CONTROVERSIAL plans to carry out MPs’ expenses investigations in secret have been criticised by the Commons sleaze watchdog.
Under proposals from the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa), politicians will no longer be named when investigations are launched.
Compliance officer Peter Davis claimed the change would balance the “public interest in transparency” with “operational needs and fairness”. He highlighted the “reputational damage” to MPs caused by naming them before investigations are complete.
The measure, put out for consultation in September, has come under fire for making the Ipsa regime less transparent than the one it replaced in 2010 – when the identities of those under investigation were routinely confirmed.
And the cross-party Standards Committee has now also spoken out, pointing out that the parliamentary standards commissioner currently publishes names when she launches formal probes.
“There is clearly a difficult balance between transparency and the fair and efficient conduct of investigations,” the committee’s response to the consultation stated.
“We consider it is possible that the changes proposed in the consultation may tilt the balance too far from transparency ...
“We invite Ipsa to consider whether the advantages of removing the assessment stage outweigh the transparency brought by the current system, in which names are released if it appears there may be grounds for investigation.”
If the proposal is implemented it will be Ipsa’s second U-turn on the issue.
Initially the watchdog’s rules indicated that the names of MPs under investigation should be released when probes were launched, but the body’s compliance officer Luke March then refused to do so on the basis it was “unfair”.
He subsequently resigned and a consultation in 2011 concluded that the identities should indeed be made public during formal investigations rather than afterwards.
As a result, ongoing investigations are currently declared on the watchdog’s website.
The Standards Committee did support plans to bar the public from hearings with MPs on alleged expenses abuses.
“In this case, we agree that private hearings strike an appropriate balance between fairness and transparency, although we recommend the transcript of any such hearing should be published by the Compliance Officer at the conclusion of any investigation,” it said.
Ipsa has said that “inappropriate openness” could prejudice investigations and make MPs and staff members less willing to co-operate.
The authority has also expressed concern that media coverage of investigations could “unfairly tarnish the reputation of the MP or their staff” before they have been found guilty of wrongdoing.
The changes proposed by IPSA, which has been responsible for managing expenses since the scandal first broke over MPs’ claims in 2009, would also see an end to the obligation on the body to make its hearings open to the public.
The Standards Committee responded with the statement: “We agree that private hearings strike an appropriate balance between fairness and transparency, although we recommend the transcript of any such hearing should be published by the Compliance Officer at the conclusion of any investigation.”