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Making and breaking the rules on expenses

Removing MPs rights to determine their expenses is the only way of ending current furore

Sir, It is right to sustain the pressure for the system of MPs’ expenses to be overhauled further (reports, Mar 24). For many years, the Senior Salaries Review Body has sought to ensure that MPs’ expense claims are rational, appropriate, justifiable and wholly transparent. It is still in a position to take an objective and independent view, and could profitably join forces with the Committee on Standards in Public Life in any review it may wish to undertake. But no amount of review will be of any value while MPs are left to mind their own shop and government to intervene at will.

Last year both the SSRB’s report and my own work on parliamentary pay and pensions set out the case and mechanisms for the independent determination of MPs’ pay and expenses. The outline acknowledged the need to raise MPs’ pay modestly over time and to get a better grip of expenses. The Government, however, chose to take a short-sighted view on pay and, to get this accepted by their backbenchers, did a deal with them enabling MPs to determine still their own expense system.

For any MP to argue that a claim for expenses (to be met by the taxpayer) is acceptable because “it is within the rules” misses the main point. MPs should voluntarily but unequivocally give up their rights in the matter of determining their expenses and, as the rest of the world does and as they have done on their own pay, trust to determination by an external independent body such as the SSRB. The Government also should deny itself any right to intervene.

Unless, and until, this fundamental change of responsibilities is made, we are not likely to see an end to the sort of furore we now see.

From March 25, 2009