This interview was conducted in early 2009 and appeared in Total Politics magazine. Ken Olisa was a board member of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA).
How many people work at IPSA?
We're going through a staged change. We top-loaded the staff to start to get us through and by the end of the year we'll be steady at around 50, 55, 60.
And how many of them have ever worked in parliament or worked for an MP?
Many of the staff have transferred from the fees office, 30 people or so I think? A big percentage worked in the fees office before.
But have any of them ever worked for MPs?
I don't actually know, have any of them worked for MPs? Well they must have worked for ministers. They will have worked for ministers in the civil service.
I think a big part of the problem that IPSA has had is a general lack of understanding of what an MP actually does, not necessarily just at senior level but at the processing level. And that means that a lot of claims for individual items have been rejected because people can't understand why an MP would need something to do their job.
The large number of rejections is not the issue. There's a lot of uncertainty from MPs who are asking whether something isn't allowed. That's why we get 150 calls or emails a day. A lot of that stuff's throwing back to the old system when there was an enormous amount of uncertainty in that system too.
I think there are two points you're making there. We've got a few who've actually worked in an MP’s office but that's not a major focus. Have we got people who understand how MPs work in the expense environment? Yes, a big chunk of people who came to the department were transferred from the Fees Office. They were doing the job in the old regime and they're now doing it in the new regime...
... which to the general public probably isn't very reassuring, because it's that old regime that partly caused the situation.
Yes, I think that's one of the dangers and one of the things we need to get cleared up here. You shouldn't blame the staff for that old system. The staff are the staff that are doing the job that they were asked to do and were paid to do. And I would defend them to the hilt. What was wrong was that we had a system that was hard to define. It was full of loopholes. So no, it wasn't the people. Do they understand the needs of the MPs and of the staff? The answer is yes.
How many MPs have set foot in this office?
I don't have numbers, but a good number. We've hosted a number of visits from MPs. They've come to visit, talk to us face to face, to look around to see the office.
Part of the issue has been that you were set up in a great deal of haste, so inevitably there were going to be teething problems. But I think it's been very difficult for MPs to understand why there have been so many problems. Therefore I wondered what sort of hearts and minds campaign you might have been engaged in to try to win them over. Or do you think it's not really your job to win them over?
That's a really loaded question. Is it our job? We've got two audiences. We've got the public and the MPs. We need both of them to think we're doing a good job, otherwise we're failing. Personally, I think you're invited here today as part of that point. I think what we do in the circumstances impressive and I think as importantly that message needs to be communicated, and my colleagues share that view. So we have meetings with MPs en masse and one on one. I spend quite a lot of time in Portcullis House talking to MPs, they come here, I'm talking to you, I've fought you on your blog. It's really important I think that the enormity of what we're trying to tackle here gets understood and the scale of success is understood. So, yes, hearts and minds and so on. We are supposed to be an independent regulator. But the regulator's number one job is to have the confidence of the regulatee.
If you employed four freelance staff personally, could you avoid to pay their invoices for four months whilst no invoices on staff expense claims were paid? Would you forgo your own personal mortgage payments so you could pay your staff? Because that’s what an MP I know is having to do.
I don't think we've got any expenses that are anything like a month old, never mind four months old. So the answer to the question is no. If I thought somebody owed me money and I could get it then I would get it. Therefore I need to know what his real problem is...
He also says he's paid out a rent of three months and a deposit out of his own pocket with no recompense so far. So you say that you've got nothing more than a month old? He's saying you have.
The last time I looked into one of these someone had made a similar claim and it turned out that he hadn't submitted the claim. But you know what... he should have actually spoken to our staff about it.
He has. Many times. And gets nowhere.
