Page last updated at 16:31 GMT, Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Will MPs accept expenses reforms?

By Emma Griffiths
BBC News website

Sir Christopher Kelly's six-month inquiry into MPs' expenses has published its proposals to overhaul the system - but could they be watered down?

Sir Christopher Kelly
Will Sir Christopher's proposals be accepted?

At the launch of the report, Sir Christopher noted the possibility that, as time goes on and public anger at expenses claims fade, "some may be thinking of distancing themselves from their earlier expressed determination to implement our report in full".

On Wednesday Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg told the Telegraph all parties needed to come together "and say that we were going to adopt the Kelly proposals lock, stock and barrel".

Tory leader David Cameron said it was important "we do accept in full Sir Christopher Kelly's report". Gordon Brown said "we should accept the Kelly recommendations and make sure they are implemented as quickly as possible".

'Wriggle room'

They all appeared to be in agreement - but does that mean the reforms will go through in their entirety?

Not necessarily, because Mr Brown also said it would be for the new Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) to take forward the proposals - on Monday his spokesman said IPSA could "shape" them further.

Sir Christopher told the BBC he was "mystified" by that comment and said he was only "fairly reassured" by the leaders' comments: "There is always wriggle room, we are talking about politicians after all."

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The House of Commons has been reluctant to accept expenses reforms in the past - rejecting many of the recommendations of one of their own committees last year - so will this time be any different?

MPs will not get a vote on the reforms - but IPSA will now carry out a period of consultation on them, which will also consider MPs' concerns.

Tory MP Roger Gale has already said that while "a huge amount... is very good" some proposals do not stand up to "close scrutiny": "It is the devil in the detail which does actually need to be examined."

As she outlined the findings on Wednesday, Commons leader Harriet Harman said the Kelly report "should be taken as a whole" - but in response to concerns about the ban on employing relatives said IPSA must not "fall foul of employment law".

Her comments to the BBC at the weekend that it would not be "fair" if the 200 or so MPs who already employed relatives were suddenly forced to sack them fuelled suggestions that MPs may seek to water down the proposals.

'Extend the pain'

Lib Dem MP Norman Baker, a campaigner for transparency on MPs' expenses, told the BBC it was incumbent on MPs to accept Sir Christopher's main recommendations - despite Parliament being "horrified in some quarters".

If they were not adopted "all that happens is MPs will extend the pain and the issue will be drawn out longer than it needs to be".

What we've always needed from Parliament is direct access to official information, not a new quango
Heather Brooke

But he added there may be some "wrinkles", such as how you calculate travel times between Westminster and constituency homes, that needed ironing out.

Political leaders have agreed that the old system needs to change and Mr Brown, Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg agreed to back the proposals if they meet three tests of improving transparency, accountability and reducing costs.

Sir Christopher said on Wednesday those tests had clearly been met - but already there are questions about requiring MPs to rent, rather than claiming for mortgage interest.

In a debate shadow Commons leader Sir George Young said the proposals on rent "would need to be monitored by IPSA to ensure that the overall package is not more expensive than it is at the moment" - to murmurs of agreement from MPs.

MPs' groans

IPSA itself has an interim chief executive and its "chairman designate" was announced as Professor Sir Ian Kennedy. It was also announced he could be paid up to £100,000 a year - to loud groans from MPs.

According to its own website, it is only "obliged ... to consult [Sir Christopher's] committee when developing its allowances scheme".

Some are concerned about the role of the new body - set up by emergency legislation before the summer recess.

Harriet Harman
Ms Harman's BBC interview fuelled rumours of watering down

Heather Brooke, who helped force the disclosure of MPs' expenses after a lengthy Freedom of Information battle, said the IPSA had been created "at the whim of ministers with no information given to the public about its funding or operation".

She told the BBC: "What we've always needed from Parliament is direct access to official information, not a new quango which upholds the old belief that the public can't be trusted to know how their MP spends public money. "

The IPSA's chairman and board members will be approved by a new committee of MPs, headed by Speaker John Bercow, which includes three Labour MPs - Sir Stuart Bell, Don Touhig and Liz Blackman, Conservative Sir George Young and Lib Dem Nick Harvey.

But some concerns were expressed when that committee was announced last week.

Independent MP Bob Spink asked how people would have confidence in a committee "made up of the usual suspects who have so patently failed to carry public confidence with them over the years".

Sir George said the IPSA would be independent and the MPs' committee would only oversee appointments but accepted that it would have to consult the committee, along with other bodies, when "preparing or revising" an expenses scheme.

It seems very unlikely there will not be substantial changes to the system of MPs' expenses.

Mr Brown has repeatedly said he wants to see an end to the "old discredited" system, telling MPs: "People want to know that the system in future will be different. It will be open. It will be transparent. It will be fair."

Some MPs' concerns may be allayed when they read through Sir Christopher's proposals - the recommendations are that changes be phased in over the lifetime of the next Parliament.

There have also been concerns over exactly how long all this might take - Ms Harman said on Wednesday that a new allowances system would be in place ready for the next Parliament. A general election must be held by June 2010.

By then it will be over a year since the Daily Telegraph broke its expenses story.

Some MPs will have lost their seats, others will have stepped down and, because of the transitional arrangements for change, it will be newly-elected MPs who will initially be most affected by the changes.

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