UK Politics

Expenses watchdog under threat in membership row - former MP

Houses of Parliament
Image caption The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority was created in 2009

The independence of the body which polices MPs' expenses is under threat from a row over the membership of its board, a senior figure has said.

Jackie Ballard said a number of MPs did not accept external oversight and this was at the root of continuing tensions.

She is one of four members to stand down after Commons Speaker John Bercow vetoed their automatic reappointments.

But an ally of Mr Bercow's said the regulator had behaved "disgracefully" in making the dispute public.

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) announced on Tuesday that four of its five board members had not reapplied for their posts and would stand down when their terms of office expire in January.

It said they were partly influenced by concerns about how the appointment process - overseen by Mr Bercow but delegated to an independent panel - was being handled.

The watchdog also published correspondence between Ipsa chair Sir Ian Kennedy and Mr Bercow in which the former urged the existing members to be reappointed and expressed his concerns about the perception that the process was being politicised.

'No recognition'

Mr Bercow has said the posts must be readvertised and opened to fair competition to ensure the process is lawful.

But in being asked to effectively reapply for their jobs, Mrs Ballard said the Speaker had shown "no recognition of the three years' worth of experience" she and her colleagues had gained in helping establish the regulator.

She also expressed concerns that the panel interviewing candidates included an MP - Conservative politician Peter Atkinson - and a member of the Speaker's Committee on Ipsa which advises Mr Bercow on relations with the watchdog.

One of the five Ipsa board members must be a former MP and Mrs Ballard - who was Lib Dem MP for Taunton between 1997 and 2001 - said she would feel "uncomfortable" in being interviewed by one of her former colleagues for such a sensitive job.

"From the start, it felt like the Speaker's fingerprints were all over it," she said of the process, "and including an ex-MP and a member of the Speaker's Committee was a threat to the independence (of Ipsa)".

Mrs Ballard said a number of MPs from all parties had never accepted they had to give up control of determining their expenses although she believed opponents of Ipsa were in a "small minority".

'Still participating'

But Charles Walker, a member of the Speaker's Committee, said the watchdog had been wrong to make details of the disagreement public simply in order to "get our side of the story out first".

"On this occasion really Ipsa has behaved pretty disgracefully," he said.

Mr Walker said it "made sense" to have an MP on the panel and insisted it was independent of the Speaker.

He added: "If Sir Ian Kennedy is uncomfortable about the process why did he participate in the process?

"Sir Ian Kennedy is now suggesting that that independence has been compromised. If he believed that independence had been compromised, which it has not, why is he still continuing as chairman?"

The identities of the new board members are set to be announced soon.

Ipsa took over responsibility for policing MPs' expenses in 2010 after it emerged that a number of MPs had made inappropriate claims under the old system overseen by Parliament and a handful had committed fraud.

It has since clashed with MPs over a number of issues.

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