MPs were in the doghouse again last week – or should that be the duck house – over their expenses. Employees at the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, who process MPs’ expenses claims, say they have been threatened, insulted and abused. Called “f..ing idiots” and “monkeys” by irate MPs one of whom described their computerised system as a “f…ing abortion”. Mind you that’s nothing compared to the language voters used about MPs when their expense abuses became known last May. However, in this case, MPs aren’t wholly to blame. IPSA is being called to put its own house in order
The Labour MP, Denis MacShane reduced one volunteer to tears with his intemperate rant. He later apologised and bought her a box of chocolates, though it’s not known if he put these down on expenses. Senior executives as IPSA had to introduce a yellow card system to call MPs to order, which sounds like a policy that could be used in the chamber by the Speaker to control rowdiness. Two insults or porkie pies and they’d get a red card and an early bath.
It looks like another massive own goal for MPs. However, the more I looked into the more I began to feel something really rather unusual: a degree of sympathy for MPs. Hard to imagine I know. But I know how computers can drive anyone mad – especially if you are a late adopter like Dennis Skinner, the veteran Labour MP for Bolsover, who’s never used one. I’ve frequently been reduced to impotent rage dealing with IT nerds on a “helpline” who tell you that you just need to restart the machine and all will be well. And if it isn’t operator error it’s a “software” issue that’s not their concern. And MPs aren’t even allowed to speak to the nerds.
There are countles stories of MPs finding that the system was full of faults, leading to time-wasting delays in processing. One Scottish MP, Tom Harris, spent eight hours tying to make one claim. Another found that when he logged on he found he was looking at the expenses of another MP. There’s no way of directly contacting the civil servants responsible for processing the claims – IPSA claim this is to protect their staff from threats – but that’s just asking for trouble. If you can’t even speak to the people doing the calculations how can you explain apparent anomalies or correct errors?
It also emerged that there there only ten examples of outrage, in the abuse dossier, and that it was leaked to the Daily Mail before it was published to get it maximum publicity. This is very worrying. It seems that IPSA actually has its own spin-doctors – three of them – who’s job it is to promote the image of the organisation. One of them is John Sills, policy director, who earns £85,000 a year – that’s £20,000 more than MPs. Of course public servants should be paid, but are they really worth more than elected members of parliament?
I can well understand the feelings of MPs last week when they discovered that they had been the victims of what looked suspiciously like a media sting. I mean, one of those who allegedly “abused” the IPSA staff was Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat politician and minister who simply doesn’t do foul mouthed as anyone who knows him can testify. Of course MPs shouldn’t reduce civil servants to tears, but they can reasonably expect to be given a system that works and I dont’ see why they shouldn’t make their conerns known forcefully to those in charge. There are too many accounts of MPs frustration for it to be self-serving invention.
At the Edinburgh Book Festival last week Heather Brooke the freedom of information campaigner whose dogged determination led to the final exposure of MPs expenses claims, called for the IPSA to be scrapped. She thinks the expenses watchdog is a costly and intrusive bureaucracy with should never have been set up. Well if the journalist who caused the duck house scandal is on the side of the MPs on this one, then so am I. For once, MPs are not the nasty party in this dispute.