In 2008 it was duck houses. In 2021 it’s sofas – trivial in themselves but suddenly important. In 2008 the importance lay in the symbolism. Taxpayers facing the promise of years of austerity were outraged by the behaviour of some MPs.
They were gaming the system. To many, they were taking the p**s. The expenses scandal was born. A new organisation was set up – the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA)– created by Parliament to regulate MPs in their use of taxpayers’ money; a body that was invited to take seriously the first word in its title “independent”. The expenses system was cleaned up.
The disinfectant was transparency. IPSA simply made public what money MPs received from the taxpayer, published the rules about spending that money, and then published how MPs had in fact spent it. MPs knew that their reputations depended on demonstrating probity so, with varying degrees of reluctance, they toed the line. Job done.
Now for the sofas. Just as with the duck house, the concern is not with soft furnishings. It’s about the straight and narrow. Just as with pre-IPSA expenses, MPs are subject to a system to deal with what lies behind the sofa. There are norms such as the Nolan Principles, rules relating to disclosure when benefits are received, laws (whisper it softly) when the rules are not followed in sufficiently egregious circumstances.
Just as in pre-IPSA days, apologists are keen to suggest that the system is sufficiently robust and, anyway, who cares about sofas or whatever when the sunny uplands of post-vaccination life await us. Should the apologists prevail? Is this just a storm in a John Lewis mug? Or are we the mugs?
For what it’s worth, I think that what we are encountering currently is every bit as serious, if not more so, than the expenses scandal. The system designed to protect us is not up to the task and any political will to admit the need for change is nowhere near as strong.
When a senior Tory, Sir Charles Walker, says that he’s completely unconcerned about the refurbishment of the flat at Number 11 as long as his constituents are not paying for it, he gives far too narrow a meaning to the word “paying”. Yes, the money did not apparently come from tax revenue. But, there is a more important cost to consider – the cost captured in expressions such as “conflicts of interest”, “buying favours” and, of course, “the rule of law”.
Given such a cost, can we safely leave things to be sorted out by the existing system? There’s to be an investigation by the Electoral Commission. It has been accepted for many years that the Commission is underpowered. Proposals for new legislation, including from the Law Commission, have been ignored for years by government on the turkey and Christmas principle. So, even if any investigation gets off the ground, reaching a view with relative expedition will mean more than 15 months and the likely slap on the wrist will make little impact in a world that has moved on.
There’s the Parliamentary Commissioner. Though badged as “independent”, she reports to a Committee of the House of Commons, edging us towards the homework self-marking model. Then, there is the new Independent Advisor on Ministerial Standards who’s been asked to look into things in the knowledge that whatever he says can be ignored by one of the principal players, the prime minister. Finally, there’s the Cabinet Secretary’s Review with uncertain powers and a timescale which can be gamed by those interested in doing so. Lots of apparent heat but how much light?
So what to do? The challenge is different from that faced by IPSA. It distributed taxpayers’ money and could then, through transparent reporting, show what MPs did with it. Receiving benefits from others does not show up on the radar till it is declared. So everything depends on the MP’s compliance with the rules relating to declaring such benefits, or on someone making a complaint. That’s the current system and it’s not working.
The case can be made for a body along the lines of an IPSA mark II, either stand-alone or subsumed into the current IPSA. It would take over the roles of the Electoral Commission and the Parliamentary Commission in relation to regulating MPs as regards the receipt of benefits. It would be entirely independent, funded in the way in which IPSA is funded. It would maintain a Register of Interests published on a regular basis. MPs and Members of the House of Lords and donors would be required to declare benefits received and given. In a significant departure from current practice, the new body would routinely require from Parliamentarians a declaration as to benefits received. In this way, the regulatory approach would not depend on Parliamentarians’ preparedness to comply or on ad hoc, after the fact complaints. It would be a regulatory system. It would have investigatory powers and have available sanctions including recourse to the criminal law in the face of serious non-compliance with its rules.
Such a body would have to be created by legislation. The expenses scandal provoked the passage of legislation in a matter of a few short months. The challenge now is to see whether MPs and the public think that the issues raised warrant such a response or whether they think, or can be persuaded, that it’s just Westminster “tittle-tattle”. One way points towards the rule of law, the other points to more of the same, to take its place alongside trips to Barnards Castle, PPE contracts, and other things we shouldn’t worry ourselves about.
Professor Sir Ian Kennedy was chair of IPSA from 2009 to 2016