No change to expenses probes rules

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Published: Monday 15th December 2014 by The News Editor

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The Commons expenses watchdog has abandoned plans to carry out “secret” investigations of alleged abuses by MPs.

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) had proposed changing rules that mean politicians are named when probes are launched.

But after heavy criticism of the move, chairman Sir Ian Kennedy announced that the idea was being dropped.

“On the rare occasion when any MP is investigated by the Compliance Officer, we will continue our current approach of making that fact public at the outset,” he said.

The measure, put out for consultation in September, came under fire for making the Ipsa regime less transparent than the one it replaced in 2010 – when the identities of those under investigation were routinely confirmed.

The cross-party Standards Committee warned that the plan could “tilt the balance too far from transparency”, while the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) said it was “not consistent with the principles of openness and transparency which underlie the scheme”.

However, Ipsa compliance officer Peter Davis had argued that the change would balance the “public interest in transparency” with “operational needs and fairness”.

He highlighted the “reputational damage” to MPs caused by naming them before investigations are complete, and insisted that information would still be released after his work was complete.

In evidence to the Standards Committee in October, Mr Davis – a former senior police officer – said: “I can see that the vast majority of cases can be dealt with quite effectively without the need for any publicity, utilising that discretion provided to me by the legislation and by the drafting of the new procedures.”

Announcing the result of the consultation, Sir Ian said: ” We now have a tight, robust and workable set of procedures to support the compliance officer when undertaking investigations. Crucially, Ipsa continues its commitment to the public to be open and transparent.”

Proposals for barring the public from attending hearings with MPs on alleged expenses abuses will go ahead.

The decision amounts to Ipsa’s third U-turn on the issue. Initially the watchdog’s rules indicated that the names of MPs under investigation should be released when probes were launched, but the body’s compliance officer, Luke March, then refused to do so on the basis it was “unfair”.

He subsequently resigned and a consultation in 2011 concluded that the identities should indeed be made public during formal investigations rather than afterwards.

As a result, ongoing investigations are currently declared on the watchdog’s website – the situation that will now be maintained.

Mr Davis, who was appointed as compliance officer for a five-year term in December 2011 , insisted that without the change, the processes failed to balance transparency with “fairness, proportionality and the right and freedoms of the individual”.

In a trenchant defence of the proposals submitted to the consultation, he wrote that he was currently publishing minimal detail about ongoing investigations.

“This means that the amount of information available to the public and other interested parties at present is extremely limited,” Mr Davis wrote.

He also lashed out at the media for “intimidating” witnesses, and complained that coverage risked “tainting” evidence and “regurgitating” old material about the MP in question.

“When the public are provided with the findings of the investigation without any prior knowledge of the case, it better aids objective analysis based on the facts,” he wrote.

“If they have been fed a diet of conjecture during the weeks leading up to the publication of the outcome of the investigation, it may prove more difficult to extrapolate the facts and reach an objective conclusion.”

Parliamentary standards commissioner Kathryn Hudson – who investigates complaints about conduct in the Commons – condemned the idea.

“Memories of the reasons why Ipsa was set up have not yet faded, and the public will not be convinced of the transparency of the work of the office or indeed that issues are being properly investigated,” she wrote in her submission.

Ms Hudson said Mr Davis was “mistaken” to think that allegations would not be made public by complainants, even if he chose to suppress them.

“I also note from your draft procedures that there appear to be a considerable number of circumstances in which the compliance officer may decide not to publish his findings following an investigation, and that he has very great discretion in this matter,” she wrote.

“In these situations under your new proposals information about investigations may not be disclosed even when a complaint has been upheld and the member has been asked to make a repayment.”

Speaker John Bercow noted that the parliamentary commissioner named MPs when she launched a full-blown investigation.

“I invite Ipsa to consider carefully whether the advantages of this change outweigh the loss of transparency,” he said in his submission.

Published: Monday 15th December 2014 by The News Editor

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