If he has a real case that should be dealt with. That doesn't make sense as a question. Let me be precise, though. At the beginning of the scheme MPs said "I have to pay out all this money and even if you pay me in a month I'm going to be down a hole for a large amount of money, I only own my MP's salary and I can't afford it." And that's why we did two things. We put in place the advances system, which gave four grand, and the subsequent one, and the contingency for the things in the rush to get the rules out that might have been missed. So if he's got a legitimate claim for something he should have got an advance for it, or we should have paid it. So if there's something gone wrong there and I'm happy to look at it, happy to get it fixed quickly.
I do recognise that at least you're putting your head above the parapet but this MP makes another interesting point, He says: "I don't blame those at the frontline who I know quite well now, but senior management, an uncompromising and uncomprehending senior decision making processes. They are responsible for the car crash that is IPSA." There has to be some responsibility for senior management for the fact that there have been so many problems.
Well, not so many. I don't think there's a big volume of problems. We've paid out £7.5 million now in expenses. There’s more in loans and advances. So taking into account the volume of things this is working. But I'm happy to talk through that issue with him personally and solve it. As would any of my board colleagues or senior management colleagues.
I think part of the problem is that MPs feel that you're taking the Paxman line, where Paxman, when he's interviewing someone thinks to himself: "Why is this bastard lying to me?" They feel that you think that they're all crooks until they prove otherwise.
Several MPs have said that to me and then, when pressed for any evidence for anything we've ever done that's given them reason to say that, they haven't got anything. So I think you're right, there's a general perception that that's the case, but it isn't based on fact. It's certainly not our position. So all I can do is try to tell people to bring those issues forward and then deal with them.
Tom Harris is a good example. He's listed almost weekly issues that various MPs have with IPSA. Now he's not telling you who the MPs are, so you can think that he may be making it up... I'm sure he's not. But he's written about real financial hardship being faced by some MPs. They've maxed out all their credit cards, they've had their wives' at supermarket tills not being able to pay for the weekly groceries. That should not have happened.
It certainly shouldn't have happened, but most MPs haven't had that.
But some have, and it's not just one.
But it's not because of the system. There's something else gone wrong in the process. We haven't got a block in the system that says "You know what, we're gonna pick on 10 MPs Jeremy Paxman style and make something happen to them..." Everyone is treated equally. So if somebody's got a real cash-flow problem then they could apply for an advance. If they're got a real hardship then they can apply for a contingency. We're here to make the system work.
So, fine, you've introduced this advance for £4,000 but there are some MPs that are in to for five figure sums. Now, the general public thinks that all MPs are rich. You and I know that most of them actually aren't. Most of them, especially the new ones, don't have abundances of money. If I'd become an MP I suspect I would have been one of those. I would have found the situation intolerable, to have to pay staff out of my own pocket, to pay for office deposits. Frankly people shouldn’t have to do it. And yet these problems are still persisting.
Let's just unpack that for a second. The office deposits and all the rest of it, were dealt with by the advance. If there was a real personal problem, maybe someone was ill, or couldn't fill out their forms. That's the contingency piece. You shouldn't be paying your staff out of your own pocket, because we pay the staff through IPSA. So the trouble is that we have to dissect each of these things and find out what the real issues are, but the system itself, for most MPs, works. So when there are these particular incidents which get reported something has clearly gone wrong. When something has clearly gone wrong denying it doesn't help. We have to go and unpack it, and then deal with it. But we are here to unpack it. 150 phone calls a day, 150 emails a day, many trips to Portcullis House personally and by my colleagues. So we need to just understand them. But if MPs want to stand on the other side of the ha-ha and shout at us, and not give us the facts, I can't do very much about it.
It is also fair to say at first we made mistakes, and we were too slow in some instances of payment. There's nothing surprising there. But it is also fair to say we've made massive inroads in that and we are much quicker now at getting claims through. And so the number of MPs in the circumstance you described should be really, really, I mean... if there are any. We keep saying tell us and we'll fix it. And the other point to make is that that's not just by tightening the process and the system smoothing that out. The thing we've introduced to try to help, certain MPs have said "it's really difficult to pay for this, that and the other" so we've brought in other things like the travel cards. We've opened that up so they can pay for other things on the travel cards like the payment to landlords, direct payments through to landlords.
