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Does Mr Afriyie have a plan to scupper IPSA?

Mark D'Arcy | 13:02 UK time, Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Are MPs about to strike back against what they regard as the evil empire - their expenses watchdog, IPSA?

It could happen this Friday, if they're prepared to weather the inevitable media storm.

Friday in the Commons is private members' bill day, and we can expect some quite lively debate on John McDonnell's Lawful Industrial Action (Minor Errors) Bill, which seeks to prevent strike ballots being ruled illegal because of what he regards as trivial procedural errors. There are bills on sports ground safety, (from Jonathan Lord) secured lending (where a house or some other property is used as a security for borrowing - from George Eustice) and electoral law (from Peter Bone.)

So it looks unlikely, though not impossible, that MPs will reach the fifth bill on their agenda, Adam Afriyie's Parliamentary Standards (Amendment) Bill. Mr Afriyie is offering MPs a chance to reform the great bugbear of parliamentary life - the new look expenses system overseen by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA). I've finally laid my hands on a copy of the bill - which seeks to replace the whole elaborate edifice constructed since the expenses scandal with a simple regional allowance system.

The argument is that the result would be impossible to cheat, much cheaper to administer, and would save the taxpayer several million pounds - while freeing MPs from a massive and hated bureaucratic burden.

MPs would get a single, simple allowance, depending on the region in which their seat was located. But since there would be no item-by-item accounting for how the money was spent, it would arguably be less transparent - although there could be amendments to address that point.

Behind the scenes Mr Afriyie has lobbied just about every authority figure in the Commons and hundreds of individual MPs. So will all that effort come to nothing on Friday, if the bill is not debated? That will depend on whether someone objects to the bill going forward - if it is debated, it is unlikely there would be enough MPs present to vote it through, if someone opposed it.

If not, at 2.30 on Friday, the clerks will read out a list of bills that which have not been discussed, and after each title is announced, a government whip normally shouts "object". This ritual pushes the bills onto a future agenda. But if no-one (and it doesn't have to be a whip) says "object", the unobjected bill is deemed to have received a second reading, and goes forward for detailed consideration in committee. It looks as if Mr Afriyie is hoping that this will happen to him.

Even after the arrival of a new, untainted, generation of MPs, the issue of expenses remains radioactive - and it may well be that the government whips, or even some individual, decides to block the bill. Plenty of MPs hate the current system and almost no-one would die in a ditch to protect it...but many also fear the return of the dread and angst which pervaded Westminster when the scandal was at fever pitch, and a 2pm phone call from the Daily Telegraph could signal the end of a parliamentary career. But if the bill does go into committee, the system could be transformed - although the fear and loathing factor should mean that there is no return to pre-crisis troughing.

Alternatively, Mr Afriyie could ask the Backbench Business Committee to allocate time to allow him a second reading debate. IPSA is certainly a matter of concern to all MPs - but there is some question over whether the committee has the power to put bills before the Commons. It would certainly be a precedent-setting move, but then almost every action they take is precedent-setting at the moment.

What is obvious, looking at the bill, is that a great deal of careful work has gone into it - far more than would be necessary for a token, doomed piece of legislation. I think Mr Afriyie has a plan...

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