Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

MPs slam expenses reform proposals

Senior MPs have slammed proposed curbs on expenses.

Senior MPs have attacked plans by the expenses watchdog to curb what they are allowed to claim for food, travel and hotels, claiming workers in other professions already enjoy more generous allowances.

Th e Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) has consulted on reforms that include scrapping the evening meal allowance and banning the use of taxis before 11pm as it tries to put the system that applies to MPs on a footing with other professions.

MPs on the Standards Committee, however, have raised a raft of concerns about the plans claiming they are being stripped of the right to put in for expenses that most companies would pay out for.

In a report, they highlighted proposals that would end the £15 that is claimable for dinner when the House sits beyond 7.30pm. The committee said it had "no wish to return to the system in which Members were allowed to make blanket claims" but said payments for food are commonly given to workers on business away from home.

"If such expenses are not met by the employer, then the employee is able to claim tax relief on subsistence costs of travel between work places," the report said. "The rules for MPs are already considerably less generous than this.

" We also note that when there is whipped business, Members must be within easy reach of the division lobbies. Once again, we consider there needs to be a stronger evidence base before it can be asserted that these are costs which other professionals would expect to meet for themselves, unless they had been dealt with through a salary supplement rather than expenses."

It comes amid reports that Ipsa's plans to give MPs an 11% pay rise will be signed off within weeks, despite all three main party leaders condemning the idea of a hike at a time when the rest of the country is suffering austerity.

The organisation said the £ 4.6 million extra salary costs would be offset by restrictions to pensions, ''golden goodbyes'', and expenses - meaning the overall burden on the taxpayer would only go up by £500,000 when the deal took effect after the 2015 general election.

Among the changes planned to allowances are a halt to claims for tea and biscuits and ban on using taxis to get home before 11pm.

Hotels would only be allowable if they are booked after 1am and there would also be a crackdown on claims for running two homes, with some costs for TV licences and contents insurance no longer being met.

The Standards Committee said it was " surprised by the suggestion" that some of the costs identified are of a kind which workers in other professional jobs would expect to pay for themselves.

It said MPs routinely worked 60 or 70 hours a week but since the new system of allowances had been introduced in the wake of the expenses scandal some had taken to sleeping in their offices.

" We do not consider that Ipsa has made a case for changing the boundary of the existing scheme of business costs and expenses," the report said.

The committee said it was "particularly concerned" about the possible impact of changes to taxi and hotel rules on MPs who live in Greater London.

" The proposal to allow taxis to be claimable only after 11pm and hotels to be bookable only after 1am will have the greatest impact on Members for constituencies within the Greater London area, although the proposals for taxis may affect MPs with accommodation within the inner London area, but some distance from Westminster.

" We find it hard to believe that employers in other sectors would expect their employees to wait until 1am before booking a hotel if it was necessary for them to work beyond the point at which it was possible or sensible to return home and to travel to work in time to start as normal in the morning."

It added: " We are also concerned about the effects of such rules on Members' ability to perform their duties effectively. We note that many committees begin work at 8:55 am, and Members are expected to attend regardless of the hour at which they ended their work the night before."

While MPs' pay is set to go up from £66,396 to £74,000, the existing final salary pension scheme is to be downgrad ed to career average - as happened across the rest of the public sector some years ago - saving £2.5 million in the first year.

Prime Minister David Cameron's official spokesman said: "MPs' pay is a matter for Ipsa.

"The Prime Minister's view is that the cost of politics should go down not up."

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