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UK Politics

Speaker hits out at MP expenses regime

Speaker John Bercow joined demands for reform of the tough new parliamentary expenses regime tonight, insisting it was stopping MPs doing their jobs and damaging their family lives.

Mr Bercow said politicians had "real grievances" about the way the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) was working, and the system should be less "prescriptive".

The damning critique came in a submission to a consultation being held by the watchdog nine months after it took charge of administering Westminster pay and expenses.

Last week, Leader of the House Sir George Young used his submission to warn that Ipsa was "failing" to support MPs, while David Cameron has branded the rules "anti-family" and indicated he could force changes.

Ever since its introduction, Ipsa has been targeted by MPs complaining about excessive running costs and bureaucratic restrictions on claims.

The watchdog incurred more wrath last week when it published the latest tranche of expenses, and named and shamed 125 MPs who had claims rejected.

Mr Bercow blamed the "intensity of public opinion" following the 2009 expenses scandal for shortcomings in the new system.

"As a consequence of the overwhelming priority placed on speed of implementation, other factors, including the direct cost of Ipsa itself, the burden in terms of Member and staff time required to comply with the scheme and the virtues of simplicity took second place," he wrote.

"Bluntly stated, although the case for an independent expenses system is as strong as ever and there can be no retreat from it, my Parliamentary colleagues have several legitimate grievances - undue delay in payment of claims, disproportionate time spent on making claims because the system is too bureaucratic, damage to family life caused by Ipsa's housing and travel policies, and the unduly restrictive approach taken to the rental and staffing of offices.

"If Members are not to be treated unfairly or hampered in serving their constituents, and if aspiring candidates are not to be deterred from seeking election to Parliament, these policies should now be changed for the better."

Mr Bercow insisted the "objective now should be to achieve transparency in a less resource-intensive way".

He said there was "real concern" that the current regime would serve as a "disincentive for individuals to undertake a parliamentary career".

He criticised as "extremely narrow" rules stating that children over five are not "dependants" for the purposes of claims, unless the MP is sole carer.

"A more widely recognised definition of dependency would extend to the age of 18 (but not 21) and this should be reflected in rental accommodation regulations," Mr Bercow added.

"It also strikes me as unreasonable for there to be an explicit or implicit assumption that the primary 'family home' will be, and should be, in the constituency rather than in London. Although it is so in most cases, it is not invariably the case.

"The lives of MPs are too complicated and varied for this to be so."

He also said the taxpayer should fund travel for a carer to accompany children between London and constituency homes until they are aged 16 or 18, rather than five.

"It strikes me as out of step with the expectations of modern times to ask young children to undertake lengthy train journeys unaccompanied, or to expect that a carer should be placed in an adverse position financially because of his or her entirely commendable decision to accompany a child on such a trip," the Speaker said.

Mr Bercow said extending the definition of the London area had created "undoubted hardship" for some MPs who could no longer claim for second homes in the capital.

They felt they had "little option but to sleep in their offices on Monday and Tuesday nights", according to the Speaker.

Ipsa had embarked on a course which "strives so hard to ensure that there are no winners that it all but maximises the number of losers".

He suggested the "least bad option" was for MPs to be allowed to claim for second homes unless their constituencies fell within Zones 1-6 on the Tube map.

Mr Bercow also said he believed MPs should be able to use public money to pay off staff when "difficult" human resources issues arose.

They should be able to "pay for legal advice on staffing matters in certain defined circumstances, or to settle messy dismissal or potential tribunal cases with a cash settlement".

"I am not arguing that Members should be given carte blanche," he said. "They would be bound by the existing overall financial limits and would be reimbursed only if they had followed the correct procedures and taken the (Commons) Personnel Advisory Service's advice."

Mr Bercow urged Ipsa to stop being a regulator that was "prescriptive" and engaged in "continuous intrusive oversight".

"A decision by Ipsa to reject extensive prescription and instead to enforce standards by audit, inspection and publication, would be a decisive step in the right direction," he added.

Downing Street said last week that Ipsa was not working properly and the problems needed to be dealt with.

"You cannot have a system that costs £6 million a year to administer the expenses of 650 people," the Prime Minister's spokesman said.

"Ipsa was set up quite rapidly following the expenses scandal. Clearly, there are problems with the way it is working."

But the watchdog's chairman Sir Ian Kennedy has defended its independence, and called on MPs to "celebrate what is going on" rather than complaining.