MPs will face criminal charges for expenses fiddles under new legislation

June 24, 2009 at 1:35 pm Leave a comment

by Tony Grew

New legislation that will control the behaviour of MPs will introduce new criminal offences, the Leader of the House has announced.

Harriet Harman gave MPs details of the Parliamentary Standards Bill, which will create a new authority to police members of both Houses of Parliament.

MPs will have a chance to discuss the new bill tomorrow. Some MPs are unhappy at plans to make them reveal details of second jobs.

“A new, wholly independent authority (will) take over the role of the Fees Office in authorising Members’ claims, overseeing a new allowance system, following proposals from the Committee on Standards in Public Life and maintaining the Register of Members’ Interests,” Ms Harman told the House.

“The Bill will also create new criminal offences of knowingly making a false claim for an allowance, failing without reasonable excuse to register a relevant interest, and contravening without reasonable excuse the rules on paid advocacy.

“That will put Members of the House on the same footing as we have, in legislation, put local councillors and Members of the Scottish Parliament.

“I shall set out in my business statement the date for Second Reading of the Bill, but the House should know that we intend its Committee stage, as well as Report and Third Reading, to be taken on the Floor of the House.

“We hope that there is sufficient consensus, following the consultation that has been led by my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary, for it to gain Royal Assent by the time the House rises for the summer recess.

“The new authority could then be ready to start work with the Kelly committee’s recommendations by the end of this year.”

Ms Harman said the government is prepared to “go further” with the reform agenda.

She announced a new committee of MPs to examine the work of Select Committees, how Commons business is chosen and how best to deal with petitions from the public.

From July MP will also have to register outside jobs.

“Any payment to an MP for services, whether in cash or kind, will have to be registered,” Ms Harman said.

“Guidance from the registrar of Members’ financial interests has been sent to all Members this morning.

“That will mean that for the first time, the public will be able to see all the payments that are made to Members.

“The public want to know who, other than them, is paying their MP.”

Shadow Leader of the House Alan Duncan drew attention to last week’s “unmitigated PR disaster” after the publication of the details of MPs’ expenses.

“Big black splodges, even if they were on top of completely blank paper, looked like censorship on a massive scale, even where they were not,” he said.

He wanted assurances there would be a minimum of blacked-out information when next year’s receipts are made public.

Mr Duncan was unhappy with the proposals on outside income.

He said there is a “clear and deliberate distinction between the payments and income that had a direct bearing on a Member’s parliamentary conduct and other such payments that definitely did not.

“The resolution of the House about outside earnings has led to a new code of conduct, published today, which many Members have already told me they think is unworkable.

“Is she satisfied that it is, in practice, workable as the resolution of the House has demanded?”

Ms Harman expressed her confidence in the new registration scheme.

“The new system will be workable if hon. Members approach it as follows: if they agree to do something for someone in return for money or a benefit in kind, they should register that,” she said.

“I think that that is fair enough.”

David Heath, Lib Dem business manager, condemned the manner of last week’s publication of expenses.

“Data protection is important but having acres of black space is a redaction to the absurd,” he told the House.

“I welcome the transparency that is being proposed on non-parliamentary income, but I feel there are still problems with the de minimis requirements and their connection with the advocacy rules.

“I do not want us to be in the position that no Member of the House can visit a factory in their constituency and accept a cup of tea and then say something in the House about the industry or their constituency.

“I do not think that the code of conduct and the guidance notes yet make the distinction that provides for those circumstances.”

Labour MP Paul Flynn called for action on “the revolving door whereby former Ministers trade on their contacts and experience to seek salaries in the private sector.”

“Is there not a strong case for arguing that if there is transparency about the amount of time that Members spend on their other jobs, we should consider appropriate reductions in their salary, on the basis that no Member can do two or more full-time jobs adequately?”

Ms Harman said the rules on ministers subsequently taking work “are clear.”

“Members will have to think harder about what is acceptable when they know that their constituents will be fully in the picture about how many hours they spend doing work other than representing them or working as Ministers.”

She rejected the point that ministers who are MPs are themselves doing two jobs.

“When somebody acts as a Minister, what they do is absolutely in the public domain, it is quite evident to the public that they are a Minister and their pay, which is published and transparent, is also in the public domain,” she said.

“Let us face up to it: in this House, quite a large number of Members have had jobs that are nothing to do with being a Member of Parliament and nothing to do with serving the public interest.”

Tory MP Charles Walker said it is “very important that we allow people in this place to retain a foothold in their profession or in the private sector, so that when they leave this place they are employable and have a future.”

Ms Harman said the days of self-regulation are over for MPs.

“We need to reassure the public that as well as having a payback system for the past four years’ expenses and having transparency, we will no longer run the system ourselves,” she told the House.

“The public do not accept that we should regulate ourselves in relation to our expenses in future, so we should get on and do what I have described.”


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