MPs accused of fiddling their expenses will be offered fresh protections under new secrecy laws announced last night.
The new rules, proposed by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), are designed to hide from the public the identity of MPs who have been accused of expenses fraud. The expenses watchdog also plans to bar the public from hearings.
The proposals have been condemned as ‘foolish’ and ‘perverse’ by the former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Sir Alistair Graham.
He said: “To introduce measures which undermine transparency is foolish and perverse at a time when we are looking for increased transparency. This means that MPs will be able to string out the things for as long as they like rather than everyone knowing there is an issue to be investigated.”
He added: “This is a retrograde step when you consider that it was a lack of transparency which led to the expenses scandal in the first place.”
The IPSA claims that investigators will find evidence “more instructive” if they are able to question MPs and their aids away from the distraction of public interest.
Under current rules, the IPSA’s compliance officer is obliged to ‘take reasonable steps’ to allow members of the public to attend hearings into any alleged wrongdoing.
However when the IPSA’s rules were first drawn up in the wake of the expenses scandal, the body’s compliance officer at the time, Luke March, refused to do so and claimed that it was ‘unfair’ to those who were accused. He subsequently resigned in 2011.
The current compliance officer Peter Davis has said that he believes that “public interest must be balanced with operational needs and fairness.”
John O’Connell, of the TaxPayer’s Alliance, said: “Yet again, IPSA has demonstrated itself to be thoroughly out of touch with the public. Transparency must be the watchword and if it insists on keeping probes secret, it will undermine the entire point of setting up the organisation.”
The proposals have raised further questions about the expenses regime set up in 2009 after the expenses scandal first broke and Mr O’Connell has warned that the public could deem IPSA to be “totally unfit for purpose”.
The body is already under fire after it was announced that MPs are currently receiving more in expenses than they did under the old rules, with £103 million being claimed last year against the £102 million in 2008.