The Westminster watchdog charged with overseeing expenses has hit back at a growing number of MPs who have complained that its strict new regime risks barring all but the wealthy from entering the Commons.
The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) introduced new rules in the wake of the MPs' expenses scandal, which include scrapping the golden goodbye of up to £64,000, known as the "resettlement allowance", and a ban on the ownership of taxpayer-funded second homes. MPs are being briefed on the regulations as they go through their inductions following the election.
Unease among politicians had been growing throughout the week that the new conditions had gone too far, with many complaining that they were already being forced to pay costs from their own pockets. Some returning MPs even said they might have to lay off long-serving members of staff because of changes in the way their offices were funded.
Yesterday, MPs from Labour and the Conservatives began to speak openly about the measures put in place by the Ipsa. John Bercow, the Commons Speaker, has acted as a go-between for MPs wanting to raise their concerns about the new system. It is thought that he is keen for Ipsa to rethink its rules on office costs. MPs now have to pay pension contributions to their employees from their £110,000 annual staffing budget.
Talks on the new rules have taken place with the main political parties on seven separate occasions. Ipsa officials met with MPs on Tuesday to discuss the problems with the new system. "I had concerns that this system was bureaucratic madness, and that they were more concerned with filling in their forms and tick-boxes than a system that works," said one MP. "We've gone from the sublime to the ridiculous. There is a real concern about receiving money upfront to cover simple things like rent and wages."
Andy Burnham, the former health secretary and Labour leadership candidate, became the most prominent figure to call for Ipsa to rethink its rules. "Got to Leigh office & caught up on Ipsa plans," he wrote on social networking site Twitter. "Seems very harsh on staff who serve public. Should be put on hold for further consultation." Another Labour MP, John Mann, said the head of Ipsa should consider resigning amid the chaotic introduction of new rules.
However, Andrew MacDonald, Ipsa's chief executive, was standing firm last night. Hitting back in an article on Independent.co.uk, he said "the new system is here to stay" and that all allowances had been calculated to take all new costs into account. "Just two weeks in, we have provided one-on-one inductions to more than 550 MPs and answered around 1,000 emails to help MPs and their staff," he said.
"The budget provided for MPs to staff their offices was calculated on the basis of MPs' staffing pay last year. The new budget made provision for pension contributions, for national insurance and for inflation. To those who now say that the calculation is wrong, our response is simple: if you have better information we will be pleased to examine it."