Legislation being rushed through Parliament to reform MPs' expenses is "confused" and risks "emasculating" the House of Commons, a former sleaze watchdog has warned.
The proposed new disciplinary procedures for misbehaving MPs were "a recipe for delay, cost and confusion" which could dilute members' sense of responsibility for their own actions, said former Parliamentary Standards Commissioner Sir Philip Mawer.
The Parliamentary Standards Bill – introduced by Gordon Brown to clean up Westminster in the wake of the expenses scandal – is being rushed through the Commons this week.
But in evidence to the Committee of Standards in Public Life yesterday, Sir Philip said the speed with which it was being hurried on to the statute book might result in a flawed reform.
"Just as the failure to grapple with the expenses problem in the first place illustrates a collective failure of leadership, so the inadequacy of the response to the crisis illustrates the same problem," he said. "It has been an example of how not to handle a crisis."
Sir Philip backed the Bill's establishment of an independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to set and administer MPs' expenses, but questioned the creation of a new Commissioner for Parliamentary Investigations to look into alleged breaches – a job currently done by his successor as Standards Commissioner John Lyon.
And he warned that plans to give legal backing to the Commons Code of Conduct – potentially leading to jail sentences – could create a "legalistic" culture that would be a bonanza for lawyers.
"My concern is that we will end up with a House of Commons which doesn't feel any ownership at all for the rules its members are supposed to follow," he told the CSPL, which is carrying out a comprehensive review of expenses.
"One must not so emasculate Parliament... that you remove from members a sense of personal responsibility for policing their own arrangements or open the door to a highly legalistic process, a rules-based system which lawyers will have a field day with and which may well cost the public more."
The proposed disciplinary system could spark a blizzard of challenges and appeals and even judicial reviews, warned Sir Philip.
"My view is that the Bill hasn't got the balance right. I would focus the Bill on the pressing issue of who sets expenses, who administers them and do they have the toughness they need?"
The chairman of the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee, Sir George Young, also told the CSPL: "There are some serious issues about the role of Parliament in this Bill and I am worried that we are rushing it."
Sir George warned that giving legal force to the code of conduct could "fetter MPs' discretion" in dealing with constituents' concerns, adding: "I want to be held accountable to the ballot-box, not to the courts, for what I do as an MP."
Sir Philip blamed the expenses scandal on the failure of successive governments to give MPs adequate pay rises.
"MPs were told that what they wouldn't be given through the front door in terms of increases in pay, they would be given through the back door in terms of the allowances system," he said.
"At one time it was said to me that the duty of (Commons Fees Office) staff was to enable the MPs to claim the maximum, not to police the allowances system. It led to a culture in which people viewed their task as being to extract the maximum advantage and to exploit the system, rather than it being a system to reflect the expenditure they inevitably incur as an MP."
But he said his own previous attempts to raise the alarm about the way the system operated were "not at all welcomed" by MPs, who preferred to leave it in the hands of the Members Estimates Committee, chaired by the Speaker of the Commons.
Sir Philip said the allowance system should be rewritten to draw a clearer distinction between pay and expenses, but said MPs should be given "discretion" in paying for trivial items.
"They have to be given some discretion and treated as adults in the way in which they run their lives," he said. "It is necessary to act now – the public expect it. Only once we have cleaned up politics can we move forward."