Page last updated at 15:27 GMT, Friday, 21 May 2010 16:27 UK

New expenses watchdog faces backlash over staff costs

Jim Sheridan on new system for MPs to claim expenses

Parliament's new expenses watchdog is facing a backlash from some MPs and their staff, amid claims new rules could force them to lay people off.

MPs are concerned they will have to pay staff pensions out of their own pocket and have asked expenses body IPSA for assurances about costs incurred.

One MP has described the new system as "cumbersome" and even "vindictive".

IPSA said there was no evidence staff were at risk but promised "support" for MPs unable to meet office costs.

New rules governing MPs' expenses - drawn up after the expenses scandal and an independent inquiry into the whole system - have come into force for the new Parliamentary session.

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) has said it will pay salaries for the first time this month and will pay the first expenses on a weekly basis in June.

Outspoken attack

But MPs are concerned about changes to staffing allowances, with each MP now responsible for paying their employers' pension contributions from their £110,000 annual staffing budget.

Three Commons staff associations have written to IPSA expressing concerns MPs are being forced to pay money upfront.

IPSA has held meetings with the political parties to try and reassure them about the new rules but many MPs fear they will have to use their own money as the allowance is not large enough to cover salaries and pension costs.

IPSA should be about cleaning up arrangements not creating murkier confusion
John Mann, Labour MP

Labour MP John Mann launched an outspoken attack on the new watchdog, saying: "IPSA has a model of an MP that only fits the stereotype of the 'Bufton Tufton MP' who takes a taxi into work, dictates a few letters to his secretary, has lunch at his club and then waltzes into a debate in Parliament.

"These IPSA quango bureaucrats have no idea what a modern MP does and, unlike Sir Christopher Kelly and his committee, have not bothered to find out."

Mr Mann, who condemned the abuse of MPs expenses and led the calls for a new system, said he was particularly concerned about the payment of invoices and advance loans into MPs' personal bank accounts.

"IPSA should be about cleaning up arrangements not creating murkier confusion."

'Lack of notice'

He was also critical of the what he claims is the downgrading of security by IPSA, the cuts in staff budgets, and what he described as the bias of the new system towards wealthy MPs who live in London.

His Labour colleague, Jim Sheridan, told the Today programme: "MPs who have already used their staffing allowance to pay their staff will now either be out of pocket or have to sack or reduce the hours of work of their staff."

He said there was a "lot of anger" among MPs from all parties about the changes and the time given to MPs to adjust.

"People are not getting sufficient notice to try and accommodate these costs and therefore make the necessary changes. If we are saying from here on in that this is the change that is going to happen then MPs are going to have to adjust their budgets accordingly."

Mr Sheridan said the new system was overly complicated.

"The system IPSA has been implementing....is just cumbersome, it seems as if it is vindictive, and it discriminates against those of us who don't have healthy bank balances."

'Fair'

IPSA's chief executive Andrew McDonald said the level of staffing allowances were based on the level of salaries paid to staff by MPs in the last Parliament and were not "unfair".

"On the evidence we saw, there was no reason why MPs should be laying off staff or reducing the number of hours," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

Although IPSA will not review the £110,000 allowance limit this year, it has written to MPs to say it will consider action if any members feel they will be unable to meet their running costs from the budgets.

"We do recognise that there is a possibility that some MPs could have, from the previous Parliament, contractual commitments which go beyond the level of funding that is being provided."

If necessary, the watchdog said it "will set out a course of action to support the MPs and staff who may be affected".

The new expenses rules were unveiled in March following a lengthy consultation process.

Among the biggest changes is the new rule that MPs cannot buy homes and claim back the mortgage interest - instead they can claim up to £1,450 a month in rent.



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