by Tony Rennell
THE MUTTERED abuse was coming thick and fast – choruses of ‘b***ocks’ and ‘f***ing liar’, all directed at Professor Sir Ian Kennedy, one of Britain’s most distinguished and experienced public servants. And the rabble handing out these crudities? A coterie of MPs, venting their venom in the most un-parliamentary of language – their bullying behaviour unrestrained, it should be said, by the Speaker, John Bercow, who was chairing the meeting.
Kennedy’s dignified response was typical of the man. ‘I did what any person who is rather deaf would do,’ he recalls. ‘I took out my hearing aid.’
I warmed to him instantly when I read this. How many of the rest of us wish we could, with the flick of a switch, tune out the unedifying rantings of our elected representatives over the past couple of years in the increasingly rancid Brexit debates in the House of Commons?
But what had drawn down the curses on Kennedy’s head was a different matter – his attempt, as chairman of IPSA, the Independent Standard’s Authority, to set up and implement a system of control on the high-octane matter of MPs’ expenses.
This was desperately needed after newspaper revelations of parliamentary snouts firmly in the trough provoked explosions of public outrage in 2008-9.
Scandalous stories filled the front pages - of duck houses and chandeliers, moat-cleaning, hedges around helipads, flipped second homes and the like, all claimed by some of our elected representative as legitimate expenses in pursuit of their duties and paid, seemingly without question, out of taxpayers’ money.
MPs were popularly seen as on the make and on the take, crooks the lot of them.
Their reputations on the ropes, MPs voted to set up IPSA as an independent body to regulate their expenses and their pay, and Kennedy, approaching his seventies and a highly respected academic lawyer of impeccable credentials who had chaired inquiries and been head of the Healthcare Commission which regulated the NHS, was an obvious choice to run it.
His job, and that of the team he gathered around him, was to bring some order, rationality and accountability to MPs’ expenses.
Given the contempt they were held in by large swathes of public opinion, with all trust gone, he expected them to welcome his brief to clean up the mess by putting their personal finances on a firm and fair footing.
And most did.
But a small number resented the very idea of regulation and were determined to oppose it and him. He was shocked by the reception he got. ‘As someone who'd spent decades in public life, I'd worked with some quite challenging groups, but they'd retained a basic courteousness.
‘MPs were different,’ he says revealingly in a new book describing his experiences. ‘They clearly felt they didn't have to observe any of the normal standards of behaviour. I copped almost ceaseless flak.
‘In an orgy of self-flagellation, they'd agreed that things couldn't go on as before. But afterwards many sensed they'd been unwitting midwives at the birth of a monster. They saw IPSA as the enemy.’
In what he calls the daily uphill grind of dealing with some MPs, the attacks he came under were personal and vicious.
‘Playground bullies, smart-alecks always ready with a clever put-down honed from their days in university debating societies, the eternal plotters and the just plain nasty were routinely in my face.’
Only rarely was he given the protection he deserved by senior politicians, who too often seemed happy to see him hung out to dry. As for the very many decent MPs who deplored the silly railing against IPSA, to his dismay they chose to keep a low a profile.
Reading his account is to realise, with disgust, how loathsome, self-serving, arrogant and downright offensive far too many of our MPs had clearly become and how much they resented being made to do their job according to normal standards of business and behaviour.
Under the previous culture – the one Kennedy was brought in to end - they felt entitled to ‘allowances’ (as they preferred to call them, rather than ‘business expenses’) and claimed for such things as mortgage costs and rent as a matter of right. Hence those mysterious bills for a duck house and moat cleaning which so appalled the nation.
Now IPSA came along and insisted on accountability and transparency.
New rules were laid down. First-class travel was curtailed. Public transport was preferred to unlimited taxis – and the MP who insisted on taxis because he couldn’t take his two dogs on the Tube was reminded how bad this would make him look to a public now insisting on getting value for money.
The practice of putting family members on the payroll as ‘staff’ was policed.
Crucially, all expenses now had to be justified. Kennedy’s mantra was simple: ‘No ticket, no laundry.’ Moreover, proper receipts were expected, and not just a scribbled note saying the word ‘Taxi’ and the sum, as one MP thought he could get away with.
