>Tom Harris has been writing fairly extensively in recent weeks about the problems he and others have experienced with the new Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. On some issues, I agree with him – I really don’t see why MPs should have to pay 15% of their constituency office phone bills. They should not have to subsidise their public service. Of course, it’s the MPs who work hardest to serve their constituents who will end up paying out more in hard cash. It’s a very silly rule, and I hope it changes.
In his latest post, Tom gives some examples of inefficiency, ineffectiveness and general craziness in the new system of MPs’ expenses some of which are quite unfortunate, especially those relating to staff not being paid.
From Tom’s complaints, you would think that the public services the Labour Government he was a member of was perfect in the way they dealt with people and they never made mistakes. Sadly, I could spend all day giving examples of inefficiency, ineffectiveness and general craziness I’ve come across. The people these blunders affected didn’t have around £5000 a month to fall back on, either. (Actually, as Tom points out in the comments, it’s only £3200 after deductions, so I put my hands up to that inaccuracy, but, well, it’s more than most people get).
Let’s start with an example of UK Border Agency incompetence. Someone applied for a work permit. UK Border Agency lost all the original documents they sent. They forked out for copies and then turned the person down for not having original documents.
Then there’s the (numerous) examples of how the Tax Credit Office computer suddenly decided to start forgetting that claimants had children, and pursued them for overpayments of all the Child Tax Credit they had ever received, often thousands of pounds, despite being provided with evidence that the children existed.
Sticking with the TCO, they’re not above losing things either. I’ve seen families struggling on Income Support have to wait for months for their tax credit applications to be processed when they have children, repeatedly lsing official documents and being slow to pay for their replacement. They often had issues with taking forever to process a claim in the easiest of circumstances, leaving people without any money to buy food.
This slightly puts into perspective reports that MPs’ mortgages aren’t being paid. It’s not as if they are going to be out on the street – and IPSA, if they are in error, will, I’m sure, refund bank charges.
Then there’s the Tax people being slow to deal with correspondence, creating all sorts of problems for people and businesses. Imagine any private company telling people their letter, no matter how urgent, wouldn’t be opened for at least 3 months.
Then there’s the Child Support Agency, lumbering one particular person with tens of thousands of pounds of arrears of maintenance, not accepting that they actually never lived at the address they’d sent the initial correspondence. It took years to sort that one out.
And paying one person’s payments to somebody else, leaving the first person with no money to pay for fuel in the depths of Winter.
I have a particularly special love for Department of Work and Pensions. They can pay off their own staff after decades of exemplary service because their occupational physicians define them as too ill to work. When these same individuals try to claim benefit, the very same company tells them they are fit for work.
Those same people then have to wait for months to appeal, receiving reduced payments in the meantime and at the moment almost half of the appeals are successful.
Then there’s people’s benefits being stopped for all sorts of random and unjustified reasons with no warning.
In all cases, people report that when they try to communicate with the department concerned, they are made to feel like criminals, and the people on the other end of the phone are just so rude to them. There is no excuse for that.
There might be some who take a bit of perverse pleasure in seeing MPs being treated like that. I’m not one of them, although I have no objection to them having to provide documentary evidence of things. You try claiming benefits or tax credits without providing supporting documents and see how far you get. Most MPs, as I have repeatedly said, are good people – but then so are most people who deal with the Department of Work and Pensions, the UK Border Agency and HM Revenue and Customs – and nobody should have to put up with poor systems and bad service.
One thing IPSA hasn’t done yet is lost any confidential data, unlike HMRC under Labour where the details of Child Benefit claimants went missing.
I do have a slight concern about the way in which one MP spoke to the IPSA officials (apparently interns, who have no power in the organisation) when asked to file his children’s birth certificates:
It is not yet known whether the IPSA official in question is even physically capable of performing the act the MP then requested of him, or even if it is legal within the United Kingdom.
I wonder if this is a bit of poetic licence on Tom’s part but if a benefit or tax credit claimant had spoken to a Government official like that, they would have suffered some fairly severe consequences and perhaps been denied service, however understandable the grievance. I also think Tom would be the first to stand up and defend the relevant Government agency in that instance.
I hope that the new MPs’ Expenses regime settles down and starts to operate efficiently, but Labour MPs who are annoyed about its operation should reflect that this is exactly how they have been treating the vulnerable for the last 13 years, with far more serious consequences. What I would say to Tom is make sure you pick your fights carefully, otherwise you sound a bit like the boy who cried wolf. Nobody else would be able to claim expenses without evidence. I know that’s a big change for MPs, but it’s a change for the better, and they just have to suck that one up. There are, however, justifiable concerns and changes need to be made – they shouldn’t drown those out with relatively petty complaints.