But why not use that card for everything and as soon as an MP makes a payment on that card their constituents see that they've made a payment on a website somewhere. So it's completely transparent. That would actually stop any attempt by any politician to fiddle the system because it couldn't be more transparent. The moment you make the payment it comes up on a website. Sainsburys, £24.50, 5th of July. Why just restrict it to just one or two things? Why not have it for everything, like they do the Scottish Parliament, I believe.
The answer – there are several levels to the answer to that question. One is "why not?" and we're just going into consultation for the next revision of the scheme. And that's one of the things I'm sure will be put forward as an argument. And there are counter-arguments , but the answer is "why not?" and the answer is, "We'll see."
Well, what is the counter argument?
Well, I'm going to come to that. But my first point is that we're not saying no.
You sound like a politician...
Oh no! Then I withdraw the answer. I need to sound like a businessman! But my first point is that it isn't a scheme. The scheme has already evolved since May and it will evolve as a response to the consultation process that we're just about to go to. The idea that we're rigid and there's one only way to do something is wrong. We're saying, let's take a look at this, and everything is up for grabs in the consultation. There are some technical issues to do with that seemingly attractive approach. One is not all merchants are able to report any level of detail on a credit card, as there are different tiers of merchant. Some would have no itemised detail.
There’s a solution to that. You could a seven day delay. Publish them once a week , and then the MP can log into the system, sees all the debit card transactions and then itemises what was listed.
Okay, that sounds really simple compared to what we've just shown you. But that's okay, that could be answer, but now it's becoming more complicated, so now we've got another set of issues. I'm going to have to check my credit card bills online before I do my ... it may be the answer. That's why consultation is there.
But that's what any normal employee would do when claiming expenses. I mean I put all of my expenses on a single debit card or credit card and then at the end of the month I go through them, itemise the receipts, put hotel, travel, subsistence, whatever. That's what people are used to doing, aren't they? Rather than at the moment they're having to pay out quite a lot of money and then before they claim it back, whereas if I do it it's only sort of if I claim more than a certain amount then I will want that back more quickly...
Yep, that’s right. First of all, there are lots of ways people claim expenses. That is a way that people do it. But it still involves reconciling your receipts against budgets and filling out a form, so you're still going to end up back at this particular point. You're dealing with the cash-flow implications of paying it with another credit card or bank account rather than our credit card. Managing the cashflow advances is one of the ways we've dealt with it. In the consultation, we'll see if there are other ways to deal with it. The problem that existed in June, say, of council tax, office deposits, etc, has gone away now because that can now be paid directly. Trying to ease the cash-flow pressures is one of our high priority items, because MPs have said to us this is one of the biggest problems that we've got. So I don't know the particulars of the man whose wife couldn't pay for the groceries, that is awful and should not have happened, but we don't want that to happen through our hand at all and if there are areas where there is a problem we'll try to remove them.
But in your own business, you're not expected to pay upfront for stationary, or the basic things to run your office, are you? Why should an MP have to? They never had to under the previous system...
Yeah, but they got their moats cleaned under the old system. What I do in my businesses is I sometimes buy things and claim them back and sometimes my office buys them for me and I never see the bill.
I'm talking about basic things to do the job, pens...
Yes, so am I. Sometimes I buy them and I claim them back.
You wouldn't ever buy letterheads
I have bought letterheads myself and claimed them back. I have bought pens myself and claimed them back. But it's not the point. Most of the time, my office would do that because I'd say 'get me some more letterheads' and they'll go and get them. So the question then is: what's the best way to make that happen inside a highly accountable, transparent scheme. And our answer at the moment is the one we've got. But there's no reason why we wouldn't extend direct payments, for example, to ‘Banner’, the people that supply stationery to the House of Commons, for example.
