Tuesday 6 July 2010

Same Trough, Different Snouts: Why IPSA Sucks

Guest post from Richard Smith

In Portcullis House and among politicians' constituency offices up and down the UK there is one thing causing disgruntled rumblings and has people spitting blood: the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA). Readers will recall IPSA was set up last year in the wake of the MPs' expenses scandal, and has since considerably tightened MPs' office budgets. Some might say, "well it's the MPs fault for abusing the system in the first place". This is understandable: there is no doubt that the actions perpetrated by some MPs would constitute nothing less than fraud had they been perpetrated by someone with less political capital. The problem however is that IPSA and their many rules have completely missed the point of why voters were so upset in the first place. The new rules may hit MPs hard, but they hit the MPs' staff even harder.

The new expenses system has cut £20,000 off the budget for staff overnight, as pensions and national insurance now have to be taken into account in this budget. Also staff that perform well are no longer entitled to a bonus.

Constituency offices are getting hammered. Only 85% of calls from the constituency will be paid by IPSA meaning many MPs are asking their staff not to use their constituency office phones. This policy affects one group of people: the constituents who need their MP. Constituency offices have also been hit by this strict budgeting as MPs have to rent a "ready-made office" and cannot rent an office that may be very cheap but needs a new carpet, or a fresh lick of paint unless the MPs pay the cost of renovations themselves. It’s worth noting these limitations do not apply to an MPs parliamentary office, a scenario which could easily create a two-tier system advantaging MPs within the London area.

If following these new regulations is problematic, it is nothing compared to actually trying to get a handle on what the rules are. IPSA have even made getting clarity on the new rules difficult. Yes they give you a number to call, times to call it, but do they answer the telephone? No. Such is the chaos flowing towards them from Portcullis House that even their answerphone is full, crippled by the volume of collective screams of mercy from interns across the land. Staff are trying to organise offices, sort out computers and, God forbid, even trying to see when on earth they are going to get paid.

Did IPSA really think that the MPs themselves were going to sit and get their heads around the new system? Nope, its the staff that deal with it. So on top of the pay cut, the problems with getting staff paid, the lack of a bonus, the inability to save on one budget and add the saved money onto another budget, MPs' staff are expected to be the resident expertise on their own worst nightmare. It is no wonder they’re spitting blood.

Thankfully last night while channel flicking many staff of MPs got their chance to vent some of that anger as BBC Parliament showed the IPSA Committee, and I for one welcomed the opportunity to yell at someone, even if it was via the television screen.

I say thankfully because of the actions of two wonderful Tories (I never thought I'd say that!): John Bercow and Charles Walker. IPSA, crowned by many as the knights in shining armour stopping the greedy MPs from wasting tax payers money, were shown to be the new gravy train laying down the rules for others but not following them themselves.

So here are a few key points that I pulled out of my hour of venting. The director of IPSA is to be paid £85,000. If that is not enough money for them they will also get a performance related bonus, unlike MPs staff who no longer get this. And it’s not just the director that gets a bonus, all IPSA staff are eligible.

The Compliance Officer which is being recruited will be paid up to £90,000 plus accommodation costs. A Compliance Officer for a system that you would be nuts to break is being paid this much for a job that will have hardly any work. I see scope for savings.

There will also be three communications officers, these will also be paid upwards of £60,000, which is on a par with the MPs themselves. So much for the members of staff trying to get their head around this new complex system. Perhaps instead of paying out exorbitant sums for non-jobs, this money could be better spent by investing in a larger IPSA answering machine.

Just when I thought that this new system could not be more hypocritical Charles Walker then pointed out that if IPSA make savings in one budget they can use those savings to top up another budget, something that is no longer allowed by MPs and their staff. In addition, if IPSA needs more money they can just ask for more, unlike MPs themselves.

Finally scrutiny for IPSA is this one IPSA committee. How often does this committee meet? Once a year. Contrast this with the continuous scrutiny MPs and their staff are now under. Will the media be holding IPSA to account, or cheering them on in their mindlessly populist way?

There maybe fewer snouts in the trough, but all that means more generous helpings of slurry for the unelected and the unaccountable. Meanwhile it's thin gruel for the staff who do the MPs' donkey work.

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