Gales View (22nd September 2010)

My column about the finances of BBC attracted a strong and supportive reaction.  People, it seems, have had enough of extravagant public bodies that waste the taxpayer’s money and pay inflated salaries to their senior personnel. 

So, risking the probability that this may attract less support, let’s take a look at another and more recently created quango - The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. 

Please understand that I do not expect any sympathy for Members of Parliament.  Take it as read that we are all “on the take”, “in it for ourselves” and that we get subsidised food, and drink and three month Summer holidays.  That is what those paragons of virtue of the Press tell you, so it must be true.  Oh yes, and we are all overpaid as well. We may not be quite in the BBC executive or footballer bracket but we earn nearly as much as the head of a department in a secondary school – and even that is a lot more than the minimum wage. 

However, I do think that you might take a sideways look at the body that has been set up to replace the old, and largely efficient, House of Commons Fees Office.  Established by Parliament (they will tell you) on the back of popular press demand, the IPSA has, in my view, become a model of overpowering bureaucracy and arrogant management that makes the excesses of “Yes Minister” look positively efficient.   

IPSA, presided over by a beknighted professor as its Acting Chairman and with  a seconded civil servant  as its Interim Chief Executive, is ensconced, paying tens of thousands of pounds in annual  rent, in a fine suite of offices in London’s Victoria. Employing getting on for seventy people, one of whom is a  “Communications Director” on an advertised salary of around £80k a year, IPSA is costing you, dear taxpayer, about six and a half million pounds a year.  Even allowing for the “one million pounds a year” that newspapers allege that MPs were ”fiddling" out of the old system that is more than double the cost of the Fees Office.  And yet this mighty organisation is incapable, apparently, of making direct payments to those who supply goods and services.  The old Fees Office managed it virtually without a glitch but IPSA wants most bills paid by MPs and then reclaimed. They will now, for “big ticket” items, make payments against invoices rather than receipts but that means that your money goes through our bank accounts – the last thing that you would have thought that the Daily Telegraph would approve of. 

The Mandarin Interim Chief Executive tells me in a letter that “plenty of people pay their expenses first and then reclaim them.”  So it would be interesting to know  how many of their office bills (phone, heating, lighting, cleaning, headed notepaper, fire precautions, insurance and the like)  the Interim Chief Executive  and Sir Professor are paying out of their own salaries before getting it back from the Treasury!    I suspect the answer might just be “not a lot”. 

The culture of mistrust that its executive team have bred within IPSA is so great that MPs are not allowed to have necessary goods delivered to home addresses because “it would be impossible to differentiate what is for personal and what is for business use”. And it is up to MPs to move home and family in order to fit within what some Ipsamaniac has determined might, on a good day, be a 1-hour journey to London.  No account is taken of time from home to Westminster because “to do so might create a perverse incentive to MPs to move further away in order to claim travel or accommodation allowances”! 

If that level of obstruction sounds far- fetched, there is one Kent MP who has a station within the constituency that is, at peak time and only from station to station, a one-hour journey.  The MP happens to live, and has always lived, at the further end of, but within, the constituency. At least a ninety minute journey, having got to a mainline station from the House of Commons, after a 10.30pm vote and due back in the House, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to start  work again, for you and for England,  at 08.30 the following day. “ Move or suffer. It’s your choice”. This means that another (Essex) MP has now sold the constituency base that can no longer be afforded, lives in London and will spend the inside of one day a week, instead of a whole weekend,  in the constituency. An improvement? I do not think so.  

IPSA has also entered into a five-year contract for a computerised “security key” system to allow expenses to be claimed online.  Thousands of your taxpayer’s pounds a year, and no get out clause if – as it has already once – it fails or is proved to be unwieldy.  Brilliant. Except that having paid somebody to tortuously enter claims on line MPs then have to print them off and submit them, with receipts, for checking. Which is, of course, precisely what we used to do without the expense of the “secure” computer system!” 

I could bore you with more detail but will not do so.  I know that there was a rottenness in Westminster that had to be cut out and I know that there were some MPs – although not in fact very many out of the total of 650 – that had milked the system. 

Neither is there, of course, any excuse for reported rudeness to junior members of the IPSA staff. Many of them transferred from the former Fees Office and they are trying, under very difficult circumstances, to drive a vehicle that has been invented with square wheels.   

But the fact remains that you are now paying more than twice as much for an ill-conceived organisation that was created as a result of knee-jerk reaction to Press pressure and that has already become part of the problem rather than part of the solution.  An already disillusioned intake of nearly half a House of Commons of new Members is sleeping on floors and wrestling with truly idiotic regulation while struggling to do, on behalf of constituents and nation, the job that they once dreamed of. 

Those that have delivered this shambles of a system may take little pride from the fact that the next generation of politicians will almost certainly be drawn from the ranks of the very rich (which does not necessarily mean the very bright or able)  or from juvenile anoraks with no experience of business, industry, public service or, indeed, of life.  Those who have hitherto surrendered good careers and who have taken large cuts in income to serve their nation will no longer do so in parliament. .  In the interests of “my shirt is hairier than yours” the leading politicians of the last Parliament have, at a stroke, transformed a vocation into a job and our country will be the poorer for it.

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