If our argument was that we've got it absolutely right in May and we're rigidly unprepared to change anything, those arguments would be very strong. We're saying: "no we got most of it right in May" – and by the way we'd like some praise for that because it was an impossible timeframe. By definition we didn't get everything right and we said we knew we wouldn't. We've made some change through a rapid consultation exercise and we've made some changes where we don't need consultation. We're coming up for a big consultation now, so we're trying to be as flexible as we can to respond to two constituencies. The public, who are very questioning about everything - they're more like Jeremy Paxman I would say - and MPs, who've got a job to do.
Why aren't MPs allowed to pay bonuses to their staff any more?
The issue about bonuses, as it came out, in the old regime, was that some MPs would have found that they have a slug of money left over at the end of their budget and they'd pay it to their staff. It's taxpayers' money. A bonus system for taxpayers' money generally says "here are the rules, here are the criteria, here is how they should be paid against the criteria..."
...but there were rules on bonuses
There were rules on a lot of things before, and what we found was that they weren't all followed. So you can have rules again on bonuses, and again we're coming up for a consultation and if you want to argue a different case then we'll listen to it.
Do any of the IPSA staff have bonuses?
The only bonuses we pay at IPSA are things like a £25 dinner for two allowance, or award, rather, for some outstanding performance. So no, there is no pro rata bonus scheme.
Okay. So that's the only bonus scheme at IPSA?
Yes. We've got a proper name for it, like PRP or something, but yes.
Why do you need three press officers and a communications manager on £85,000 a year?
We don’t have three press officers. Our entire press officer is here in this room. We've only got one press officer.
What does this communications manager on £85,000 actually do?
Our communications manager does communications. First of all, it's a matter of huge public interest, so we have to deal in the public interest. What does that mean? It means dealing with the press, which are constantly asking questions about things, you are an exception because I invited, lured you in here... but in the main we've got people asking questions, we've got a consultation exercise going out and we've got to engage with the public. All those things need to be managed. We have to send out bulletins to MPs. We've got to deal with the House and the Speakers' Committee. There's a huge communications exercise to be done here and the idea of just four people rubber stamping expenses is risible. We have to make sure that not only is this system seen to be fair, transparent and workable, but everyone understands why that is the case. That is a communications task, and you of all people know that. That's why we need staff to do it, but it's not a department of three press officers. And we have a website which, as you know, is a real pain in the backside to maintain, so that's also something that we have to keep going.
There was an issue initially that I think you've sorted out but you may want to comment on this. That MPs could only claim 85% of their phone costs. Is that sorted out now?
That was possibly the least popular thing we've ever contemplated, but the logic, I maintain, was impeccable. The reception of it was quite the opposite and so we fixed it almost immediately. That was fixed back in May.
Right. Why was the logic impeccable?
Now all MPs have to do is go through every phone call and claim whether it's personal, parliament, political. And then claim for the ones that are parliamentary. We were saying just submit 85% of your bill. So we thought it was gonna be time-saving...
But you wouldn't do that to your own staff?
Yep, I'd do that to my staff. Yep.
So you'd have to fill in a thing at the end of every month saying...
It became something of a red-herring that this was personal, you'd phone your bank and everything else. It was about the split between parliamentary and political, and our role was to find anything political. And it was on the basis that an MP’s office is going to make some political phone calls and that was it. And MPs told us that this was a silly rule, so we scrapped it.
One of the big complaints about the old system and one of the big things in Kelly was making sure that MPs weren't spending taxpayers money on party political activities - remember the communications allowance. So we thought "phone bills, that's a really boring thing to have to go through if you have to itemise the detail."
But that would be a prime example of something you would not have got wrong if you had anyone working for IPSA who had ever worked in politics or worked directly for an MP. There is no arbitrary line that could be drawn on things like that. I understand why the public thinks: "Oh this is just the Westminster village trying to protect itself" but you must recognise that there is an element of this that that led you to institute systems that you've had to change, for good reason.
