The meeja don’t seem sure what to make of Nigel Evans’ acquittal this week – I presume the ‘Westminster gay predator’ stuff was good to go so they just cracked on with it anyway. Last night, Channel 4 News managed to run a whole piece on the subject of how MPs’ staff don’t have meaningful protection from their employers (ahead of the Omagh bombing trial, which was interesting news prioritising in itself) without mentioning once that MPs are policed by the, er, police or that staff have the protection of employment law like everyone else.
Sometimes, it seems that when there’s a big political stooshie, the political correspondents who actually know a bit about politics and whose analysis can often be bang on, get pushed out of the way by bigger boys and girls who don’t have a clue what they’re talking or writing about. Today’s Decca Aitkenhead Guardian profile on Danny Alexander MP is a fun case in point.
“Five years ago he (Alexander) was press officer for a Scottish National Parks. Today he is second-in-command at the Treasury and tipped as the next leader of the Lib Dems. How did he do it?”, gushes the standfirst. Actually, as the body of the piece reflects, it was 10 years ago, not 5, that Alexander was a press officer. Still, “It’s hard to think of any other politician who has rocketed to the top so dramatically”, says Aitkenhead. I guess, if you ignore Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg, Ed Balls and a host of other front-rank politicians first elected in 2005. Ah, but the point is that Alexander isn’t much in “the public consciousness”. Really? – google his name, he’s written about every day and on telly so much he’s used in the latest ad for HIGNFY. Does Aitkenhead really think Theresa Villiers, Jonathan Hill, David Jones et al enjoy higher public profiles? And if you’re looking for super-fast ascents by people with low profiles, surely you’re looking at Sajiv Javid or one of a number of others elected in 2010, not a forty-something guy who’s been an MP for nearly 10 years? So the premises of the whole piece are basically politically-unaware, under-researched bollocks.
And yet, amidst the bollocks perpetrated by the ‘bigger boys and girls’, there is actually an interesting story about how parliament tried to end the farce of MPs’ staff status but was prevented doing so by regulator IPSA. I don’t know why the political journos haven’t bothered with it. Maybe it’s just not very interesting or maybe it’s because it doesn’t present MPs in a bad light. But here it is anyway…
Under the pre-IPSA regime at the House of Commons, the House of Commons authorities accepted that MPs’ ’employer’ status isn’t actually real – that notion is every bit as much a piece of misleading artifice as the ideas that MPs are ‘self-employed’ or run ‘small businesses’. In fact, MPs are paid PAYE by the House of Commons (the Treasury considers the Commons the Employer and does not in any respect treat MPs either as ‘self-employed’ or ’employers’) as it did their staff, and those staff are now paid by IPSA. Prior to IPSA, the House accepted that, for example, if an MP went personally bust owing money to his or her staff, then the Commons would be regarded in law as the true employer. This wasn’t a far-fetched scenario – some staff fairly recently sued an MP and won thousands, while the by then ex-MP was bankrupt and couldn’t be compelled to pay them. Specifically in order to protect such staff, MPs voted to formally pass ’employer’ status to the House of Commons. The move had been mulled for years but was contentious – the expenses scandal made it possible.
When IPSA was created, however, it realised how big a job it would be to take on several thousand MPs’ staff; so the vote was quietly ignored. IPSA took over the powers to write staff contracts, to pay staff — then went way, way beyond that. IPSA now determines pay rates and lays down pay policy, says what equipment can be purchased for staff and what courses staff can go on, and much more besides. Within these very strict managerial constraints, MPs hire and manage staff and ask for permission to buy equipment and train staff in much the same way mid-level budget-holders in the civil service do. Except, of course, the civil servant proper will have the protection of being part of a proper HR set-up that extends way beyond their line manager. Whereas MPs’ staff have been abandoned by IPSA who have knowingly left them in a limbo.
I’ve no idea what the unions are up to. In Channel 4’s piece last night, Unite was very keen to point out that many staff are illegally harassed and unfairly-dismissed by awful ‘MP-employers’ and that it was those very people staff had to go to to make a complaint. Has Unite never of Industrial Tribunals? Has the wider media, come to think of it?
The simple fact is that IPSA has virtually all of the regular powers of an employer; MPs are simply line-managers. If a staff member complained that IPSA was discriminating against them in comparison to other IPSA staff, it’s very likely an industrial tribunal would agree. IPSA would be declared the employer, staff would have the full protection of a proper HR regime and unions would be recognised to represent them. Done.
But that’d be less of a story, and might require more research than a quick google, so no-one’s going to be following through on that, right?