The Telegraph’s slow dripping of information over MPs’ expenses continues to unsettle Westminster, stirring up daily indignation. Yet before the dust is allowed to settle, I call on Labour’s MPs to use the opportunity to take practical steps for change and at least partially right the hidden wrongs that have perpetuated under the expenses system.
For example, it has long been hushed over that Parliamentary staff are classed as “expenses”. This artifice, operated by the House of Commons authorities, denies those staff the employment rights they would enjoy were the House of Commons to recognise that it is their employer. These staff are paid directly by the House of Commons authorities and are subject to standardised contracts of employment which are issued centrally. Most importantly, the House of Commons sets the pay scales which individual MPs are required to apply to staff. Yet the House of Commons has repeatedly refused to acknowledge that Parliamentary staff are its employees. Instead, they have long been classed as “expenses” for which MPs must claim as an “allowance”.
The result is that Parliamentary staff have no legal status as a collective group of employees and so their trade union, Unite, has no right to negotiate terms of employment collectively on their behalf. They have no right to be consulted collectively on changes to their working hours, for instance. So when the House of Commons stated its intention to increase the maximum hours in the standard contract unilaterally from 37 ½ hours to 42 hours per week in February 2009, the employees had no voice to oppose it. They have no right to be consulted as to their pay, or their pension arrangements, or their terms of redundancy. Unsurprisingly, when surveyed about these arrangements in 2008 a whopping 83.9% of those staff who responded wanted Unite to be given the right to negotiate collectively on their behalf.
Together with Dan Whittle, Chair of Unite’s parliamentary branch, I am making a legal application to the Central Arbitration Committee (an independent body) on behalf of Unite’s Parliamentary staff members. We want to compel the House of Commons to acknowledge that it is the employer of Parliamentary staff and that those staff are entitled to have their full employment rights protected accordingly. If we are successful, Parliamentary staff will have a formal collective voice for the first time regarding changes to their terms and conditions of employment. That should mean fairer pay, transparent redundancy arrangements and the ability to oppose any further increases to their working hours.
I urge Labour MPs to express their full support for this application. The expenses mess is obviously damaging to the credibility of our PLP, but I firmly believe that the vast majority of Labour MPs came to Parliament to make positive social change. Let’s do what we can to bring positive success out of this systemic failure. And let us start by giving staff the status they deserve.