In May 2010, after the general election (which ousted Gordon Brown’s Labour Party and installed a Tory-LibDem coalition government under David Cameron), IPSA opened its operations, initiating the new system and offering MPs guidance with how to use it.
There was immediate resentment from a minority – perhaps 75 or so out of the House’s 650 members - who felt that ‘jobsworths’ were telling them what to do and undermining their parliamentary privileges.
‘I don’t do administration,’ one pompous MP declared. He and others like him wanted to be given what they saw as ‘their’ money to spend as they saw fit and be left to do their job unsupervised.
Kennedy would point out to the peeved that their job included accounting to the public for the £160million MPs received from the taxpayer. He argued that it was in their interests to support IPSA because it was the bulwark against accusations of corruption.
‘We could demonstrate month after month that MPs were complying with the scheme and managing taxpayers’ money with proper care.’
But this was apparently too much for them to stomach. IPSA was not only a ‘bad thing’ but some MPs continued to believe that the expenses scandal had been blown out of all proportion and that the public had been brainwashed by the media.
Their head-in-the-sand attitude reminded Kennedy ‘of the Japanese soldiers found in the jungles of the Philippines in the 1950s - unaware that the war was over’.
Meanwhile, he and his team of regulators found themselves under siege in what was developing into an unseemly private war. IPSA staff were routinely bullied, shouted and sworn at by MPs, leaving some in tears.
He logs a shocking series of shameful incidents in which the F-word was hurled with abandon. ‘You’re all effing idiots,’ one member told his IPSA contact. ‘This [new] system is an effing abortion,’ another declared.
Courteously (but irritatingly for the reader), Kennedy edits out the names of the culprits, clearly being more of a gentleman than the people he was having to deal with.
His unit was handling 250 queries a day – often demanding to know if this or that was allowed under the new rules rather than decide for themselves - yet MPs wanted an instant response and complained at being put on hold for as little as 20 seconds if there was a queue or no simple answer to their question.
Their pomposity knew no bounds. One e-mailed, in capital letters no less, ‘Don’t you know that I have the most important job in the western world.’ (He didn’t.)
There was much whinging that IPSA was bureaucratic, slow, ineffective and not customer friendly. The irony was that incensed MPs would routinely condemn it as a bloated and incompetent bureaucracy while at the same time urging that more staff be hired to deal with their own telephone calls.
Many failed to grasp the essential point that IPSA was not there to serve MPs but to serve the public interest.
No wonder that Kennedy describes his job as ‘part mud-wrestling, part pioneer frontiersman and part voyager through Dante’s Inferno’. He felt like a Christian thrown to the lions to be savaged to death.
Among those ‘lions’ who roared, clawed and mauled him, he names Labour MP Phil Woolas, who told a senior IPSA staff member, ‘I hate you.’ Even more vehement was the Liberal Democrat, Bob Russell, for whom, says Kennedy, ‘a cheap point was never too cheap’.
At one meeting he declared he had a mandate from the people who elected him and asked how IPSA, by regulating ‘his’ money, could presume to dictate how he ran his affairs. Kennedy riposted that IPSA had a mandate from Parliament, which it was fulfilling.
Tom Brake was another LibDem who ‘was never slow to show his antipathy’.
Conservative Chris Grayling, then Leader of the House, tried to browbeat Kennedy over the demand that MPs’ receipts should be open to public scrutiny, a development he opposed.
‘I’m not trying to threaten you,’ he told Kennedy, before adding that it was, of course, open to the government to close down IPSA.
Commendably Kennedy stood his ground. ‘Mr Grayling was of the old school: a magnet for hostile tea-room gossip and unsympathetic to the expenses system we'd introduced.
‘I realised that I was in the presence of a bully. But I am used to bullies and so I said I didn't give in to threats easily.’
He found Graham Brady, chairman of the Tory 1922 committee of backbenchers ‘enigmatic’. ‘It was clear he would have preferred the old ways and always put in a pitch for greater freedom of action for MPs over the money they received.’
Adam Afriyie, Conservative MP for Windsor, ‘did not hide his contempt for IPSA and his desire to return to the good old days when MPs got “their” money and spent it, with little or no accountability.’
As for Speaker Bercow, who chaired the body responsible for allocating IPSA’s annual budget, Kennedy thought him ‘riddled with ambivalence’. He was in favour of an independent regulator, yet ‘as a self-styled champion of backbenchers, his was a ready ear for the many complaints and horror stories about IPSA and he indulged members in their feeding frenzy.