Well two things. We have an MP on the board. So 20% of the members of the board is an MP.
She [Jackie Ballard] lost her seat in 2001...
But she was an MP. And I didn't write that rule, Parliament wrote that rule which calls for you to have someone who has held political office, but not in the last election. Not my decision, parliament's decision. So we have somebody there who knew about phonecalls in offices, etc, it still went through. Secondly, we consulted on it. So of course we had one person, a lone voice who said "excuse me I think that makes no sense" that might have helped. But Iain, we were scrambling to get a system in place before the election, on an uncertain date. If you've tried to put a system in place, having an uncertain date is the kiss of death, almost.
I accept that. Whenever you try and put what might be a complicated system in place very quickly things will go wrong. And that's not your fault, but that was – and I don't expect you to comment on this – that was Gordon Brown's fault. Because as usual politicians had a knee-jerk reaction and thought "we've got to be seen to be doing something" and you were left with the task of doing it. And inevitably there would have been problems there.
One of the most frustrating things for me as a citizen in this process is the weakness of input from MPs during the consultation process. They have a problem which I'm sympathetic to, something which I hadn't appreciated at all before coming into this role. Things like the 85% percent thing should have been dealt with in consultation. Most of the voices, the loud ones anyway, in consultation came from the Taxpayers Alliance and organisations like that, who studied the subject. And MPs found it hard to respond individually because they didn't want to be FOI'd and embarrassed and so on. So we've tried to find mechanisms for the next consultation which means that we don't make blindingly obvious blunders which, if you were an MP, you would know was a mistake, by encouraging alternative methods of communications back from the Members of Parliament to us. It's a communications point but more importantly it’s a listening point. But yeah, we got things wrong, and the 85% thing is a really good example.
I think you hit the nail on the head. There were a lot of MPs who were not going to give you a written submission because they knew that it could then be published in the Daily Telegraph. So on that basis in this next round of consultation, are you going to have face to face meetings with say a sample? You can't do all 650, but say you just picked out 50 or 100 who you thought might give you a representative view. Wouldn't you think that was a good idea?
Yes, a short answer to your question. A rare short answer. That one won't need editing. But we did that the last time. I spoke to probably 120 MPs in 3 or 4 big meetings and had one on one meetings with MPs and my colleagues did the same thing.
Big meetings are never going to work in this though, are they?
Well I tell you what, I got quite a lot of input from them.
Quite loud input I would imagine.
Volume rather than... but anyway, never mind. But anyway, a lot of input. But we also met with the Leader of the House, shadow Leader of the House and so on. We've had lots and lots of lots of dialogue. I really want to stamp on the idea that we sat in a closed room, knowing we wouldn't get feedback from people, invented a scheme that was impractical and rolled it out. We were big on listening then, we're big on listening now. Our job is to make this issue go away so that people, the public and MPs, both have confidence in something.
Do you think that part of the problem is that not only are you administering the fees system, you are also the regulator. Wouldn't it have been better to have two separate bodies?
I can't see any particular advantage in doing that. Administering the scheme isn't very complicated. We've got this quasi-separate "compliance function" which I think is the antidote that deals with the point that is probably implied in your question. So if someone wants to complain about us: yes it would be really bad if we were the judge and jury on ourselves. But we have a judge on the board. He's extremely strong on us not being judge and jury. And the compliance function is to give confidence to the public and to Members of Parliament that if we've done something wrong then we can be held accountable.
How many Members of Parliament have gone through the compliance procedure?
We haven't published yet. None. But we haven't published anything yet. Hopefully they won't go through it then either and it'll be found unnecessary.
Sorry, I don't understand this. I thought if you reject an expense claim then it goes to an appeal thing. I thought if the appeal thing rejects in they can then go to the compliance...
That's right. I don't think anybody's gone yet.
