Thursday, 11 March 2010

Tom Levitt's response to the IPSA consultation

We alluded to To Levitt's response to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) expenses consultation, and here's a link to the PDF file. For ease of reading, we have reproduced the text of the document, and this is accessible via a link ('read more') at the bottom of this post.

Before you read it, you may want to note some rather interesting observations we have made upon reading it:

  • The document contains 13 spelling mistakes (highlighted in our reproduction).
  • Levitt reveals he has submitted a radio play to the BBC on the expenses issue (he says he has attached a draft, but this is not reproduced in the PDF). Clearly, he has a lot of time on his hands, which contradicts his comments about needing to use first class travel 4 hours a week in order to 'work'.
  • Contrary to his recent statements that the new expenses system is fair, he reserves a lot of vitriol for the proposals in this report.

There's a lot to his response, so we may be back to pick up on bits and pieces of it at a later date. In the meantime, read on...

Dear Sir Ian

Please find below some contributions to your consultation - below. I regret no longer have time before your deadline to contribute in as much detail as I would have liked. What follows is by no means a comprehensive outine of my view.

I recently submitted a radio play on this issue to the BBC for consideration and I thought you might like to see it - draft attached.

They say that democracy is the worst of all forms of government - apart from all the others. Whilst we should not put Members’ Expenses on the same high pedestal, we should be very careful to ask the question “Does this proposal really make the system fairer than the current one?” The current system is better, far better, than what went before - which was typified by ambiguous rules, inconsistent application and some blatant exploitation. What we have now is ‘work in progress’ but in some respects it has already gone too far.

What follows is a by no means exhaustive list but just six examples of where we - and you - have not yet got it right.


Chapters six and seven of your consultation set out a series of highly convoluted, bureaucratic hoops and hurdles which will be a nightmare to enforce. The system for accommodation and travel should be simple and straight forward, reflect obvious gropunds for discrimination (inner/outer London and elsewhere) but also respect an MP’s family life, freedom to choose and personal privacy - if that still exists. The idea of setting up a rental agency that can provide furnished accommodation for 200 MPs initially in just three months time, without being ‘ripped off’ by landlords and at an ongoing cost significantly lower than the payment of mortgage interest is simply not credible.

There is a myth that the payment of MPs’ mortgage interest is contributing to them accumulating wealth at the taxpayers’ expense. There is no logic to this argument. If interest rates and house prices remain stable, no homeowner makes any profit from any sale at any time. Rising interest rates (the only circumstances which would increase the taxpayers’ liability under the current system) does not in itself produce higher property prices or profits. Some MPs who bought second homes in recent years will have seen the value of their property fall. As they cannot expect the taxpayer to carry the liability of bailing them out, there should be no assumption that the taxpayer should benefit from any profit on the property, either. In other words, there is no link at all between the amount the txpayer has been contributing to mortgage interest payments and any profit the MP makes on the sale of the property.

You should add to that the ‘killer fact’ that for as long as I can remember, the taxpayers’ contribution to a modest property purchase in Lambeth (for example) is lower currently about a quarter of what the taxpayers’ contribution to a similar, rented accommodation would be. The issues of Capital Gains Tax and ‘flipping’ have been resolved. There has been no presumption in the past that any sitting MP who sells a second home property and buys another should pass all profit on to the second purchase (if they did not, they would be artificially inflating the mortgage interest element) and I am content with there currently being a cap on mortgage interest payments (and rent) of £1250 per month, falling over time. But the proposal only allows
rental rather than mortgage payments. at a considerably higher cost to the taxpayer, and only for one-bedroomed properties. This is very far from ‘family friendly’. Whilst it may allow for a spouse to stay the night (as long as they are on speaking terms and there is no medical reason for not sharing a bed) it does not allow for visitors or offspring to stay occasionally - a facility which helps MPs maintain a degeree of sanity in the Westminster hot-house.

Perhaps more seriously, I think your proposals will encourage MPs to live in London, base their family in London, and use the rent I hotel option for visits to the constituency. This will breed a 19th century, London-centric attitude which MPs of all sides and Parliament as a whole have moved away from, actively or passively but effectively over the generations. Your proposals are an entirely retrograde step. (See Q18)

Q7: Yes. Q8 misses the point. Q9: it should not. Q10: The proposal to introduce caring responsibilities would not arise if my suggestions are taken on board.


This issue has received very little coverage, but the removal of the £25 daily subsistence allowance has brought it into sharp focus.

There can be few jobs which require the level of networking and hospitality as ours. Whilst there has never been a specific budget head to cover hospitality, the fact that few diligent MPs can get to even their own London dining tables when Parliament is sitting means that dining, even in the Commons cafeterias, is more expensive than eating at home. Add to this the inevitable need to be hospitable to constituents, those who are lobbying you and those you are lobbying, and MPs have always been out of pocket on this necessary element of our professional lives. I am not asking for a hospitality allowance; though I do call for the £25 daily allowance to be restored. Even tea as a networking tool has a price - I note that this would be specifically allowed for MPs’ staff but not for MPs ‘on the go’.


