Harriet Harman announces new standards authority for MPs and peers

May 20, 2009 at 7:16 pm 1 comment

harriet-harman
By Tony Grew

The Leader of the House of Commons has given MPs more detail about the proposed Parliamentary Standards Authority (PSA).

Harriet Harman said Parliament will have to legislate to delegate specific responsibilities to the new authority, which will revise and update the codes of practice for MPs, investigate complaints and implement the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life on allowances.

The PSA will take responsibility for authorising MPs’ expenses claims under the new allowance system.

It will have the power to force MPs to pay back wrongful claims and impose “financial penalties.”

The authority will perform similar functions for the House of Lords.

Ms Harman said it would also ensure “high standards of propriety and financial conduct,” in the Upper House, investigate alleged abuses of the system and recommend sanctions against peers.

“It is clear that extensive work and consultation will be necessary to ensure the agreement of the House of Lords to the effective transfer of responsibilities to the new body,” she said.

“The new authority would also maintain the register of Members’ financial interests in this House and deal with the disclosure of second incomes.

“Discipline issues that might require sanctions such as suspension from the House, which would have a bearing on Members’ ability to perform their work, would remain a matter for the whole House through the Standards and Privileges Committee.

“Only the electorate, or those who are themselves democratically elected, should be able to prevent a Member from doing their work in this House,” she said

At a meeting of the Members Estimate Committee yesterday with the party leaders it was agreed that there will be an examination of MPs’ claims over the past four years to “identify those claims that should not have been made and should not have been paid out because they were outwith the rules.”

“We also agreed to make arrangements for repayment,” Ms Harman said.

“The public are entitled to see a process of reparation and Members are entitled to know that this will be orderly and fair.”

She also announced that there is an “immediate ban” on claims for furniture, a cap on interest payments for accommodation at the equivalent per year of £1,250 per month and a restriction on any changes to designation of main and second homes.

MPs who are married or living together as partners should be prevented from claiming more than one second home allowance.

“We have set in place the actions for reparation and reassurance,” Ms Harman said.

“Although I know that it is hard to get a hearing on this subject now, as Leader of the House I will continue to argue, both inside and outside the House, that most honourable Members are precisely that: they are people who come into Parliament as a matter of public service, and are hard-working, decent and honest.

“However, we must recognise that, even before the allowance revelations, there was a problem of public disengagement and public cynicism, and a public sense of distance from Parliament.

“We must now seize the opportunity to promote a debate that will see proposals to change and strengthen our democracy move from the margins to centre stage.”

The changes came after more than ten days of negative news stories about the expenses claims of some MPs.

Shadow Leader of the House Alan Duncan said the proposals, agreed by all party leaders in the Commons, “go a long way to addressing the issues that were crying out for attention.”

He asked when revised rules will come into force.

“In the meantime, Sir Christopher Kelly and his committee are working on recommendations for a long-term solution to the pay and conditions of MPs,” he said.

“In the middle of what can only be described as the most serious and revolutionary shift in popular opinion and in the reputation of Parliament in our lifetime, his committee is required to stand back from the fray and set out how a modern Parliament should look, and how it and its Members should be resourced.

“This is no easy task, and whatever people think of Parliament, I hope they will fully respect the integrity of his committee’s efforts and show proper respect for his conclusions. May I ask, therefore, when the Leader of the House thinks the committee will eventually report?”

Ms Harman said Sir Christopher and the Committee on Standards in Public Life will report “later this year.”

She said the “transitional measures” need to be up and running “straight away, as soon as the detailed rules can be put together, which will not take long at all.”

Labour MP Don Touhig said he hoped the staff at the Fees Office, which currently oversees expenses claims from MPs, will be consulted about the new authority.

Ms Harman replied: “I am sure that we will need to engage with the invaluable experience and information that the Fees Office has accumulated over years of work on those issues, and that its contribution to the consultation will be very important indeed.”

For the Lib Dems, David Heath said that self-regulation for MPs has “collapsed” and the House of Commons “has forfeited the right to self-regulation.”

He broadly welcomed the interim proposals.

“I am worried that we may have inadvertently introduced a perverse incentive against Members renting accommodation and in favour of them entering into mortgage arrangements,” he said.

“That cannot be what the House intends or what the general public want.”

Mr Heath added:

“The matter now goes well beyond expenses. It is about the reform of Parliament and the political system, making the House work in a way that it has not done over recent years.”

Veteran Labour MP Dennis Skinner said that ending the practice of MPs voting to increase their allowances “is a better day for Parliament.”

Tony Wright, Labour MP for Cannock Chase, asked which bodies will be abolished as the new one is established and how the members of the new parliamentary standards authority will be appointed.

“The responsibility of some existing bodies will change, and the responsibility of some others will be subsumed within the new authority,” Ms Harman said.

“All these issues are a matter for consultation, which, as I said, will be led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice (Jack Straw).”

Tory MP Eleanor Laing was upset at suggestions in the press that MP “live in barracks in London” to avoid controversy about claims for second homes.

“I ask the House to take into consideration where we will put our children and when we will have time to see them,” she said.

“If we want to have a legislature that really reflects the people, it must reflect families. The financial arrangements must therefore reflect the need for some of us to undertake family duties as well as parliamentary and constituency duties.”

Ms Harman said the “insight” of MPs with caring responsibities “helps to shape public policy and helps us understand the lives of people in this country.”

“I would definitely adopt the principle that she has put forward,” she said.

Earlier today the Speaker announced immediate changes to what MPs can claim on expenses.

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