Former Tory cabinet secretary Caroline Spelman spoke at a women in parliament APPG report launch today. Photo: Getty
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IPSA has made the expenses system like the "19th century" for women MPs

A report launched by the women in parliament APPG today highlighted the thorny battleground of MPs' expenses as an obstacle for female politicians.

The 2009 reforms to the MPs’ expenses system, remarked Conservative MP and former Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman, are like going “back to the 19th century, where single men of private means” were favoured by the structure.

Spelman was speaking at the launch of a report by the APPG for Women in Parliament called Improving Parliament: Creating a Better and More Representative House. It is a report that gives seven key recommendations for improving the situation for both women in parliament and for women at the selection stage.

The recommendations, announced in the Speaker’s State Apartments in parliament today, include adding harsher “rules and sanctions” for unprofessional behaviour in the chamber, creating a women and equalities select committee, and improving the parliamentary calendar’s predictability to allow MPs to better plan their time between the House of Commons and their constituencies.

But what stood out from these recommendations were the so-called “unintended consequences for women” created by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), when it was brought in to respond the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009.

Spelman noted that some of the changes to the expenses system brought in by IPSA, including the “restriction to a one-bed flat in London, which means a mother can’t live with her children for a whole week”, have caused unexpected difficulties for MPs, particularly women.

The recommendation in the report to combat this problem is a review of the current system and a gender audit of IPSA rules. The APPG’s survey of current and former parliamentarians, the results of which it used to illustrate the report, found “Reforming IPSA financial support for families” the third most popular suggestion for encouraging more people to become MPs.

I spoke to some of the MPs behind the report following the event and found that this is more of a communication problem than anything else. Navigating the current system is difficult, and although IPSA is now more flexible on an individual basis, when MPs request dispensation due to their personal circumstances, concerns remain, particularly for women and young fathers.

Before 2009, members were allowed accommodation in two locations for themselves and their family – this is no longer the case, meaning many parents have to live apart from their children for most of the week.

Mary Macleod, chair of the APPG, tells me she has been speaking to IPSA about better communication of its updated rules, but admits that progress is slow and that many women in Westminster have “no clue” about what they are and are not allowed to do. And Labour MP Sharon Hodgson, who has also worked on this report, points out to me that even if MPs do have the opportunity to be granted dispensation, they are often “reluctant to do so” for fear of coming high up in league tables of how expensive our MPs are, ie how much they claim on travel and accommodation.

When the expenses scandal endures as a reason why people are suspicious of MPs and the Westminster world, it makes IPSA a particularly thorny battleground for female politicians who are attempting to make their workplace more palatable to potential future candidates. 

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.