09 Apr 2014
April 9, 2014

Official oversight of MPs’ work

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Maria Miller’s departure today raises the interesting question of whether the UK will now see, in effect, officials given full powers to ‘oversee’ the work of MPs. This seems to be the general run of argument in the press. The chair of the parliamentary expenses body (IPSA) Sir Ian Kennedy, argued last week that MPs shouldn’t be able to ‘mark their own homework’. His savvy comment was certainly populist – it’s been repeated endlessly by the media – and possibly even popular too. It also neatly illustrated the way an official but unaccountable remit can, by gradations, morph into something altogether much larger and unanticipated.

IPSA, of course, marks its own homework – the internal processes of IPSA are subject to no oversight and are not accountable to ministers or the public. Moreover, the chair’s call for an end to MPs overseeing MPs’ conduct was a political act designed to impact on the decision, due very soon, about whether or not he will be appointed to a second term in office. That’s not a criticism of the IPSA chair – it’s clear his job is highly political; he recognises this and carries out his public role with highly-politicised gusto.

IPSA has, additionally, made it clear repeatedly that when it makes decisions on MPs’ pay, allowances and pensions, it surveys public opinion and takes that fully into account. In other words, IPSA does not seek to be a body of experts who make ‘expert’ judgements, but a body that interprets and balances public opinion against other variables. That’s not a criticism of IPSA as a body, either, it’s simply a statement of fact. IPSA takes ‘politics’ out of the hands of politicians and puts it into the hands of officials.

Moreover, IPSA has increasingly moved into regulating not just the pay, pensions and allowances of politicians, but also how MPs do their jobs by studying different models of working and applying that to their various judgements. IPSA writes the contracts MPs’ staff sign, stipulates pay-rates and pay policy, decides what training MPs’ staff may attend, and many other things besides. The IPSA chair has made criticism, always influential, about procedures in the chamber of the House of Commons and indeed on some aspects of public policy outside parliament. Again, none of this is to criticise IPSA or its chair – he’s an intelligent, robust man – it’s simply to note that IPSA has used its control over MPs’ pay, pensions and allowances to extend its ambit into judging how MPs actually do their job and how they should be overseen. Perhaps this is all a good thing, and perhaps MPs’ remaining role over self-oversight should indeed be removed.  It seems likely that all party leaders will wish to consider this. I wonder, though, if there will be unforeseen – or foreseeable but ignored – consequences of, in effect, giving unaccountable officials the power to judge, discipline and sack MPs.

Related to this, albeit perhaps tangentially: in the immediate aftermath of the Miller affair, one detail of the inquiry undertaken by the House of Commons Standards Commissioner in that case seems to have really very significant implications – certainly more than the standards committee or media seems to realise.

The Commissioner demanded extensive detail, with accompanying evidence, of why Maria Miller once extended a mortgage full 9 years before she became an MP and wanted to know exactly what she had spent the money on. She needed this information, she said, to determine how much House of Commons accommodation allowance Miller should have qualified for 9-13 years later as an MP. This opens the possibility that all MPs who have claimed, or might claim, allowances could have their full financial affairs over the years before they became MPs investigated. It’s hard to see how any allowances regime, anywhere, could operate on that basis, isn’t it? For now, it isn’t difficult to see where this story might go next……