My current journey from High Peak to London is as follows: Car/taxi from Buxton to Macclesfield, 25 minutes. Train from Macclesfield to London, 110 minutes. This would not qualify for first class rail travel under your new proposals which require 150 minutes of train travel. However, I invariably work on the train, something I can only do in a first class carriage for three reasons: that I have a table, space and privacy to work there; that I have a seat (as the standard class carriages between Manchester and London are often standing room only); and that (as I am over six feet tall) I have the leg room for comfort.

However, I have another route to London: I can walk from home to Buxton station, 2 minutes. Train from Buxton to Stockport, 50 minutes. Train from Stockport to London, 125 minutes. On a railway travel time basis alone this would qualify for first class travel under your proposed rules (even though there is no first class facility on the Buxton to Stockport train). Yet, if you add the waiting time at Stockport (disallowed under your proposals), the total journey time is an hour longer (two hours per week) than the first example. This is not a good use of my time! And MPs who benefit from conversation together in a relaxed atmosphere on the London train will find they have to travel in different carriages.

Discrimination always raises problems, Checking that MPs are following to the letter rules that will be extremely constituency-specific in their application will be a bureaucratic nightmare, It would be far better to keep the present arrangements whilst negotiating with the train companies a ‘bulk discount’ for tickets purchased with a Commons travel card.

My answer to Q13 is therefore a very clear ‘no’. I believe Q12 is a solution to a problem that does
not exist.

Family members

I described the propsals to disallow the employment of family members as follows: “We are being asked to identify the longest serving, most loyal, most sympathetic, most flexible members of our staff, who are most likely to work extra hours for nothing and sack them,’ Of course there can be abuses - the Conway case produced a very light punishment - but the description I have given descibes the vast majority of spouses of Members of all parties.

It is very important that MPs are not seen to be subject to rules which make them a ‘special case’.

Our rules should be neither tougher nor easier than those which members of the public must follow. In which other professions are spouses disallowed? Corner shops? Schools? GP surgeries? Any? Whilst it is of course good practice to recruit using an open recruitment process, the fact is that MPs are equivalent to very small businesses under employment law and the de minimis rule should apply; i.e. MPs are not required to advertise openly when a candidate who meets the requirements is available to be recruited. Family members should not be recruited when they are not capable of doing the job: but where they demonstrably do, and it is the MP who is in the best position to decide in accordance with Commons guidelines, the employment of spouses and family members should be allowed.

Q14: No. Q15: The current rules on probity for the purchase of goods and services should remain.


The rules around the use of the Communications Allowance as presently constituted are tight, frustrating but largely necessary. I applaud your proposal to require an annual report (Q6) to be published by each MP but it should neither be centred on expenses (‘all about the cost of everything and the value of nothing’) nor too tightly defined. People are much more interested in the issues the MP espouses, his loyalty to his party and his impact on the local commnity, The CA is an essential and welcome tool. Whilst modern campaigning has become very e-orientated (allowing rapid and effective two way communication at minimal cost) we are many eyars away from a totally e-literate society. Campaigning does not mean ‘party-political’ campaigning and it would be wrong to abandon the facility for mass commnication to those who are least confident with writing and speaking, the least educated members of the commnity. Every MP will tell you that most spontaneous contact from constituents on casework 9and almost all e-contact) comes from the middle class whose problems are certainly not greater than those of the ‘silent majority’.

I accept that this argument would perpetuate the ‘social worker’ image of MPs but I am proud of that. If a service is not working properly or not being accessed efectively then it is right for the MP to intervene.

Q16: No.

Incidentally, why has Parliament never managed to negotiate bulk postage rates from the Post Office? This is a clear missed opportunity to economise.

Stepping down

A colleague of 65 said to me recently that he would be stepping down at this election. He has a large majority and does not expect to lose his seat. But, facing the prospect of a possible one further year in a hung parliament before stepping down at the next election and losing the right to severance pay means he would be expected to work for the next 12 months after the election for no pay. This is intolerable.

MPs are not employees and although according to the principle of equal treatment I mentioned above, we should have rights akin to redundancy rights. Every other profession has a scheme. Whilst I accept that an MP who loses his seat at an election is not technically redundant, there are two categories of MPs: those (like me) who live with a constant worry that the next election may be their last and those (like my colleague cited above) who are effectively trapped by a large majority and would never be able to leave in a way which allowed him the time and space to prepare for life after Westminster. Your proposal discriminates between these two extremes (though they are extreme ends of a bucket-shaped curve).

You are proposing that resettlement funding should only be allowed if the MP is defeated at an election or deselected by their Party. I know myself, having decided to step down at the election, that it will take months to wind down my office and prepare myself pysically, mentally and organisationally for my next career. If! decide to stand down under the new rules as you propose them, have a choice:
- fight the election in a half hearted way in the hope that I would lose, in order to receive severance pay, possibly putting my Government’s majority at risk
- stand down voluntarily in the knowledge that I would receive nothing at all
- arrange for my local Party to deselect me, so keepng my resettlement allowance.

This final option is perverse but your new rule would encourage it. You would soon find no MP taking the second option! In none of these cases could the MP openly think and plan for life after Parliament in the way I have been able to do very constructively in recent months. I have to say that the prospect of facing this choice at the next election was certainly a factor in my decision to leave the House at this next one.

Q17: Yes.

Yours sincerely
Tom Levitt MP
Labour member for High Peak

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