Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Tom Harris, IPSA & a reminder of how the Labour Government treated people

Tom Harris has been writing fairly extensively in recent weeks about the problems he and others have experienced with the new Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. On some issues, I agree with him - I really don't see why MPs should have to pay 15% of their constituency office phone bills. They should not have to subsidise their public service. Of course, it's the MPs who work hardest to serve their constituents who will end up paying out more in hard cash. It's a very silly rule, and I hope it changes.

In his latest post, Tom gives some examples of inefficiency, ineffectiveness and general craziness in the new system of MPs' expenses some of which are quite unfortunate, especially those relating to staff not being paid.

From Tom's complaints, you would think that the public services the Labour Government he was a member of was perfect in the way they dealt with people and they never made mistakes. Sadly, I could spend all day giving examples of inefficiency, ineffectiveness and general craziness I've come across. The people these blunders affected didn't have around £5000 a month to fall back on, either. (Actually, as Tom points out in the comments, it's only £3200 after deductions, so I put my hands up to that inaccuracy, but, well, it's more than most people get).

Let's start with an example of UK Border Agency incompetence. Someone applied for a work permit. UK Border Agency lost all the original documents they sent. They forked out for copies and then turned the person down for not having original documents.

Then there's the (numerous) examples of how the Tax Credit Office computer suddenly decided to start forgetting that claimants had children, and pursued them for overpayments of all the Child Tax Credit they had ever received, often thousands of pounds, despite being provided with evidence that the children existed.

Sticking with the TCO, they're not above losing things either. I've seen families struggling on Income Support have to wait for months for their tax credit applications to be processed when they have children, repeatedly lsing official documents and being slow to pay for their replacement. They often had issues with taking forever to process a claim in the easiest of circumstances, leaving people without any money to buy food.

This slightly puts into perspective reports that MPs' mortgages aren't being paid. It's not as if they are going to be out on the street - and IPSA, if they are in error, will, I'm sure, refund bank charges.

Then there's the Tax people being slow to deal with correspondence, creating all sorts of problems for people and businesses. Imagine any private company telling people their letter, no matter how urgent, wouldn't be opened for at least 3 months.

Then there's the Child Support Agency, lumbering one particular person with tens of thousands of pounds of arrears of maintenance, not accepting that they actually never lived at the address they'd sent the initial correspondence. It took years to sort that one out.

And paying one person's payments to somebody else, leaving the first person with no money to pay for fuel in the depths of Winter.

I have a particularly special love for Department of Work and Pensions. They can pay off their own staff after decades of exemplary service because their occupational physicians define them as too ill to work. When these same individuals try to claim benefit, the very same company tells them they are fit for work.

Those same people then have to wait for months to appeal, receiving reduced payments in the meantime and at the moment almost half of the appeals are successful.

Then there's people's benefits being stopped for all sorts of random and unjustified reasons with no warning.

In all cases, people report that when they try to communicate with the department concerned, they are made to feel like criminals, and the people on the other end of the phone are just so rude to them. There is no excuse for that.

There might be some who take a bit of perverse pleasure in seeing MPs being treated like that. I'm not one of them, although I have no objection to them having to provide documentary evidence of things. You try claiming benefits or tax credits without providing supporting documents and see how far you get. Most MPs, as I have repeatedly said, are good people - but then so are most people who deal with the Department of Work and Pensions, the UK Border Agency and HM Revenue and Customs - and nobody should have to put up with poor systems and bad service.

One thing IPSA hasn't done yet is lost any confidential data, unlike HMRC under Labour where the details of Child Benefit claimants went missing.

I do have a slight concern about the way in which one MP spoke to the IPSA officials (apparently interns, who have no power in the organisation) when asked to file his children's birth certificates:

It is not yet known whether the IPSA official in question is even physically capable of performing the act the MP then requested of him, or even if it is legal within the United Kingdom.
.

I wonder if this is a bit of poetic licence on Tom's part but if a benefit or tax credit claimant had spoken to a Government official like that, they would have suffered some fairly severe consequences and perhaps been denied service, however understandable the grievance. I also think Tom would be the first to stand up and defend the relevant Government agency in that instance.

I hope that the new MPs' Expenses regime settles down and starts to operate efficiently, but Labour MPs who are annoyed about its operation should reflect that this is exactly how they have been treating the vulnerable for the last 13 years, with far more serious consequences. What I would say to Tom is make sure you pick your fights carefully, otherwise you sound a bit like the boy who cried wolf. Nobody else would be able to claim expenses without evidence. I know that's a big change for MPs, but it's a change for the better, and they just have to suck that one up. There are, however, justifiable concerns and changes need to be made - they shouldn't drown those out with relatively petty complaints.

