Harman draws line on expenses

Spouses who currently work for MPs should not lose jobs, says Commons Leader
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MPs should not be forced to sack husbands or wives who work for them, Harriet Harman said as she suggested that planned radical reform of the expenses system could be watered down.

The Commons Leader spoke out as Sir Christopher Kelly, the civil servant charged with rooting out corruption in Parliament, prepares to publish his wide-ranging proposals to simplify and cut allowances paid to MPs.

His plans – which are expected to ban MPs from putting relatives on their payroll and to require them to rent their second homes – have provoked angry protests among backbenchers. Many are furious that they will not be given the opportunity to vote on new rules which will change the nature of their job.

But Ms Harman moved to reassure them that Sir Christopher's recommendations could be diluted by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) which will implement the new expenses regime.

She made clear she believed Ipsa should exempt MPs' spouses already employed as parliamentary assistants from any ban on relatives working in the Commons. Ms Harman said she did not believe there should be "any shadow cast over the existing spouses".

She told BBC1's Andrew Marr Show: "I do think it would be fair not to sack existing spouses who are working for MPs. I think if they're going to suggest something, it should be for the future. They can't simply say: 'You've all got to be made redundant.'"

News of the proposal on spouses has led to threats by MPs' wives to try to dodge the rules by working for each other's husbands, while the union Unite is threatening employment law to prevent sackings among family members.

Ms Harman also offered a ray of hope to MPs livid that, under the proposals, they would be stripped of their second home allowance if they live within one hour's commuting distance of London and that they would lose tens of thousand of pounds of compensation paid when they leave Westminster.

She signalled that Ipsa could dilute – or even veto – Sir Christopher's recommendations. Asked whether the body was obliged to accept them all, she replied: "It's entirely a matter for them. But obviously they will want to draw on his important work. But it will be a matter for them to decide."

Ms Harman confirmed that MPs would not be able to vote on Sir Christopher's proposals. She said: "We have already decided that the public don't want us setting our own allowance system."

Gordon Brown will today warn Sir Christopher, whose report is published on Wednesday, that his reforms must not have the perverse effect of turning politics into the preserve of the independently wealthy. The Prime Minister will argue that the vast majority of MPs were "decent, hard-working individuals" and that nothing should be done to deter ordinary people with families from going to Westminster.

Government sources stressed, however, that Mr Brown was not retreating from his determination to see the "old discredited system swept away and a new system introduced".

The former minister Frank Field today launches a scathing attack on Gordon Brown's handling of the expenses crisis. Writing in The Independent, the Labour MP says: "David Cameron has totally mesmerised the Prime Minister over this issue. Anything Cameron does Brown tries to do better. Each time he fails miserably." Mr Field forecasts that the quality of parliamentarians will fall because of the reluctance of high-calibre would-be MPs to step into a "political maelstrom".

Nadine Dorries, the Tory MP, was reported yesterday to have hired her daughter, Jennifer, 22, after telling the Commons the graduate was facing the dole. Her eldest daughter, Philippa, has already worked for her. The Sunday Mirror reported that Jennifer had been given a job providing maternity cover for her mother's personal assistant.

Ms Dorries declined to either confirm or deny the report.

*Members of the Welsh Assembly are required from today to submit receipts for all expenses claims, as well as an explanation of how the cost was incurred.

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