In a blog entry in October, I discussed the review by the HC Members Expenses Committee (MEC) of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 and the operation of IPSA, concentrating in part on the complex issues of independence and accountability of public bodies such as IPSA, who have some form of a constitutional (especially parliamentary) watchdog role. This is a subject the Constitution Unit has studied for a number of years, and the creation of IPSA has ignited a fascinating debate between IPSA on the one hand and the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) and elements of the House of Commons on the other over the legal and constitutional duties and functions of such a watchdog. My concern was that the MEC inquiry was too limited and ‘exclusive’ to examine these fundamental issues sufficiently thoroughly.
The MEC has now reported (to a deafening silence, the political classes and media being almost exclusively focused on the PM’s Commons statement on the Eurozone summit/’veto’), and it does address these issues among the more substantive (and probably more newsworthy) issues of the nuts and bolts of MPs expenses. Not surprisingly, it comes down in favour of the view that, in effect, that IPSA’s statutory duty merely to have regard to ‘supporting MPs efficiently, cost-effectively and transparently in carrying out their parliamentary functions’ should be upgraded from one to which it merely has to “have regard” into becoming its ”prime directive’. IPSA’s claim that, as a self-proclaimed regulator, its primary duty is to “the public interest” has, rightly, been given short shrift. This emphasises the importance of efficient delivery of functions – even where its purposes are, as the Committee criticises here, not made explicit in the founding statute because of legislation in haste – over a more lofty claim by a watchdog of being custodians of the public interest to which all else must be subservient. What will Parliament (and the courts?) make of all this, both in any amendment of the IPSA legislation and in the establishment or reform of constitutional watchdogs generally?
On the specific problem of institutional design of a Members resourcing system that is both effective and maintains public confidence, the Committee has tried to steer a careful, apparently logical if (intentionally?) opaque line, proposing reforms designed to appear sensible and practical, without provoking a media and public backlash that politicians are grabbing back the control they were forced to cede in the 2009 crisis. Its proposed structure supports retention of independent determination and regulation of the payments system for MPs’ costs, but suggests that “IPSA’s current administrative role should be carried out by a separate body, so that IPSA is not regulating itself, and the Act should be amended to permit this,” and that this separate administrative body “be within the House of Commons Service.”
Though presumably intended to be much narrower in function and responsibility – but what is IPSA’s purely ‘administrative’ role that can be severed safely? – will this new body not risk being regarded publicly as the return of the Fees Office, and, by implication, of the ‘bad old days’ pre-2009? The Committee appears to have recognised the warnings given to it and CSPL about inappropriate mixing of regulatory and other other related functions, and their impact on independence and accountability, and it believes that its new ‘semi in-House’ system will be better than the pre-IPSA one because “independent regulation by IPSA and transparency would ensure that it did not replicate the deficiencies of the old expenses system.” Really?
The Committee has recognised what some of us said to CSPL in 2009 about the loss of necessary expertise and understanding of the unique, ‘politicised’ world of parliamentary resourcing implicit in the creation of an ‘independent’ extra-parliamentary body like IPSA, and its proposal is presumably designed to remedy this, and thereby remove the running sore between Members and IPSA. But structure isn’t everything – in such an environment, culture and ethos are as, if not more, important for the proper operation of parliamentary resourcing that does not become more in the interests of MPs as individuals rather than as the public’s elected representatives.
The fatal flaw of the ‘bad old days’ was not self-regulation per se, but the corrosive, exclusive and self-interested culture nurtured by decades, even centuries, of an irresponsible absence of effective accountability. The Committee were clearly not keen on my submission that what was required was “”a system of modern parliamentary self-regulation, buttressed by an independent element to ensure that it was being operated transparently and responsibly and was not being abused”, describing it as going further than the views of its other witnesses (para 74). However, the Committee does not seem to regard self-regulation in the area of parliamentary resourcing as inherently wrong, merely, presumably, undeliverable in the post-2009 climate. In the same paragraph, it cites with implicit approval CSPL’s view that enhanced self-regulation could be retained at Holyrood and Cardiff Bay because “neither … has suffered a crisis of trust remotely comparable to that which has affected Westminster.”
This is a rather sad, defeatist attitude on whether and how Parliament can fundamentally reform itself, and in ways beyond questions of resourcing. Without a fundamental culture change, the Committee’s proposed semi self-regulation ‘solution’ will be hard to make work both effectively and in a way that gains and retains public trust. In fact it risks making things worse by reigniting public fury without ‘solving’ MPs’ discontent with IPSA, or, more fundamentally, without achieving its stated aim of providing an effective Members’ resourcing system (quoting with apparent approval my submission that ““the proper resourcing of the people’s elected representatives is a necessary precondition for a modern representative parliamentary democracy” (para 8)).
So, two cheers to the Committee for seeing the problems and sensing what the direction of reform should be. But the third cheer must be withheld because of its failure to propose more fundamental cultural reform that would enable its proposals to succeed. But this is typical of how parliamentary reform is done (or not) in Westminster – and Whitehall.