21 comments:

Liberal Neil said...

Your post reflects my reaction to these MPs 100%.

You could also mention applying for a Student Loan.

So it's suddenly an affront to be asked for a child's birth certificate is it? Tell that to the millions who have to do it routinely.

theshooglypeg said...

Excellent post Caron, I think IPSA does need to put its house in order, but those MPs who have such a problem with it should try applying for Employment Support Allowance: then they'd learn about inefficient, often unpleasant service.

Tom Harris said...

Caron - first of all, which MP has "around £5000 a month to fall back on"? An MP's monthly salary is £3200 after deductions. And just because that's more than the average take-home pay, that does not mean we can afford to pay our constituency office rentals, our constituency office phones and all the related costs of running an office and then wait until Ipsa get around to reimbursing us at a time convenient to them. The issue is not about hand-outs or allowances (that would be so 2009); it is about money spent by MPs in the course of their duties which Ipsa owe us.

And you seem to believe that MPs only have the right to complain about Ipsa after every complaint that the general public has has been addressed. If you believe that, then bless.

The point you're choosing to overlook is that the new system will have absolutely no effect on millionaires like Clegg, Laws, Cameron and Osborne, etc. They won't be looking at their monthly outgoings and wondering how they're going to run an office and pay for all their personal outgoings as well. Doesn't it concern you even a little bit that Ipsa is making it extremely difficult for MPs of modest means (ie, the majority) to remain in the job, or to do it properly, or for ordinary people to contemplate a career in UK politics? You're seriously saying, as a LibDem activist, that that doesn't concern you? The New Politics indeed...

As to the act which the unnamed MP suggested the Ipsa official perform, I should have known that someone would take that seriously, and of course I should have known that that someone would be a LibDem. In fact the MP simply told the official "Let's just move on, shall we?", but I thought my own version was funnier. We're still allowed humour in the New Politics, aren't we? I mean, even with the LibDems propping up a Tory government?

Tom Harris said...

Oh, and another thing. It's not just Labour MPs who are complaining. Feelings are running just as high on the government benches. Bob Russell, the MP for Colchester has had to move office because Ipsa will no longer fund the one he's been in for nine years. And Richard Bacon MP has been extremely active in the campaign against Ipsa's stupidity. It is literally impossible to find an MP of any party who thinks Ipsa is anything othe than incompetent. So please don't try to smear the Labour Party by trying to claim this is a Labour issue.

Old Holborn said...

Come come now Tom

In April 2009, Hollobone gained public attention as the thriftiest Member of Parliament in terms of expenses: the average MP claimed £150,000 whereas Hollobone's expenses bill amounted to £47,737

Perhaps if you Labour MPs spent a little less on staffing offices with the party faithful.

Your task for today Tom is to visit the job centre in Glasgow South and help an unemployed woman sign on for benefits. I am quite, quite sure it will form the basis of a book.

Caron said...

Tom, £3200 is still a lot more than most people have coming in every month. We are not rich by any stretch of the imagination, but we can live fairly comfortably on a lot less than that.

I am 100% certain that no Member of Parliament is going to be chucked out of their home, with their family, and be forced into b and b or hostel accommodation any time soon. I have seen this happen to people who have been failed by the benefits or tax credits system.

You aren't paying your office rental and costs out of your personal bank account & if there are short term cash flow issues they will hopefully be sorted out very soon.

I strongly suspect, also, that MPs' banks will be a great deal more sympathetic than they would be to a small business owner who needs funds to keep her viable small business afloat. Or to a customer who's lost their job and can't pay their mortgage.

I think there are many valid reasons to question the way that IPSA operates. Did you miss this bit in my posting:

"There might be some who take a bit of perverse pleasure in seeing MPs being treated like that. I'm not one of them, although I have no objection to them having to provide documentary evidence of things. You try claiming benefits or tax credits without providing supporting documents and see how far you get. Most MPs, as I have repeatedly said, are good people - but then so are most people who deal with the Department of Work and Pensions, the UK Border Agency and HM Revenue and Customs - and nobody should have to put up with poor systems and bad service."

And as for your friend's comments, you clearly didn't see the humour in what I said - I suspected that there was a bit of Harris flippancy and poetic licence in what you'd written. However, when IPSA has had to put up signs saying that its staff won't tolerate verbal abuse, you have to wonder about how some people have been speaking to them. And I stand by what I said about reckoning you would defend any Government agency against abuse by its customers, no matter how inefficient it was.

All I am doing is pointing out that the way IPSA is operating is not dissimilar to the way public services run by Labour have been treating people for the last 13 years. I would hope that it might inspire some sort of humility in those who have been responsible, or are indeed becoming responsible for how the most vulnerable are treated.

