believe most MPs should ‘represent the views of local people in the House of Commons’, but only one in 10 people (10%) believe most MPs do this. Similarly, two in five people (41%) say MPs should be spending their time ‘representing the UK’s national interests’ but only one in 11 (9%) believe MPs do this.

Public perceptions of the resources available to MPs

Linked to the prioritisation of work activities by an MP is the issue of resources. Here, the public may have a significant and important knowledge gap. The issue was not covered in the 2010 Audit survey but emerged during the discussion groups for the report. The participants were asked what they thought the impact would be if an MP became a government minister. Views on this were split. Some participants believed that it would not be beneficial for local constituents as the MP would be less available; others felt that it would be beneficial as the MP would be in a position to do more for their local area.

Interestingly however, during the course of the discussion most assumed that MPs generally would have a fairly large staff to help them with their jobs which would be augmented if they became a minister as additional staff in their department would then be available to do constituency related work. Given that most MPs generally have at best three full-time staff working either in Parliament or in the constituency, and that departmental civil servants are expressly forbidden from undertaking any political or constituency related work for their minister, public perceptions of the resources available to MPs may be seriously out of kilter with reality. As such there may be an important disconnect – caused primarily by the public’s knowledge gap – between the expansive role that the public wants MPs to perform in the local community and the resources that are available to enable them to do so.

3 OCTOBER 2011

[1] See, for example, M.Korris (June 2011), A Year in the Life: From Member of Public to Member of Parliament, interim briefing paper (Hansard Society: London ).

[2] Survey 1 was distributed in August 2010 and received 59 responses (25.4%); Survey 2 was distributed in March 2011 and received 57 responses (24.6%); Survey 3 was distributed in July 2011 and received 43 responses (note that at the time of writing some respon ses are still being received).

[3] Hansard Society (2010), Audit of Political Engagement 7 , (Hansard Society: London ).

Prepared 10th November 2011