Opinion: Charities should heed the row over MPs' expenses

The row about former Tory chief whip David Maclean's private member's bill, passed in the House of Commons on 18 May, is not going away.

The bill allows MPs to avoid disclosing their expenses, although its declared purpose is to stop the publication of sensitive correspondence between MPs and their constituents. Interestingly, MPs struggled to find instances of such correspondence becoming public. There have been some brave rebels on both sides against what looks like a move backed by both the Tory and Labour whips. But this is a huge issue, because it suggests that the standards MPs seek to apply to the rest of us do not apply to them. 

This matters for the third sector too, where many workers are frustrated by the amount of regulation they face. Some say auditors ask too many difficult questions, and others that spending huge amounts of time chasing very small sums of possibly fraudulent expenses is not worthwhile. But in fact, it matters a great deal if expenses are fraudulent. It matters enormously if trustees are being paid without excellent reason, or charity chief executives are paid an unreasonable amount. This is because many third sector organisations receive their money from the public, from government grants, or from charitable foundations. One way or another, the money is other people's hard-earned cash.

It also matters that staff should not think of themselves as virtuous just because they work in the third sector, and that they should work less hard than they might in the private sector, on the basis that they are paid less. Such behaviour is a waste of public or donors' money. And charity bosses should be keen-eyed in spotting waste or abuse, because it is a betrayal of trust.

But if that is true for the third sector, how much truer is it for MPs? They are there to serve the public. They ask for everyone else to be held accountable, not least the third sector. They argue for transparency, except for themselves. They do not want us to know how much they get in expenses and what the expenses are for, even though Sir Philip Mawer, the commissioner for parliamentary standards, said back in January that this area needs tightening up and that MPs should submit receipts for the money they spend, just as the third sector would expect.

The Daily Mail recently claimed that when Gordon Brown becomes Prime Minister, he will make it clear that MPs' expenses should be in the public domain. Good news, but not enough.

This is the time, then, for the third sector to be absolutely ruthless in asking for transparency about the money it receives for public services, and in demanding full cost recovery on the basis of formally agreed costings, properly vetted by accountants.

This is a golden opportunity for the third sector to show its moral force - both by setting a superb example in how it behaves and by making it clear that it will not rest until there is transparency about how government pays for services that the sector provides.

Julia Neuberger is a Liberal Democrat peer and chair of the Commission on the Future of Volunteering.

And while we're on the subject...

- The Freedom of Information Act was passed in 2000 but didn't come into force until January 2005. Its stated aim was to make government more transparent. One consequence was that MPs' expenses were put into the public domain. The act is regulated by the Information Commissioner's Office, which is headed by Richard Thomas.

- David Maclean's bill to exempt Parliament from the act was passed by the Commons on 18 May. Its supporters said it would protect the confidentiality of correspondence between MPs and constituents. Maclean used to be Tory chief whip, but his bill was not backed by David Cameron, who urged Tory peers to oppose it in the Lords.

- The bill was supported by Gordon Brown, who, like Cameron, missed the vote. But on 21 May the Daily Mail reported that Brown will make sure the bill is amended in the Lords so that MPs and peers have to make their expenses public. The Government would then endorse the amendment when the bill returned to the Commons.

- Sir Philip Mawer, the parliamentary commissioner for standards, told The Times in January that the rules on MPs' expenses needed to be tightened. He said this was necessary because of inexplicable variations in claims. Mawer also communicated his concerns to the Senior Salaries Review Board, the body that advises on MPs' remuneration.

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