An expensive mistake
by Celia Hannon
The spirit of the new proposal on MPs expenses is right but people will demand immediate, visible change.
Sir Christopher Kelly's committee on standards in public life is due to publish his report on reforms to the discredited system of MPs' expenses on 4 November. Predictably for the next installment of the expenses saga, the conclusions have already been leaked to the press. In a number of key respects Kelly has made the right calls, although our qualitative research suggests he has been less tough on MPs than the general public would have been.
At the beginning of June Demos and Ipsos MORI brought together a diverse group of 53 members of the public for an informed debate on MPs expenses. Following three hours of debate, discussion, and deliberative voting, the convention’s results were fed into a ‘Citizens’ Charter’ – their collective views on how the system should be changed. We submitted this to the Committee for Standards in Public Life.
While our results were not statistically representative, the majority of the participants (42 out of 53) supported the idea of designated flats for non inner London MPs. Perhaps wisely, Kelly has resisted opting to 'warehouse' MPs in this way - the practicalities of such a step would be something of a headache. Instead he has recommended that MPs should be able to rent second homes only, instead of claiming interest on mortgages.
We have yet to hear more details on Kelly's approach to transparency, but at the convention the public thought the glare of publicity would be the best way to keep MPs on their best behaviour in the future. Forty of 53 participants thought all MP expense claims should be published online. The rest, bar one, thought all MP expense claims over £100 should be published.
In one surprising respect, those at our convention were less strict: 37 participants supported the idea that MPs should be allowed to continue to employ family members as long as they fulfilled the duties laid out in job descriptions. While Kelly supports the idea of outlawing this practice within the next five years, only 13 of our participants were in favour of such a move. People demonstrated a considerable amount of understanding about the difficulties specific to the job, such as irregular working hours.
Worryingly, today there are reports that some MPs are arguing for fresh legislation to overturn their right to claim mortgage interest on their second home. This would mean Kelly's proposals would need to be debated on the floor of the house and then voted on - which would provide some hostile MPs with an opportunity to throw them out. This would be a catastrophic move; when it comes to expenses the public's perception of the behaviour of MPs is almost as important as the reality. If anything, Parliament should accelerate the pace of change; a phased five-year process could be perceived as too gradual. Kelly is holding out a golden opportunity for MPs to restore their battered reputations, they should seize it with both hands.