This article by Christopher Hope in the Daily Telegraph today (15th November 2012) ...
Expenses watchdogs round on John Bercow
The effectiveness of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) is under threat after a boardoom coup organised by the Commons Speaker John Bercow, ousted board members said last night.
Ken Olisa, who is quitting the watchdog in January, said he had never experienced such “non-stop hostility”, including personal attacks on him, from MPs in the Commons during his three year spell at Ipsa.
Four out of the five strong board at Ipsa quit after Mr Bercow ruled that they would have to re-apply for their jobs rather than be offered new terms when their existing contracts run out in January.
Rather than reapply, the board members – Mr Olisa, charity head Jackie Ballard, former appeal judge Sir Scott Baker and Professor Isobel Sharp – all stood down, leaving only Sir Ian Kennedy, Ipsa’s chairman on the board.
They were upset because they said Mr Bercow had changed the appointment process, forcing the board to reapply to a vetting committee comprising a former MP and a member of the speaker’s committee which agrees Ipsa’s funding.
Ms Ballard said the changes “looked like there was not an acceptance of the vital importance of the first letter in the word Ipsa, I - independence".
In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Mr Olisa, who has donated his £10,000 a year salary for working for Ipsa to charity, said he feared the watchdog’s independence was at risk.
In the three years since it was published Ipsa has been the subject of several reviews by Parliamentary committees and bodies that could be seen as “an implicit attempt to erode confidence in our independence”, he said.
He complained that the attention was disproportionate given that Ipsa’s budget was the equivalent to the taxpayer subsidy used to bring down the price of food and drink in the House of Commons’ bars and restaurants.
He said: “The fact that Parliament felt they could put so much pressure on us, all of the time, shows us that independence is under threat. You don’t see this with Ofgem or Ofcom anybody trying to somehow undermine the regulator.”
The timing could not be worse, because Ipsa is nine months into a12 month review of MPs’ pay and pensions.
“I was expecting that we would have a smooth transition to the next Ipsa – because we are right in the middle of the most critical [project]. It is a little bit like surgeon doing an operation and half way through with the heart open and the chest open he says ‘OK I have finished now’.”
The fear now is that a new and inexperienced Ipsa board – which will be appointed by the end of the month - will agree a potentially unpopular big jump in pay and perks for MPs next Spring.
Mr Olisa said: “I am not sure that the new people - who I don’t know - will have any stomach for a fight with Parliament in their early days – why would they? We at least had the fury of the scandal to give us extra strength in the early days.
The most likely solution will be that Ipsa will recommend MPs’ pay is linked to a multiple of average national earnings.
But he warned that Ipsa had uncovered found an “enormous gulf between what the public and what MPs have been saying” about what they should be paid, adding: “Reconciling that gulf is the big challenge for Ipsa.”
Mr Olisa said the changes to the reappointment process combined with MPs’ aggression had forced him out. He said: “The hostility exhibited towards us has just been non-stop throughout the three years we have been there.
“So when hostile people get on the selection panel and the whole process is managed by those who have been hostile to you it is a pretty clear signal.”
Mr Olisa blamed Mr Bercow – who he has only met once – for effectively forcing him out by changing the way board members were appointed. He said: “I am upset we have this bump in the world that did not need to happen.
“John Bercow made it fairly evident to me that there was not any point in me applying. He did not make my job impossible he just made it deeply unwelcome to consider applying.”
Ms Ballard also told The Daily Telegraph she had quit because of concerns about the reappointment process and the repeated attacks on Ipsa. She said: “The board had a lot of concerns about the process that the speaker wanted to use and in ways which were different to the ways in which we were originally appointed. It looked there was not an acceptance of the vital important of the first letter in the word Ipsa, I - independence.
“He put an ex-member of parliament on the interview panel and a member of scipsa [speaker’s committee] on the interview panel, and the board was seriously concerned that that was not a positive step.”
Ipsa was created to clean up the Parliamentary allowances system in the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal, triggered by revelations in 2009 by The Daily Telegraph.
Last week, several MPs whose controversial expenses claims were revealed by that investigation, joined a public call for a new system of state regulation of the press.
A spokesman for Mr Bercow said: "It is untrue that the Speaker has sought to remove members of the board of IPSA. The Speaker's role is to apply the law concerning the appointment of board members based on merit through fair and open competition. The legal advice to the Speaker was unequivocal on this statutory requirement. The recruitment was undertaken by an independent panel without interference from Parliament. A former MP was on the panel to provide working knowledge of the role of MPs, with the remaining Panel members not having held elected office. The Chair of IPSA, Professor Sir Ian Kennedy, was also a member of the recruitment panel. The current board members were perfectly entitled to apply for reappointment by going through the fair and open competition process, but they chose not to.”
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