How's your budget changing? Because there were a lot of complaints that the old fees office cost £2m, you're costing £6m, how's that looking, is that figure coming down?
Short answer to your question, yes. But the two million number is a number that nobody can show its provenance. Our £6m number is down for public scrutiny. We think we've got fewer people working for us than in the old regime, and we're not in the Palace of Westminster. So we are struggling to understand how we can be more expensive than the old regime.
Because you're on the 7th floor of a palatial office in central London.
Well, how much do you think it costs per square foot in the Palace of Westminster?
Nothing because they don't have to pay rent.
But you have to attribute a cost to it, that's too easy an answer
Why do you have to be here, why couldn't you be in Penzance or Cardiff?
Can you imagine transferring 30 people from the Palace of Westminster who bring with them all the knowledge of the system and relocating them to anywhere else other than where they are at the moment in a timeframe from November last year to May this year? It would have been madness to have done that. Can you imagine the number of times that our senior management have to rush over to talk to people in Portcullis House?
Okay right, well let’s take Penzance and Cardiff out of the equation, what about Lewisham or Deptford?
We tried to find...
Because this is, I have to say, it is a lovely office. It's the plushest office I've been in for a good long time. I dread to think what the square foot cost and the fit out cost of this place.
All a matter of public record. But the answer to your question is we looked everywhere. We thought we were going to get a building on the parliamentary estate, so we looked for what we felt was the best possible thing, between really September last year when Andrew, the interim chief exec came on board, trying to find real estate. That deal fell through. We suddenly found nowhere to go and we had to find somewhere, and then we did a very good deal here and as we've said at the Speaker's committee, it cost us less here than it would have done to go to the parliamentary estate building that we were trying to get to. So there's a real estate debate to be had...
But there are huge amounts of government buildings that are empty.
And that's what we tried to get, the ones we tried to get fell through, and then the one we've got now here is costing us less than if we had gone to the one...
So what's the per square foot charge here?
I'll get you a proper note with the answer to that question. I can't remember, but I'll give you the proper answer. But what I am confident of, we've ended up with an efficient, in terms of geography, and also cost. And I'm glad you like the office.
Well no, it's a lovely office, it really is, but I would say it's rather too lovely.
There's a great Ian Kennedy line, he once said "There is a view in the UK that no public servant should ever work without..."
No, I don't subscribe to that point of view, I really don't expect people to have second hand chairs and all the rest of it, but I wasn't quite expecting this level of plushness.
Well okay, I think you'll learn a lesson economy from us then when we...
Just the whole feel of it. I've never been into a government office that has looked so like a big multinational company. That's my first impression. It's obviously a very pleasant place to work, and I wouldn't expect you to have an office that was sort of down at heel and all the rest of it. But anyway.
You've been to Portcullis House presumably?
I would say this is on a different level to Portcullis House.
Well, thank you, well then you'll be even more pleased when we send you the numbers. Because there's a proper answer to that. I don't what to lose it on me being flippant there. But you've asked another question which is, are we going to reduce the cost? And the answer is absolutely, we made a commitment to reduce the cost year on year and we have a streamlining programme in place, and you're already seeing the service benefits, but obviously there are cost advantages that come from making things easier, faster through the system. But we're on a decline year on year.
Right, travel and second homes. What about an MP whose constituency falls one mile outside the travel boundaries so they can't have a second home and yet her next door neighbour is inside it. However, they both go home to the same station. I gather there are quite a few other examples of MPs in this situation. They feel completely discriminated against on this. They don't want a luxury flat in London particularly, but if they are voting at midnight, they want to be able to stay overnight somewhere, and at the moment they can't unless I pay for it out of their own pockets. I don't think that's a reasonable system for anybody, especially if they're a single woman at midnight. There should be some system that allows for that.
