Had Sir Ian Kennedy's proposals for reforming MPs' expenses, published yesterday, appeared a few months ago, they would have been greeted with howls of rage from the Commons, and epithets like "radical shake-up" from admirers. Instead, Sir Ian spent yesterday defending himself against an accusation that he was "watering down" what had already been agreed on the future of the expenses regime.
Sir Ian's problem is that he is not the first in the field. He was appointed only two months ago to head the newly created Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), which came into existence under a 2009 Act of Parliament because of the expenses scandal. It is intended that eventually the IPSA will have the statutory power to set MPs' pay and pensions, and control their expenses claims.
His appointment inevitably opened the risk of a turf war with Sir Christopher Kelly, chairman of the Committee on Public Standards. Two months ago, Sir Christopher published a set of recommendations for the future of MPs' expenses, which was endorsed by all three leaders of the main political parties. Anyone looking at Sir Ian's proposals yesterday was likely to compare them with Sir Christopher's and see whether MPs are getting off more lightly than was intended.
In some small respects, they are. Under the Kennedy proposals, between 20 and 30 MPs with constituencies just outside London will be allowed to claim for second homes, a right they would have lost under Kelly. Sir Ian also suggests that MPs with small children or other dependents might be allowed to claim higher living allowances, in answer to complaints that people with young families are deterred from becoming MPs. Most controversially, Sir Ian has avoided taking a hard and fast view over whether MPs should be allowed to employ members of their families, a practice that Sir Christopher proposed an outright ban on.
Even so, it would be quite wrong to suggest that the proposals published yesterday would take us back to the days when some MPs were outrageously milking the system. The worst abuses have arisen from the lax rule that allowed MPs to buy a second home and claim the mortgage interest from the taxpayer. Even when it was not abused, this system allowed MPs to accumulate a very valuable asset at no net cost and keep the proceeds of an eventual sale.
Under Sir Ian's proposals, there will be no more of that. MPs will have to claim rent, on their second home rather than mortgage interest. He raises the possibility that IPSA may buy into the property market to provide some of that rented accommodation. He would also make the whole expenses system more transparent, so that the only expenses MPs are paid are those they run up in the course of their parliamentary work. A final point is that these are only proposals, not Sir Ian's final word, and anyone who does not approve has until 11 February to register their disagreement.
Rather than being greeted simply as a "watered down" version of the Kelly proposals, Sir Ian's consultation should be seen as a set of sensible and pretty drastic reforms that would go a long way towards cleaning up Parliament, worthy of dispassionate thought.
Unfortunately, dispassionate thought is what is often missing in a shouting match between a section of public opinion with a fixed belief that all MPs are grasping mercenaries with their fingers in the public purse and a diehard contingent of whining MPs who still have not grasped the damage that the expenses scandal has done to their collective reputation.Reuse content