MPs took 'only route open' in expenses vote: Accountability of MPs' allowances is in doubt despite the vote to increase them to pounds 40,000. Nicholas Timmins reports

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Indy Politics
'THEY'VE TAKEN the money and run,' was the bitter comment of an MP's researcher yesterday, as members voted themselves a 38 per cent rise in their office costs allowance to almost pounds 40,000.

Members did not decide to implement recommendations from the Top Salaries Review Body aimed at making the expenditure more accountable and conditions better for the staff MPs employ.

Chris Smith, the Labour MP, whose amendment saw MPs get the cash the review body wanted, said they should now tackle those 'more important issues' about accountability and openness.

The Government had made a Commons debate on those subjects impossible on Tuesday night, he said, because it had rejected the review body's recommendations on them, allowing MPs a debate only on how much money they should get.

That had meant that fighting for the cash had been 'the only option open to us'. But the vote 'should not close the issues down. We should push for more accountability in the system', both through the House of Commons Commission and the Leader of the House.

The review body had recommended that the allowance be formally split into staff and office and equipment costs, with a personnel office created to help MPs be 'model employers', after a study commissioned by the review body had shown them to be 'at best variable and at worst unacceptable'.

Of the 1,300 or so secretaries and researchers employed by MPs, 159 still have no formal contract of employment, the study found. Of those that do, some 'are so inadequately drafted as to be meaningless'. It went on: 'It is the general view, moreover, that many MPs regard contracts, however drafted, as a formality and little more than lip service is actually paid to them.

'We have heard, for example, that MPs commonly forget pay review dates; staff have been dismissed because the allowance has been mismanaged; and, regrettably, there are allegations that some secretaries have been fired in favour of the employment of spouses.' Many end up working way beyond the hours for which they are paid, and there are allegations that many MPs 'spend up' their allowance at the end of the year in bonuses 'a disproportionate amount of which are alleged to go to their wives'.

There is 'next to no correlation between job title, job content and salaries paid,' the study found, and 'increasing disquiet' among staff about that.

The study also found 'a strong body of opinion' among MPs that 'the present system for ensuring probity and value for money is inadequate'.

The Fees Office is 'in many circumstances obliged to accept the word of 'honourable members' and it appears that a lot is in fact taken on trust', the study said. Receipts are not always required for office equipment, and in some cases the Fees Office is in no position to refuse payments.

The present system would allow the whole allowance to be spent on purely party political work, the report said, and 'there are widespread allegations that this in fact happens'.

The review body recommended that cash for staff should be separated from equipment and only paid over on production of an acceptable employment contract.

Researchers and secretaries - too fearful to be named yesterday - said some MPs saw working for them as a privilege and treated staff like 'an individual medieval fiefdom'. Tony Newton, Leader of the House, insisted in the debate, despite the report's findings, that the gains in accountability would be 'at best doubtful' and 'what would be lost is the flexibility, which many members value, to make the most effective use of the allowance'.

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