BBC report from Public Accounts Committee: MPs’ plea to restore staff bonuses

Below is an article by Emma Griffiths Political reporter, BBC News, available here

MPs’ plea to restore staff bonuses

The MPs’ expenses watchdog has been asked to reconsider bonuses for MPs staff – which have stopped under the new system.

Tory MP Richard Bacon said MPs’ staff used to be able to get bonuses of between £1,000 and £3,500 a year. Many people had lost a “chunk of their income” as a result and there was “a lot of feeling” about the issue.The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority said it had not been ruled out. But Ipsa’s accounting officer Scott Woolveridge added: “Right now, the time is not quite right”.

The issue came up at a meeting of the public accounts committee – which was questioning Ipsa chairman Sir Ian Kennedy, Mr Woolveridge and finance director Bob Evans about how the organisation’s cost effectiveness.

‘Healthy buffer’

The previous MPs’ expenses system was discredited during the expenses scandal in 2009 – all parties agreed to move to a new independently run system and Ipsa took over payments after last year’s general election.Mr Bacon told them that under the old system, MPs staff could get up to a maximum of 15% of their salary as a bonus.”We are not talking about very highly paid people, you were talking usually about payments of between £1,000 and £3,500.”They’ve now gone – which for many members of staff is a very significant chunk of their income,” Mr Bacon said.He said MPs used to keep a “healthy buffer” in the staff budget to deal with unexpected costs and if it turned out those costs were not needed “then you decided on your bonuses”.He asked what Ipsa’s view was of the role of bonuses in managing staff “to achieve performance” and suggested he revisit the issue.

Not city bonuses

Mr Woolveridge said Ipsa’s board had looked at what was common across the public sector for staff on similar salaries.

“We didn’t generally find that bonuses were being paid so we adopted broadly that model.”But Mr Bacon challenged him and said he was not talking about “city bonuses” adding: “It’s quite common across the public sector for there to be bonuses”.

He said there were about 80 senior Commons staff on more than £50,000 a year for whom bonuses of between £4,500 and £8,000 were still being paid. Another Conservative MP, James Wharton, said being able to pay bonuses allowed MPs more “flexibility” to deal with unexpected costs throughout the year – and not having that flexibility could lead them to make more claims on a contingency fund.

Mr Woolveridge said the issue “may come back onto the agenda after the public sector pay freeze”. He added that Ipsa was planning a staffing review which would cover some of the issues raised.He said staff bonuses were considered “not appropriate” at the moment but “we may come back to this, it’s not something we have ruled out but we have to be mindful of what I think was in the public perception – that on occasions bonuses were paid to use up staffing allowances.”

Chairman Margaret Hodge said it was “potty” that 38% of all claims cost more to process than they actually paid out – Mr Woolveridge said they were comparable to other legislatures. Another MP, Lib Dem Ian Swales, complained MPs were “embarrassed” about making small claims – and said the cost of processing claims appeared to be “out of all proportion”.

Sir Ian Kennedy, chairman of Ipsa, suggested the routine publication of MPs’ expenses has led to a dip in public interest in the topic.He said while the first publication of all expenses online had attracted more than 10,000 hits – the fifth publication attracted only 83.”

The more we can make this …. a matter of routine and matter not of comment, the more confidence MPs can have they can go to the doorstep without this being the first item of conversation they have to deal with,” he said.

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