Thursday 3 April 2008 at 9.30am in Speaker's House
Sir Stuart Bell MP
Nick Harvey MP
David Maclean MP
In the absence of the Speaker, Sir Stuart Bell MP was called to the chair.
The Committee met with Liberal Democrat MPs: Lorely Burt, Norman Baker, Martin Horwood and Stephen Williams.
Lorely Burt said that, contrary to the general media impression, Members who had come to the House recently and particularly since 2005, found that their claims were vigorously checked. Furthermore, the allowance system made no provision for the start-up costs of establishing an office and finding accommodation. Rental costs in London were high and absorbed much of the Additional Costs Allowance.
In discussion, the following points were made:
- A multi national company would pay relocation costs to anyone moving to work in a different place, but the charity sector would not treat this as relocation
- Anyone coming from the private or charity sector would expect a proper audit was carried out and would find the claims regime at the House astonishingthe finance director would approve a reasonable but capped budget for an individual's expenses and check that their use was necessary and reasonablecomparisons would be drawn between people with similar situationseverything should be subject to challenge by the finance director
- It should not be possible for Members to make a capital gain on property bought partly from public fundseven if the cost to public funds was no more than it would be for providing hotel accommodationit would be hard to justify more than a two-bedroom flat as a second home
- There were areas of particular weakness about the accommodation element of the additional costs allowancere-mortgaging, Members who live together and Ministers who have government residences in London, the designation of main and second homes
- Office costs varied across the country and were prohibitively expensive in city centresthe SSRB's recommendation for central funding of such offices had meritsalternatively the House could rent offices directly and these could be taken over by the next MP for the constituency
- The food allowance was hard to justify at £400 a month without receiptsbut there was a case for a daily subsistence allowance for days when evening work at the House prevented Members having their own food at homethis should apply to all Members and not only those who claimed the additional costs allowance
- The caseload on MPs did justify the number of staff they employedindeed there was a case for a higher staff budgetMPs should retain flexibility about the composition of their staff teamscentral staffing by the House would limit flexibility
- Current advice from the Department of Resources on staffing matters was good when sought but not all Members followed best employment practiceemployment law did apply to MPs' staff
- Staff posts should be advertised properly but political orientation should not be excludedthere was a case for having more narrowly-defined basic salaries with increments at the discretion of the Memberstaffing should be kept separate from office costs with no scope for transfer between the two allowances
- Among the unusual features of the system were that tax was payable on capital goods for offices and rent payments could only be claimed in arrears
- Auditors can only test claims processes not actual paymentsthe House's current arrangements did not go behind a Member's signaturethe Member was responsible for the validity of the claim.
The MEC asked the Liberal Democrats for a paper on staffing, particularly on what aspects of staff management Members should retain control of if their staff were centrally employed.
Summing up the discussion, Sir Stuart Bell said that some valuable suggestions had been made and that the Committee had no fixed views on them at this stage.