Friday, 24 April 2009

Expenses reform on the rocks

Gordon Brown’s rushed plans to reform Westminster expenses, including replacing the controversial second homes allowance with a daily attendance fee for MPs, looked doomed last night as the prospect of an even greater expenses scandal began to loom large.

With the opposition and Labour backbenchers declaring the plans unworkable the chances looked slim for Mr Brown being able to instigate reform before being engulfed by huge political crisis when four years worth of MPs expenses are being published under a Freedom of Information legislation in July.

MPs have already seen drafts of the intended publication and the Labour whips office has reportedly warned the Prime Minister that when some MPs expenses claims are laid bare resignations, and by-elections, will be inevitable.

Mr Brown’s sudden, eve of Budget, announcement that he wanted to make the expenses system simple and cheaper received a broadside from Sir Christopher Kelly, the chair of Committee on Standards in Public Life, who yesterday began his own investigation into reform.

"This is not something that should be left to politicians to sort out for themselves," said Sir Christopher at the launch of his review of the expenses system brought forward at Mr Brown’s request. He said the public "will have great difficulty accepting" Mr Brown’s key proposal to replace the £24,000 second home allowance with a payment for daily attendance, which has been condemned by both David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

Talks between the three main party leaders on Wednesday evening broke up without agreement. The Conservatives and Lib Dems have their own plans to scrap the controversial second homes allowance and replace it with a pared down, transparent system.

The Prime Minister’s spokesman said that there had been "overwhelming support" for the majority of the proposals and that discussions would continue on the issue of the second home allowance.

Last night Downing Street said it was still the Government’s intention to put a package of reforms to a vote in the Commons next Thursday. Commons leader Harrier Harman hinted that a figure for the proposed overnight allowance would be presented to MPs after many government backbenchers registered fury at being asked to approve changes in allowances without knowing the detail of what they are voting for.

There is also considerable anger amongst MPs over the proposals to transfer their constitunency staff onto the Westminster payroll to lower costs. "The first my staff and I heard of this was on a Youtube video," one Labour backbencher told me. "If a private company had announced changes in employment conditions for thousands of people like this the government would be expressing outrage."

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