MPs call for flat rate travel and homes allowances

MPs in the House of Commons The new expenses scheme has attracted some criticism from MPs

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MPs should get flat-rate allowances for accommodation and travel claims rather than having to submit receipts for each claim, a Commons committee has said.

It suggests a system of "regional supplements" would be cheaper to run and cut bureaucratic burden on MPs.

It also says responsibility for administering expenses should return to the Commons - but be overseen by Ipsa.

Ipsa, the expenses body, said that would "reintroduce the arrangements" that led to the 2009 expenses scandal.

It accused the Committee on Members' Expenses - which was set up earlier this year amid much anger among some MPs over the new expenses system - of trying to undermine its independence.

'Untenable'

In its report, which will be debated by MPs on Thursday, the committee goes through some of MPs' complaints about the new scheme, set up at the tail end of the last Parliament amid a wave of public anger about MPs' expenses revelations.

The committee says it does not provide value for money - particularly flagging up the cost of processing the new online expenses scheme, which sees MPs and their staff inputting details of each claim - and actually puts MPs off claiming for legitimate items, partly due to confusion over the new scheme but also because all expenses are now published on a bi-monthly basis.

Start Quote

A claims system was adopted which was suitable for standard expenses but entirely unsuitable for the much more complicated costs and expenses necessarily incurred by MPs”

End Quote Members' Expenses Committee

The MPs say the system is "untenable" and "entirely unsuitable" for the "complicated costs and expenses necessarily incurred by MPs".

There is a dispute between the committee and Ipsa about what it should be doing - the committee says the whole purpose of the expenses scheme should be "to ensure that MPs are properly supported to do their jobs". Some MPs say it takes so long for their staff to input all their expenses claims, they are not spending as much time on helping constituents.

But Ipsa's chairman, Sir Ian Kennedy, told the committee in September Ipsa's statutory mandate was "not to support MPs" but to "have regard to the principle that we should support MPs in the execution of their parliamentary duties" - which also meant having regard to the "public interest", including the use of taxpayers' money.

The committee's report makes a series of recommendations it says will cut the costs of the MPs' expenses scheme to the taxpayer.

'Legitimate concerns'

It says the bi-monthly publication of claims should stop - as it damages MPs' reputations and leads to MPs spending a lot of time "rebutting criticisms". Instead receipts should be published annually - while Ipsa should look into a "cost-effective" system to publish claims as they are made.

Potentially the most controversial proposal is for a system of allowances for travel and accommodation, which would see an end to new rules that claims have to be backed up by receipts.

The committee says there are already allowances within the scheme - the flat rate payment of £3,760 for MPs with constituencies in inner London and £5,090 for outer London, who are barred from renting a second home.

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It beggars belief that some MPs are still asking taxpayers to hand them flat rate allowances without any receipts being provided”

End Quote Emma Boon Taxpayers' Alliance

It suggests this idea be extended - with a travel allowance based on amounts MPs have claimed in the past and supplements for accommodation.

It says the House of Commons should commission a "cost-benefit analysis" of such a proposal and report back to MPs in six months' time. It also says MPs should make the final decision on whether they should replace the existing system.

The committee suggests "legitimate concerns about MPs making personal gains" could be overcome by setting the level of allowances lower than current average claims.

But flat-rate allowances have proved controversial in the past. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown raised the idea at the height of the 2009 expenses scandal but it was criticised at the time as a payment for MPs to "turn up and do their jobs".

'Invidious'

At a recent hearing on the issue, the man who carried out a seven-month inquiry into MPs' expenses, watchdog Sir Christopher Kelly, said he had rejected the idea as potentially "invidious". He told the committee: "People ought to be reimbursed for the expenses properly incurred."

The Taxpayer's Alliance pressure group also opposed the idea. Campaign director Emma Boon said: "It beggars belief that some MPs are still asking taxpayers to hand them flat rate allowances without any receipts being provided."

Another controversial suggestion is that responsibility for administering expenses should be returned to the House of Commons - the old Commons Fees Office was at the heart of the widely discredited scheme which existed before 2010.

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The committee explicitly threatens to override Ipsa's independent board if they do not act as the committee demands”

End Quote Ipsa spokesman

The Committee on Members' Expenses says this is because Ipsa currently runs the system - and regulates it. It says having Ipsa regulate a Commons-administered scheme, and new provisions on transparency, would "ensure that it did not replicate the deficiencies of the old expenses system".

Ipsa was set up to be independent of the Commons.

But the committee says Parliament can choose to remove Ipsa's chairman, Sir Ian Kennedy, and its board - or "more constructively" can choose to change the legislation which set up the expenses body. It says if Ipsa does not act on its recommendations by 1 April 2012 - legislation should be brought in to force them to do so.

In its response Ipsa said on some areas it was in agreement with the committee and had already introduced some of the suggestions they make.

But it says while the committee stresses the need for Ipsa to be independent, its words "are not consistent with many of their recommendations, in particular those which call for a return to the days when MPs and the House authorities administered their costs and expenses, and where MPs themselves had a role in deciding upon those costs and expenses".

"For example, the committee recommends that Ipsa be broken up with duties being returned to the House - reintroducing the arrangements of the past; and that the House, once again, should be given the powers to decide for themselves what sort of system of expenses they benefit from.

"Furthermore, the committee explicitly threatens to override Ipsa's independent board if they do not act as the committee demands."

A Cabinet Office spokesman said the government would look at the report but added: "We are totally committed to an independent and transparent expenses system and could not accept any recommendations that would be incompatible with that."

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