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MPs’ expenses and recall

MP’s expenses are back in the headlines again, with Sir Thomas Legg’s report detailing the amounts to be repaid by MPs.

One striking point is that after Legg’s investigation (and after Sir Paul Kennedy’s appeals from individuals MPs) a total of £1.12 million worth of expenses claims are to be repaid by MPs. Yet the Legg investigation itself cost £1.16 million. That is likely to be a conservative estimate, as further costs were incurred by the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority in their work on expenses.

So, the investigations cost more than the amount over-claimed by MPs. There is still a point of principle, as it is worth preventing the abuse of public funds in any event. It might also save money in the long-term if MPs’ conduct changes in future.

The findings of the report have limits. Legg did not look at claims that were being investigated by the police or Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Legg also rejected the argument put forward by many MPs that they had done nothing wrong, because they had their claim approved by the House of Commons Fees Office:

In any event that would not follow, but it especially does not follow in these circumstances, where the rules were so vague, the Fees Office was so weakly placed to enforce them, and MPs were themselves the self-certifying and responsible guardians of those funds as well as their recipients. Of course the words and actions of the Fees Office might well constitute a defence against charges of deliberate abuse by the MPs concerned. But that is an issue separate from the validity or otherwise of the payments and not for this review.

Legg said that approval by the Fees Office is not relevant to the validity of the expense claims, but could be a factor when deciding if an MP deliberately breached ethical standards.

I can see his point, as in many cases the MPs genuinely did not think they were doing wrong. But as Legg says, the MP’s were the ‘guardians of those funds’ – which makes it harder to pass on all responsibility to the Fees Office.

Questions remain about whether any more needs to be done to restore confidence in Parliament. On Tuesday, Gordon Brown mentioned a possible new power to recall MPs that commit some financial impropriety. Brown told the IPPR:

in grave situations where financial impropriety has been proven, but where parliament itself has failed to act, we are proposing the ultimate power of recall by the people.

Brown first made the proposal in June 2009 in the immediate aftermath of the expenses scandal. Prior to that both Clegg and Cameron made calls for a similar move.

The proposal raises a number of questions, such as what constitutes such a ‘grave situation’ which prompts the power to recall an MP. An inadvertent failure to register an interest would not be sufficient. It would have to be something showing a deliberate abuse of funds. But that is where all the difficult questions emerge – the ones that Legg avoided, such as what the MP believed at the time.

Another question is who decides whether an MP is guilty of gross misconduct – if it is to be a threshold for a recall. One approach would be to allow citizens to petition for a recall, but require that they provide reasons and evidence of some abuse of office. The danger is that the recall process could be abused with spurious and ill-founded allegations being made by petitioners.

To combat that danger, an official body/adjudicator could decide whether there is sufficient evidence to support the petitioners’ allegations of serious misconduct. Alternatively, an adjudicator could be required to make a finding of misconduct before any recall petitions can be submitted.

Either of these approaches would give considerable power to the adjudicator, which would probably be IPSA. A finding of misconduct by that body would be likely to end a political career – an incumbent would find it difficult to fight an election with such a finding. If you are going to hand the power to an independent adjudicator to determine whether there is conclusive evidence of gross misconduct (casting doubt on fitness for office) – why leave it to a recall process and not simply expel the MP? Parliament has the power to do this – but it was last used over 50 years ago.

These questions could be avoided through a more general power of recall – in which citizens can petition for an MP to face election without any questions of misconduct. That takes us away from MPs’ expenses and to bigger questions about the proper channels of accountability.

The recall proposal seems to be one that is unveiled when the moment calls for a radical measure, but fades before these difficult details are discussed.

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