Caron said...

Tom, as regards your follow up point, saying I'm smearing the Labour party is a wee bit over the top, don't you think?

All I'm doing is suggesting that the public services Labour have been operating over the past 13 years have treated people much worse than IPSA, with much more serious consequences.

Old Holborn said...

Tom, perhaps you could guide one of the party faithful who is made redundant over to Tower Hamlets. Plenty of tax payer funded jobs "for Labour Party members only"there

Debra Storr said...

Perhaps the fair approach would be for DWP to take over the role from IPSA? They have well established systems to manage claims and strict rules about how clients should be treated - and how staff are protected.

:-)

OK - there are teething troubles in IPSA and a high turnover of MPs is causing some difficulties. But a bit of patience on the part of MPs wouldn't go amiss.

Sophia Pangloss said...

Of course ah'm wi' ye here Caron, maist right-thinkin' folk wid be. Tom Harris certainly isnae helpin' his case by girnin' oan the way he does. Whit he's mibbe missin' is that the reason there's little sympathy flowin' his way is doon tae the way many MPs fae previous Parliaments abused their expenses. As a group, an' ah appreciate many o' them are newly elected, they are nae longer trusted. Pure an' simple.

An' that's a huge problem. Nae longer trusted, nae longer 'honourable', nae longer a breed apart. MPs should now experience exactly the same sort o' inefficient bureaucracy as the rest o' us. It's a punishment, but it's only fair.

If MPs can restore oor trust we might think different. Until then they can bleat aw they want, we're no listenin.

Morgan said...

As someone who is a carer for a severely disabled husband, raising a five year old son, and involved in supporting those seeking refugee status as well, I can tell you Labour consistently kicked people like us, whilst we were down. We've been on benefits since the previous Conservative administration, and stood back in horror, whilst Labour reduced the benefits and entitlements of those severely ill for life. We were only protected by having been on the old benefits. We've also watched the admin and paperwork costs for dealing with us, rise alarmingly, with more and more of the work on making it all happen, thrown on my shoulders as the carer.

Yes, there were improvements in child poverty: I can afford to buy my son shoes, proper shoes. But we are currently facing eviction, as a medical dictated move to different housing, walked us into one of the stealth areas of Labour's whinging cuts to councils. We are rented appropriate accommodation by a major Charity, but it's not housing association, so they will not pay for a bedroom for my five year old son, as my husband has to have one on his own, for medical needs. If we were in a housing association property, it would be paid automatically via Housing Benefit. But we are renting from a Charity, so Scottish Borders should pay for my son's bedroom, and they are refusing to do so. I'm now on medication from the worry and stress.

I have lived as the full time carer of a severely disabled adult through many administrations. Nothing prepared me for the insanity, and inhumane policies and treatment of the latter years of the Labour Government. And that's from a Lanarkshire Labour Lass, born to the People's Flag.

And don't get me started on babies and Yarl's Wood. I've held a hungry baby in my arms, in Yarl's Wood, who have not been fed for over 16 hours, as the compound ran out of the specialist formula needed to feed the poor mite, and then refused to send the baby to the hospital 9 miles away, to get the formula it needed. I've seen them refuse lactation support to mothers in pain, and without their babies. I've had mothers and babies sleeping on my floor, when they've been thrown put of Yarl's Wood as their appeal for unlawful detention was upheld, and they were deposited outside at 8pm in the evening, with no food, drink, formula or money, and a train ticket thrust in their hands.

And believe me, everything I've mentioned above, has been documented without question. See Hansard.

If Labour had been listening to its own people, these last 5 years, they wouldn't have lost the election. Must go, time for my medication, and another long consult with Child Poverty charities, Welfare Charities, my MP, and many others, to see if we can get Scottish Borders to fulfill Labour's guidelines, and take us out of torture, and the threat of homelessness.

KelvinKid said...

It is difficult to Take Tom Harris seriously. Cuts in public service during the Labour regime led to poor public service across the board. Labour may have poured money into the NHS but they beggared the rest of the public sector to do it.

In 2008 a series of cuts and re-organisations in the DWP meant months of sheer chaos for benefit claimants in Fife. Jobseekers Allowance and Incapacity Benefits claims were taking in excess of 3 months to process, leaving the most vulnerable in society without money. Claimants were left with a fistful of telephone numbers all of which were useless in resolving their problems. The miss-match between the roles of HMRC and DWP again leave vulnerable customer groups with uncertain income and a mountain to climb to get paid.

All this time Mr Harris was drawing his £64K plus and uttering never a whisper as he trooped through the Labour lobby in docile fashion. I have absolutely no sympathy for you Tom. Shut up and get on with your job.

Caron said...

