Transparency, trust and parliamentary expenses: lessons from the International Parliamentary Regulators Conference

0.000Earlier this year, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority held the first ever conference for international parliamentary regulators. Here, Vicky Fox discusses how other national regulators operate, and offers an insight into some of the discussions  at the conference by academics, transparency advocates and serving members of the UK parliament.

In March 2019, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) hosted the world’s first conference for international parliamentary regulators. We brought together colleagues from 13 parliaments on five continents: Australia, Chile, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, Republic of (South) Korea, Scotland, Wales, Zambia and the UK. We talked about transparency and trust – what it means in the parliamentary regulatory sphere and the role that regulators, the media and elected politicians all play in creating trust in democracy.  

IPSA was created in the United Kingdom nine years ago in the wake of the expenses scandal. But there have been similar difficulties in other countries, including in Australia where an Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority (IPEA) started operations in 2018. Systems of regulation vary across countries with differing degrees of independence from the national parliament. For example in Hong Kong, pay and allowances are set by the Hong Kong government on advice from an Independent Commission, whose members it appoints. The Legislative Council Secretariat processes pay and reimbursement of claims. In Norway MPs’ salary and other expenses are regulated by law and guidelines. MPs’ salary is set by the Storting, the Parliament, based on a recommendation from the Salary Commission. In Wales there is an Independent Remuneration Board which sets the pay and allowances for Assembly Members. And in Zambia, pay and expenses are set out in legislation and administered by the Speaker.  

Whilst there are differences in the systems, we found that IPSA had much in common and legislatures in other countries were interested to learn from our experiences. At the conference, there were practical discussions about the systems we have in place to validate and audit claims for MPs’ costs. There were also conversations about the regulatory approach we adopt to balance our need to support MPs in doing their demanding jobs, with the need to provide assurance to the public that MPs are only making appropriate claims that are scrutinised on behalf of the taxpayer.

The conference included academic input led by the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Bath. Nick Dickinson of Exeter University contrasted the regulatory models in Australia and the UK, urging countries to consider accountability frameworks when designing new structures. Professor Sue Maguire of the University of Bath argued that increased transparency within parliament should extend beyond MPs’ costs to increase trust in representation more broadly, especially from under-represented groups. Dr Peter Allen, also from the University of Bath, explained that there is little evidence linking transparency and trust in democracy, and that one could argue that a certain amount of distrust is a sign of a healthy democracy. He nonetheless recognised the importance of educating people about politics and democracy, and that trust is harder to build if regulators and others providing information are not independent of both government and parliament.

We brought in political perspectives too. Labour MP Dame Margaret Hodge considered transparency to be vital for building trust in the fairness and accountability of democracy. But she recognised that there also needs to be a greater understanding of what MPs do in order to help to raise trust in politicians, and that there is now a constant threat of misinformation from ‘fake news’. The Conservative peer and journalist Daniel Finkelstein argued that transparency does not necessarily lead to increased trust in politicians. Nonetheless, it contributed to building a sense of the fairness of the reciprocal relationship between the public and politicians so that people could trust MPs to be working in the public interest.

The Chief Executive of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, Anthony Smith spoke of the quality of democracy and the impact that unfairness and exclusion have on public trust in civic institutions. He argued that trust in politics is fundamental to the health of democracy and that, to win public trust, institutions must themselves be trustworthy. Duncan Hames from Transparency International UK championed transparency as a key mechanism to defy corruption, which is an abuse of power for private gain. It was therefore essential for information to be available and easily accessible to members of the public.

The conference as a whole led us to see the importance of transparency in democracy. Publishing less information about MPs’ salaries and business costs was likely to lead to lower levels of  public trust, although there is always a risk of the media focusing on the small numbers of non-compliance, thereby damaging trust. Public bodies, including IPSA, must demonstrate that we too are worthy of trust. This means publishing information in a way that can be understood and easily interpreted by the public. We recognised that there isn’t a single right way to carry out parliamentary regulation, and that, just as IPSA was born of a political crisis specific to the UK parliament, the exact way of regulating politicians would depend on national cultural and historic factors relevant to each country. We agreed to work collaboratively with each other within our roles to support the accountability of democracy. Increasing trust is a marathon not a sprint, trust takes time to build, and politicians, academics, regulators and the media all have important roles to play in doing so.

About the author

Vicky Fox is Director of Regulation and Insight at IPSA, where she is responsible for IPSA’s Scheme of MPs’ Business Costs and Expenses, which sets the regulatory framework for MPs, as well as all policy, validation and assurance work, and for IPSA’s publications and data analysis. She has previously worked for the Electoral Commission and as a government lawyer.