For all its demands it makes of MPs, the Legg report published today is basically a cost-neutral exercise. By a strange coincidence , the cost of the investigation (£1.16 million) is almost exactly the same amount it is claiming MPs owe the state (£1.12 million). Together with the Kelly report published last November we can now begin to piece together what we know about expenses and what parliament will look like in the future.
Firstly the Legg Report reveals definitively that all MPs were at least partially to blame. Twice in 2008 official bodies warned of “deep flaws” in the system. A variety of reforms were suggested but in July of that same year the House “implicitly rejected” them. So when MPs point out that their personal ship was in order, it is worth mentioning that they endorsed the fleet going in the wrong direction.
Secondly we need to brace ourselves for more. Legg explicitly states that his job was not to question the structure of the Additional Costs Allowance (ACA)expenses. Therefore he was unable to address some of the wider structural problems including flipping, the size of mortgages, and whether a second home allowance was needed at all. These will fall under the remit of a future Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) review. That review will aim at implementing bigger structural change: the message is that expenses are not yet behind us.
Thirdly, and most importantly, it may be damaging in the longer term in terms of recruiting MPs. The cumulative effect of the reports so far is that MPs are going to need to provide a lot more documentation and will be much more heavily monitored. Great, you may say, but there are potential problems with this. Behind the scenes MPs are grumbling that the changes will make their jobs more difficult and give them less time to focus on their work. MPs have told me that they think the Legg Report headed towards trial by popular opinion. Culture Minister Sion Simon, who stepped down yesterday, is thought to believe that being an MP is being made increasingly impossible.
The view that MPs have been bad so we should make their jobs harder is dangerously short-termist. What we seek are dedicated public servants but if we hit the current lot with increasingly hard sticks, we may find it difficult to find better people to replace them. Good potential candidates will say ‘it’s too difficult’ and stick to their other careers. There is a balancing act between the recrimination for past problems and reconciliation for the future and so far the investigations have focussed mostly on the former, ignoring the latter.