Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Have your say on MPs' Expenses and make sure constituents count!

Yes, I know I said light, but I thought it was worth flagging up to you that there's a consultation going on here by the body which now runs MPs' Expenses. They want to know what we all think about what MPs should be able to claim for.

The consultation document is lengthy - 61 pages - flagging up all sorts of issues. A brief scan, though, makes me think that the people who really matter, MPs' constituents and their needs who they are there to serve, don't figure too highly. There's plenty reference to taxpayers and making sure that they get value for money but not of the thousands of people a year who approach their MPs needing help. These people may have been told to repay thousands, often in error, by the Tax Credit Office. They may have been waiting for ages to have a Child Benefit claim, or, even more urgently, a claim for JobSeekers' Allowance processed and may have no money at all. They may be living in horrendous housing, or have been subject to an unfair decision by the UK Borders Agency.

They may have come across a particularly unfair or worrying situation which requires a change in the law. It was a letter from a constituent,outlining her terrible experience of having been sexually assaulted by her driving instructor, seeing him convicted and then the next day hearing that he was back out working, which led to Willie Rennie introducing an act of Parliament which ensured that driving instructors could be suspended from the Register.

By the time people come to their MPs, they will usually have been through many other channels and their cases are incredibly complex. MPs must have the resources in terms of staff and equipment to ensure that these cases are properly dealt with. I know that there are many people who think that MPs shouldn't do as much casework and should concentrate on making laws. I think that if you're making laws, you need to understand their effect on people, and how things can go wrong. It's a vital part of holding the Government to account.

My point really is that I know that a fair few people reading this will have experience of working for MPs or with MP's offices, maybe from a charity or advocacy organisation, or maybe people who have been helped by MPs themselves who will know of the invaluable assistance that MPs can give. Government departments are not quick to admit where they've made a mistake and it's vital that MPs have the resources to properly pursue these complex cases and ensure that errors are rectified. I'm hoping that all of you will respond to IPSA's consultation which goes on until 11th February and let them know what you think it's important for MPs to have.

In the aftermath of the MPs' Expenses scandal, the mood was very much looking for a punitive system which would stamp out excesses. I think now is a good opportunity to review how the new system is working and ensure that the people who matter most, constituents, are properly served. Any one of them could need their MP to help them pick their way through an official minefield, whether it's to help with a family member stuck abroad or with their own dealings with Government agencies.

I'll come back to this when I've had time to read all 61 pages in more detail but I wanted to give you the heads up on this as soon as I could.

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