Morgan, this is a nightmare - I presume this arises out of Labour's bonkers Local Housing Allowance changes which will only pay out for a certain size of property.

It doesn't affect properties owned by social landlords, but all other privately rented properties are affected.

I understand the rationale behind the state not funding a couple living in a 6 bedroomed mansion, for example but that's an extreme example. There are plenty of people who have different needs, as you do, and there is no flexibility within the system to deal with that. Another example of an ill thought out, one size fits all Labour policy that has caused real harm.

I hope that something is sorted out for you - there is no sense in making a family homeless as you are being threatened with.

Caron said...

Well said, KK.

I think the other point it's worth raising is that because of our current electoral system, Tom Harris has his job as MP until he decides to give it up. Ok, he's one of the few that got over half the votes cast this time round, but that's not by any means half of the electorate.

I don't think that any MP should have that kind of job security and this shows why we really need PR.

Morgan said...

Yes Caron, it is precisely those regulations. But the kicker is that in order to make the councils follow through, Labour have set up regulations that state the Councils should pay, if there is good cause. But it comes from the Council's Hardship Fund, not Housing Benefit. So, naturally, the council is protecting its meagre hardship fund: but is ignoring Government guidelines on how to decide the merit of the case, in order to do it.

So we move hundreds of miles, out of a Housing Association property, in order to save my husband's life (not an exaggeration) and find ourselves in property that is suitable for his extreme illness, but that the council, 7 months on, have not paid over a penny in Housing Benefit for, and who are refusing to acknowledge that we require three bedrooms, even though we have signed proof of such, from several NHS consultants. In Housing Association property, which we left to come here AS IT HAD THREE BEDROOMS, the third bedroom would be paid for automatically. As we fulfill the criteria for such, within social housing.

I could go on. It's been a nightmare. Scottish Borders are even ignoring our MP, which I suspect they do at their peril...

The Grim Reaper said...

What an utter, utter idiot Tom Harris is. Our MPs clearly don't like the fact they're having to - in one way - live in the real world now.

And trust him to try to bring class into this. He omits to mention the numerous millionaires that are already in the Labour Party - several of whom were in the previous cabinet. I doubt he's short for a few bob either. The hypocrite.

doctorcdf said...

As a Green activist, I have absolutely zero sympathy for Tom Harris. If you want to try politics on a shoestring, try it with a party that has a national budget just exceeding £300K (as stated in the Economist).

People go into public service because it is a public service, we want to give back to the community and to the country. I'm sorry that the means of carriage through public service isn't as ermine lined as it used to be. However the rest of us, in both private and public sector jobs have seen real wage declines as well as price rises for fuel and food. If MPs have to pay a bit more out of their own pocket, well that's really just too bad.

Anonymous said...

Suck it up Tom, you & your fellow MP's are now realising what it's like to be a small business owner or freelancer in the world of bureaucracy that your Labour chums foisted upon the rest of us as part of their Socialist utopian dream. To hear your wails now now makes your initial "we know what's best for you all" party attitude all the more satisfying.

doctorcdf said...

One final thought: I seem to recall that Dave Nellist, while he served in Parliament, refused to take more than the average Coventry worker's salary. I'm not advocating anything as extreme as that (and I certainly don't believe in digging up the corpse of Leon Trotsky), but at the same time, it's unlikely that Nellist would be caught making these kinds of complaints. But perhaps this is one of the reasons to regret the passing of old Labour.

chris said...

Old Holborn, one small detail you're missing out is that the reason that Phillip Hollobone managed to proudly declare his cheapness, is that according to people who live in his constituency, he is given somewhere to stay, rent free in London by the Duke of Buccluch. He also has no constituency office, amking it much harder for us, his constituents to get in touch with him. The fact that this allows him to brag about his cheapness is at best misleading.

I'm not a Labour member, and am a comitted tactical voter, but blaming labour for many of the problems with the DWP is Laughable. The problems with the benefits system now are the same as the problems with the benefits system that have existed since at least I first encountered them in the 1980's during the Conservative government of the day. It would appear that no governemt has the desire to fix the problems that exist, and are quite willing for people to take it out on the most vulnerable on the off chance that someone might be getting a few pounds that they are unentitled to.

Devil's Kitchen said...

Tom,

"It is literally impossible to find an MP of any party who thinks Ipsa is anything othe than incompetent. So please don't try to smear the Labour Party by trying to claim this is a Labour issue."

Ah, yes, well... Er, could you remind me, please, Tommy, which party was in power when IPSA was set up?

I mean, I know that it was an awfully long time ago, but I do believe that IPSA was set up under the Labour government, was it not?

So, the fact that IPSA—just like every other government service—is "incompetent" is pretty much par for the course, eh?

DK

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