‘If he supported IPSA in principle, why did he throw us under a bus?’
When Kennedy complained that Bercow had unfairly criticised a member of the IPSA board by saying rather snootily that the man didn’t understand parliament and was biased against MPs, a meeting was held in the Speaker’s ‘grand office’.
‘I was seriously unimpressed. He did not so much talk as declaim rather loudly and in orotund phrases. It was clear to the Speaker that we needed to be taught a lesson and reminded that we were lesser mortals.’
Offended, Kennedy left after telling Bercow his comments were unwarranted and out of place.
At another meeting in an attempt to clear the air, Kennedy ‘found the Speaker in declamatory mode again. I was particularly struck by his remarking that I was “too clever” on occasions. Not knowing what he meant, I ignored it. I reflected later that it was better to be thought too clever than not clever enough.
‘I was sometimes taken aback, indeed shocked, by his aggressive dealings on occasion with his staff. He was always an inch away from dropping into performance mode.’
Kennedy himself proved a canny observer of Westminster life. He notes that the LibDems ‘didn't appear to have a consistent view on anything, and argued as much among themselves as with me’.
As for his first meeting en masse with members of the Parliamentary Labour Party, ‘their behaviour, I regret to say, was acrimonious and nasty. The Scottish contingent was the most vociferous and bitter.
‘Most were veterans who'd been elected time and again - and seemed to take their membership of the House, and the perks that went with it, as an entitlement.
‘One particularly aggressive Scottish MP told me that if he were a trade union leader presented with the package of pay and conditions I'd been talking about, he'd bring the workforce out on strike.
‘It wasn't surprising when they were all swept aside in the 2015 general election.’
Hilary Benn, on the other hand, was ‘one of the few MPs who understood that the rules of the game had changed and that, rather than wishing IPSA away, it would be more productive to try to make things work.’
Kennedy’s perseverance and his determination not to be thrown off course by insults and aggression proved successful. He is confident that the system he introduced works and that MPs, for all their carping, are toeing the line.
Nonetheless, it peeves him that the media hasn’t got the message and persists with the narrative that MPs are all fiddling the books. Newspapers still react, he says, with faux outrage when MPs are seen to claim for paper clips and the like. Yet surely paper clips count as a necessary business expense?
But generally he counts it a success to have taken the issue of MPs’ expenses out of the headlines. The boil of 2008-9 was pretty well lanced, the mess cleaned up. He also sorted out the thorny issues of MPs’ pay and pensions.
Not that he got any thanks for any of this. On the contrary, what he faced as his time at IPSA came to an end in 2017 was a deliberate act of revenge.
He applied to fill a vacancy on the Electoral Commission, which oversees the democratic process. With widespread fears about cyber interference, vote rigging and the funding of parties, he believed he could make a valuable contribution.
He went through the selection process and his appointment was approved by the Speaker and the leaders of all political parties. Then, as a matter of routine, it was put to the House of Commons to be nodded through.
Unusually, voices from the backbenches objected.
Outside the chamber, one senior MP was reported as saying that ‘he threw bucket-loads of s*** over us after the expenses affair. And what does he know about elections anyway? He’s just a quangocrat.’
The objections meant that a full debate had to take place, during which, says Kennedy, ‘pettiness plumbed new depths’. When it came to a vote, his appointment was vetoed by 77 votes to 46.
Kennedy comments: ‘This was just a display of power. The MPs were getting their own back because they could.’
Daily Mail columnist Peter Oborne took up his cause, denouncing this ‘revenge attack’ on Kennedy. Vindictive backbenchers, he wrote, ‘cannot forgive the way he stopped them feathering their own nests’. He described their behaviour as contemptible, cynical and sordid.
Kennedy was understandably bitter. As he saw it, he had saved MPs from themselves and come up with a system that went a long way to rescuing their tarnished reputations. Yet he remains philosophical.
He ends his account of those seven turbulent years of trying to get MPs to toe the line by quoting George Bernard Shaw: ‘I learned long ago never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and, besides, the pig likes it.’
It’s a sorry and embarrassing commentary on how low some of these we elect to Parliament have clearly sunk.