There's a particular question there about which hour – I think midnight is okay – it's okay to be reimbursed. And certainly, this is something I will clarify, but as I say, I think midnight is okay to stay in London and be reimbursed. But there's a question there more general point. But if there's a particular circumstance then that's what the contingency is for, because that's how we deal with things that we couldn't foresee.
Does it concern you that there are more than a few MPs who are now sleeping in their offices?
Yes. Because they shouldn't be doing it. First of all, I don't know why they're doing that. I've met someone who said he used to, but doesn't any more, but I don't actually know, I've never understood why they're doing that. Because if it was a real problem, that's what contingency is for, if it is a marginal problem I think that's fixed in the hours. There's a taxi issue which we dealt with right up front. I need evidence from somebody. I don't want the – I'm not criticising you – but I don't want to listen to the anecdotal "do you know there are lots of MPs sleeping on their desks?" I need to know why they're doing that. I'm chairman of a homeless charity, there are a lot of people sleeping in difficult places.
I appreciate that this is all anecdotal, but over the months I've probably been told about 10 or a dozen who do. And there probably always were one or two that would do it under any system and probably always would be.
It's not right. But we've written to MPs saying "We do not believe anything we've done makes you have to do this." We've sent a bulletin out every week telling MPs about how we've dealt with the issues that have come forward. I've met MPs that haven't read any of them. So that's your question about communications. We're not doing a great job yet, because we're still not getting through to some of our audience. But to be absolutely emphatic here Iain, no MP should be sleeping in their office as a consequence of anything that we've done in the scheme.
I think it was Andrew McDonald that said that MPs spend only 15 minutes a day doing their expenses. I don't know anyone who spends 15 minutes a day doing their expenses... do you think that's a good use of MPs’ time?
I think that given the entire confidence in Parliament was undermined by one thing called the expenses scandal, if my Member of Parliament has to spend 15 minutes a day helping expunge that embarrassment in the United Kingdom, yes, I think it's a small price to pay. In three years’ time? No. But we're going through a healing phase at the moment that's just got to get sorted out.
One MP described you to me as the most incompetent organisation he's dealt with in 40 years of public life... you probably disagree with this. How do you react to that, because you have come under an incredible amount of criticism, and it must be very demoralising for individual members of staff who work for IPSA when they see that sort of thing being said? How do you react to that and how can you change the perception?
Speaking personally, one of the things I've been most surprised by in this role is the degree of hyperbole in all dialogue. It's astonished me, and I realise it's just a common currency. When I sit in business meetings, people are not hyperbolic, they talk about evidence and conclusions. And I've tried that and it doesn't work, so I'm a little more hyperbolic than I was in early days. One MP harangued me at a meeting, one of the big meetings, and said that he'd been associated with the NHS for a long time and that we were more inefficient than the NHS. And I sat there wondering how you would draw that comparison – we are significantly smaller than the Chinese army, we don't spend a billion a day... so where do you start to define efficiency? And of course I drifted off into other places and began to think... The truth is, it now goes over my head. It used to really anger me in the early days. I think the staff has been better at it than I am. They just try to get with the issues. So somebody says "I've got this problem, my wife is not able to pay the groceries at the end of the week" then we give them sympathy because we need to solve that problem, that's not anything serious. But when people start to make outrageous statements about "the most inefficient organisation in 40 years" it just goes over my head.
How much training do your staff get before they're let loose on MPs?
[laughs] Well, there's the samurai courses... I have no idea how to answer that. I mean it depends, it's quite a lot of training, but I have no idea how to answer that. There are all kinds of courses and training and on the job training. Quite a lot, is the answer.
One of my friends who has worked in the House for a number of years says her main complaint about dealing with IPSA is that in previous times she would have just called the Fees Office to just clarify something. They would have answered it immediately. She's saying that 9 times out of 10 your staff don't answer the questions correctly and then you have to start the process all over again.
Nine out of ten times cannot be correct.
She reckons it takes up to 20 minutes to get through.
