Disclosing and Reviewing Parliamentarians’ Expenses: International Perspectives

Alex Smith
Economics, Resources and International Affairs Division

(Aussi disponible en francais : Divulgation et examen des dépenses des parlementaires : perspective internationale)

To help parliamentarians fulfill their responsibilities, they receive public funds, which allow them to hire staff, travel to and from their constituencies and pay various costs related to their duties.

In Canada, the level of disclosure and the type of review for the expenses of members of Parliament and senators has been the source of recent debate.

To put the Canadian situation into greater context, this HillNote outlines practices related to the disclosure and review of parliamentarians’ expenses in the United Kingdom, Australia and France.

The nature and extent of disclosure and review of parliamentarians’ expenses varies considerably from country to country. There would appear to be a trade-off between accountability and transparency on the one hand, and cost and independence on the other.

United Kingdom

In May 2009, detailed expense claims of members of Parliament and members of the House of Lords were leaked to and subsequently published by a British newspaper. The ensuing controversy led to the development of a more rigorous system to monitor and report parliamentarians’ expenses.

House of Commons

In 2009, the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 created the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), the responsibilities of which were subsequently expanded by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010.

The IPSA has the authority to introduce rules governing the business costs and expenses of members of Parliament as well as to determine their rate of pay and pensions. The IPSA publishes the details of every claim made by every member. It also manages and validates members’ expense claims, then reviews them with post-payment evidence checks.

The Compliance Officer for the IPSA may conduct investigations into members’ business costs and expenses, as well as review a refusal by the IPSA to reimburse an expense claim.

In its 2013–2014 annual report, the IPSA noted that it employed an average of 54 full-time equivalent staff and had operational and project costs of about $10 million.

House of Lords

In June 2010, the House of Lords approved a motion to appoint the first House of Lords Commissioner for Standards, who investigates alleged breaches of the Lords Code of Conduct. These include breaches of the rules governing the financial support available to lords and the use of parliamentary facilities by lords.

The Commissioner releases annual reports, as well as reports on investigations into the conduct of specific lords. The House of Lords issues a monthly report on lords’ daily allowances and travel expense claims.

Australia

In Australia, the entitlements of current and former senators and members of Parliament are outlined in a number of Acts, regulations and determinations of the Remuneration Tribunal. Successive responsible ministers have made procedural rules, guidelines, determinations, administrative procedures and authorizations to assist in the administration of entitlements.

The Department of Finance administers entitlements. It also releases a biannual report on parliamentarians’ entitlements, which provides aggregate information categorized by type of entitlement for each parliamentarian. In addition, the department has developed a protocol for dealing with alleged misuse of entitlements by a member or a senator.

The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) has examined some or all aspects of the administration of parliamentarians’ expenses on four occasions. In September 2009, the ANAO released its most recent performance audit of the administration of parliamentarians’ entitlements by the Department of Finance. It concluded that the framework for entitlements needed comprehensive reform, as it was difficult to understand and involved limited accountability.

Following this audit, the government established the Committee for the Review of Parliamentary Entitlements, which released its report in 2010. It called for a framework that is simpler, accountable and more transparent, and takes into account contemporary community standards.

In November 2013, the government announced that it was strengthening the rules governing parliamentarians’ expenses. This move involved improving the declaration accompanying travel claims and adding a 25% charge to claims that need to be adjusted. It also permitted the special minister of state to table in Parliament the name of any parliamentarian who fails to provide information as part of an inquiry into alleged misuse of entitlements.

France

In addition to their base salary, members of France’s National Assembly and senators receive a residence allowance, which is equivalent to 3% of their base salary, and a parliamentary duties allowance equivalent to one quarter of their total compensation. They are given an office and funds to hire between one and five staff members, and the cost of their transportation to and from their constituencies is covered, within certain parameters.

To compensate for various expenses related to their mandate that are not directly reimbursed by the National Assembly or by the Senate, members and senators also receive a tax-free parliamentary mandate expense allowance, which is paid into a dedicated bank account. As of 1 January 2013, the allowance for members was about $8,200 a month. Its use is left to the discretion of members and there are no financial or administrative controls or reporting on how it is spent. The sole restriction is that the allowance cannot be used for electoral expenses.

On October 2012, the Speaker of the National Assembly asked the National Assembly Ethics Officer to examine the parliamentary mandate expense allowance, as it was regularly criticized as being a supplement to members’ remuneration.

In her 2013 annual report, the Ethics Officer recommended that the National Assembly not adopt a system similar to the one used in the United Kingdom, where eligible expenses are reimbursed upon examination of receipts. She said that it would be costly, would excessively limit the independence of parliamentarians and would not lead to greater public trust.

The Ethics Officer recommended a reduction in the allowance for those members who receive other benefits. She also recommended that the principles for use of the allowance be clarified and suggested that members consult the Ethics Officer regarding specific issues related to the allowance.