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.

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Leader: The divisions within Labour

Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change.

Labour is a party torn between its parliamentary and activist wings. Since Jeremy Corbyn, who this week appealed desperately for unity, was re-elected by a landslide last September, Labour has become the first opposition in 35 years to lose a ­by-election to the governing party and has continually trailed the Conservatives by a double-digit margin. Yet polling suggests that, were Mr Corbyn’s leadership challenged again, he would win by a comfortable margin. Meanwhile, many of the party’s most gifted and experienced MPs refuse to serve on the front bench. In 2015 Mr Corbyn made the leadership ballot only with the aid of political opponents such as Margaret Beckett and Frank Field. Of the 36 MPs who nominated him, just 15 went on to vote for him.

Having hugely underestimated the strength of the Labour left once, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) will not do so again. In the contest that will follow Mr Corbyn’s eventual departure, the centrists could lock out potential successors such as the shadow business secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey. Under Labour’s current rules, candidates require support from at least 15 per cent of the party’s MPs and MEPs.

This conundrum explains the attempt by Mr Corbyn’s supporters to reduce the threshold to 5 per cent. The “McDonnell amendment” (named after the shadow chancellor, who failed to make the ballot in 2007 and 2010) is being championed by the Bennite Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Jon Lansman of Momentum, who is interviewed by Tanya Gold on page 34. “For 20 years the left was denied a voice,” he tweeted to the party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, on 19 March. “We will deny a voice to no one. We face big challenges, and we need our mass membership to win again.”

The passage of the amendment at this year’s Labour conference would aid Mr Lansman’s decades-long quest to bring the party under the full control of activists. MPs have already lost the third of the vote they held under the electoral college system. They face losing what little influence they retain.

No Labour leader has received less support from his MPs than Mr Corbyn. However, the amendment would enable the election of an even more unpopular figure. For this reason, it should be resolutely opposed. One should respect the motivation of the members and activists, yet Labour must remain a party capable of appealing to a majority of people, a party that is capable of winning elections.

Since it was founded, Labour has been an explicitly parliamentary party. As Clause One of its constitution states: “[The party’s] purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party.” The absurdity of a leader opposed by as much as 95 per cent of his own MPs is incompatible with this mission. Those who do not enjoy the backing of their parliamentary colleagues will struggle to persuade the voters that they deserve their support.

Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change. Rather than formalising this split, the party needs to overcome it – or prepare for one of the greatest defeats in its history.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution