Thursday, 11 February 2010

Parliamentary Expenses: the real scandal

I wonder if the cost of the new "Independent" Parliamentary Standards Authority - a staggering £6.5 million per year - will cause the same level as anger as the duck houses and plasma-screen TVs that led the government to set it up in the first place. Somehow I doubt it. But it should.

£6.5 million represents around £10,000 per MP. As the BBC report points out, it's almost six times the total amount being paid back by assorted troughers. Cutting back on abuses, it seems, will cost far more money than the abuses themselves. How is this possible? How can it be that the IPSA will need EIGHTY staff to do its job? That's one for every eight MPs. The scheme doesn't even apply to the 724 members of the House of Lords. All the new job involves (or should involve) is shuffling paper and making sure Parliamentarians don't overclaim on their annual expenses.

An experienced accountant could do the job in a couple of hours at most. To monitor 646 MPs would thus take 1292 hours: about nine months of a thirty-five hour working week. The job could be done satisfactorily by a single person. Four people could polish it off in a mere two months: during the summer break, perhaps, while on secondment from the civil service. Or it could be outsourced to a firm of auditors for a fraction of the cost. The IPSA need cost nothing, even the £100,000 they intend to pay Sir Ian Kennedy to chair it.

The IPSA, with its eighty staff, its overpaid head, its much-vaunted "independence", no doubt its PR people, fancy stationary and well-appointed offices, is a far greater abuse of the public purse than anything perpetrated by the likes of Derek Conway or even Elliot Morley. It may not involve dishonesty or playing the system, but the waste is practically criminal nevertheless. Off the back of public indignation and politicians' desire to quell it, a whole new level of wasteful and pointless bureaucracy has been created at a time when every penny of state expenditure needs to be scrutinised and, where possible, cut. When the axe swings, it will be swung at hospital wards, local libararies, vital defence equipment, stuff that actually matters to people's lives. But the £6.5 allocated to IPSA will be untouched.

But surely, some will say, if it helps "restore public confidence" in Parliament it will be money well spent. No, it won't. The expenses crisis was a mere symptom, not a cause, of the crisis in confidence in politics. And MPs stuffing their boots with expenses, however memorably, are as nothing when compared to the relentless growth in the regulatory state over the past couple of decades. This latest job-creation scheme will make matters worse. At one level, the IPSA is just another quango. It will act like quangos always do, firstly to preserve itself in being and secondly to extend its area of operations. One day, perhaps soon, it will make the case to go beyond its initial brief - to compile reports on Parliamentary efficiency, to rank MPs in order of effectiveness. After all, its eighty employees will need something to do to fill their empty days, once the straightforward task of approving or rejecting MPs' expenses claims is out of the way.

Already, we see signs of what is about to take place. On the IPSA website (developed, no doubt, at considerable public expense) Sir Ian Kennedy announces that:

Working on behalf of the public, we will set standards for financial propriety and provide services to MPs by setting, administering and ensuring compliance with the new scheme and paying them their salaries. Our challenge is to create and put into operation a scheme which helps to build public confidence in the way in which MPs are financially supported in going about their work and enables MPs to do their job.

Which all sounds fine and dandy, but goes very considerably beyond what a body responsible for MPs expenses ought to be doing. What does "ensuring compliance" mean, beyond saying Yes or No to any request for money? Why is their job to "build public confidence", for that matter? If they succeed in giving the right people the right money, then public confidence will be restored in the natural course of events. Kennedy's words suggest that IPSA wants to go beyond this, to actively propagandise on behalf both of itself and of the expenses regime it "creates and puts into operation".

I had a look at the recruitment section of IPSA's website. "IPSA is its people," it proclaims, not without some justification. "We are clear that how we attract, retain, develop and reward our people is central to our success," it goes on. No: how effectively they scrutinise MPs expenses claims will be central to their success. They just need to get in a couple of decent accountants. They don't actually need "people". "We are a modern, forward-thinking organisation committed to being a place where good people want to come and work." Ye Gods!

Then there's the usual guff about being "customer-focused", devoted to openness and to giving each other "mutual support"; about employee wellbeing and "access to canteen facilities with competitive rate" and "flexible reward schemes". Yes, indeed, there will be bonuses - paid no doubt out of the money they manage to prevent MPs from claiming. So now, instead of funding Hazel Blears' plasma screen your taxes will be funding some unknown IPSA employee's instead. Result!

There are currently 14 posts being recruited, including a Facilities Manager, three communications people (a director, a manager and an assistant manager), a Policy Manager and an Assistant Manager of Corporate Performance. Will any of these people actually be scrutinising MPs accounts? It doesn't sound like it. They will be doing jobs that don't need doing, and certainly don't need paying for. I wasn't especially bothered by last year's expenses crisis; there were some bad cases, but much of the indignation was artificial and unjustified. The cost of IPSA, on the other hand, enrages me.