Well it may well have done, certainly, I mean hands up here, we were completely overwhelmed by the volume of phone calls in the early days. We'd estimated how many we thought we were going to get and then we increased the number but we were completely overwhelmed. In the early days our phone service was not good, which is a polite way of saying ‘awful’. And we had difficulty with emails. I think we've dealt with that now, I think phone calls get answered within an acceptable time, and get responded to. So I think that might be a legitimate point, I'm sure it's a legitimate point, but I think it's now been dealt with.
A Tory MP claimed for the cost of a surgery advertisement. Presumably nobody could argue with that. Separately he'd submitted a connected three pounds claim for the VAT on the advert. IPSA rejected the claim for the advert but paid out the three pounds for VAT. How can something like that happen?
Because administrative errors do happen, I suppose. What you would normally have would be somebody saying "what went wrong here" and somebody would fix it. For that to become a matter of public interest, national interest, is sad.
I know, individually it wouldn't. But if you put them all together you could say, well, there was a bit of a trend?
Well, the watercooler one I read on his Tom Harris’s blog is another one. It was about the fact that he'd claimed for pre-election expenses on the watercooler and it overlapped the election campaign by a few days so we refused it. You know what, if it says this is only available from A to B and you claim for another period, why is that my fault? At some point this isn't that complicated, so my frustration is okay, there are lots of lots of little niggles about things that haven't worked in an administrative system. You know what, that's what life is like, and the question is,is the volume growing or shrinking, and how does the organisation respond to this? We've done our best to respond to all the legitimate, reasonable issues that have been raised with us, and we've done our best to streamline the process so we can start to squeeze out the expense. Those stories are bound to be true, but we have that, don't we? It's the common place of life.
Are you finding that those things are becoming less and less?
Yes. Less and less in volume and also people not bothering to mention them. Because as you have seen on your blog, the public reaction to these MPs is "what is their problem?"
But that's quite a dangerous response in a way, because if you just say "the public are always going to be on our side" that just leads us down a very dangerous path.
No, well if I did say that I agree with you...
You said it by implication...
Then let me correct it by implication and change what I said. We've got two fundamental constituencies to deal with here, the service user, the MP and the taxpayer, the member of the public. We've got to balance the needs of both of them. If the public and MPs both said "this is outrageous" then I would be worried. If only one constituency is saying "it’s outrageous" then I have to balance out the strength of the argument. That's my point. But too much, and this is not a criticism of you – I have lots of those, but not for today...
It was going so well...
Too much of this debate is about the Westminster village, and it's about what matters to the Westminster village. Do you know what, Parliament is so important to our nation and what we do, but the other 60 million people are also important in this. And the balance has got to be right. So my point isn’t just about your blog, but lots of other blogs. And I'm not prepared to admit they're representative about anything other than people looking to make a noise about something, but if there's a common theme, it's that IPSA is unbelievably inefficient. The most inefficient organisation in, what was it? For 40 years? The evidence doesn't bear that out. So that's just a statement. And I'll fight that was on the beaches. That we got some things wrong in the beginning is absolutely right. We keep saying that we did, but that doesn't seem to go away. We know we didn't get it right, but goodness gracious how could we have done? Given the amount of time we had available: I wasn't even appointed, and nor were my colleagues until December. Scott Baker didn't join until January. We had to get the thing designed, consulted on, executed and up and running on the day of the election; on an uncertain date. So of course it wasn't going to be perfect. But we've listened. So I think that if anybody is willing to look back and see the changes, they will only see what we would expect in our country of an attempt to fix something.
There is an alternative, as I like to say to MPs who shout at me in Portcullis House. We can go back to the duck-house, moat cleaning and Daily Telegraph publication system which is what we had before. And you know what, that's now so behind us we should celebrate in the UK that we've made this kind of progress. The job's not finished yet. It will never be finished, because the world is changing. But we are flexible and we are doing our best to streamline.