Michael Fabricant: Is my hon. Friend aware that, when the House is still sitting after 6 o'clock, there is only one person on the Parliamentary Communications Directorate helpdesk because adequate funds are not being made available by the House authorities to the PCD? I hope that the Leader of the House will ensure that, as we have an almost 24-hour job, the PCD will be able to provide an almost 24-hour service.
Mrs. Browning: I hope that the Leader of the House will assure us that it will be a high priority for him personally to ensure that this matter of great concern to Members will be dealt with as effectively and quickly as possible.
Mr. Speaker: Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. I must say to the House that we must deal with the motions before us, and not other matters that have been raised during interventions. Also, I am keen to call as many hon. Members as possible to speak. For that, I need the co-operation of the House, and I would expect brief contributions.
Mr. Soley: I was about to say that I was very aware of the constraints of time. It will be very difficult to fit everyone in, so I shall focus most of my comments on the amendments tabled in my name. However, if I may, I shall also make a couple of opening comments.
First, I welcome the latest report from the SSRB and thank the board for it. I felt that it had got the previous one wrong, but it has got this one largely right. Perhaps I would say that, because the report largely follows the evidence that I gave on behalf of the parliamentary Labour party. It also represents a radical break from the past, gives a far better service to MPs and enables them to serve their constituents better, while entrenching the rights and privileges of our staff, on whom we depend so much and who have been seriously undervalued, underestimated and under-protected in the past.
Secondly, measures of this nature are inevitably extremely complicated, especially when making a change of the kind that I recommended and that the SSRB is following. We shall not be able to cross all the t's or dot all the i's in this debate, and one of the things that I most welcomeperhaps we can refer to this on other occasionsis the setting up of a Speaker's advisory panel to include Members of Parliament. We shall then be able to iron out many of the problems as we proceed over the next year or two. I will mention one of those problems in a momentthe hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) has already mentioned one or twobut we should not try to solve them all here now, because we shall not be able to. If I had been able to do so in my evidence, I would have done so, but because of the radical changes that we are making, we need to get this right.
I shall make a brief comment on overall pay. I have always taken the view that we are too shy and retiring on this subject. People recognise that MPs need a proper rate of pay for the job. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House put it correctly when he said that a balance must be struck between not underpaying and not overpaying. My experience is that when we ask the public what they think about politicians generally, they have a low opinion of us, but if we ask them about their individual MP, they speak highly of the amount of work and commitment that that MP puts in, even if they do not agree with him or her politically.
We therefore make a serious mistake if we buy the newspaper line that all politicians are hopeless. Indeed, if my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) had his amendment adopted, I would have said to him that he had chosen exactly the wrong groupthe way to deal with this matter would have been to link MPs' pay to that of senior journalists and editors. That would fundamentally have changed the nature of the debate. Indeed, if we had linked our pay to that of editors, we would all be being driven home in limousines at the end of the day.
Journalists and MPs have a special relationship and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South said, it is important to recognise that MPs must be properly resourced if we are to make our democracy work. That means being able to respond appropriately and fully to the needs of our constituents. It also requires us to be able to hold the Government to account and undertake the other tasks that we want to fulfil in Parliament. For that, we must have the appropriate research back-up.
Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): Few Members here would disagree that MPs should be properly rewarded, but are we not forgetting that if we are to be paid the proper rate for the job, and I suggest that we are, it would be right and proper to take a fresh look at whether we should be able to engage in outside business interests? If we are being paid a full-time rate for a full-time job, what on earth are we doing moonlighting?
Mr. Soley: I am pleased to say that there are far fewer moonlighters than there used to be. Having said that, as one who does not have an outside job, I take the view that we must acknowledge that MPs need a proper rate of pay for the job. If they do their job, I am not so worried about what they do at other times. However, I would be extremely worried if Members frequently earned large sums in other jobs, and I am glad that we have rowed back on that. We must be careful about where we draw the line, because any of us might earn money by writing an article or writing a book, which seems to be popular from time to time.
I must move on to discuss my amendments, but I should first refer to our staff. Most MPs think that they are good employers, but in my experience many of us, even with the best of intentions, are not. That is one reason why I argued so strongly that MPs should have the right to hire and fire, but that the general administration and servicing of staff should be done by the Fees Office. That would have two enormous advantages, and the first is that it would create transparency for the public.
Mr. Soley: We have to set a maximum value for the pay of our staff, and the judgment is how many staff a Member needs. When I gave evidence, I said that, in my judgment, an MP needs between three and a half and four staff. The SSRB said three. It then produced a salary scale, to which the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton referred. We may want to revisit the issue through the Speaker's advisory panel, because we do not have it quite right.
I would be reluctant to table detailed amendments before we have had time to see how the proposal works, and I ask Members to bear in mind the fact that it represents a radical improvement. We are moving in the right direction and setting up the structures to deal with these matters, which is the important point.
Mr. Etherington: I am always brief, so that is not a problem. Can my hon. Friend explain why no consideration was given to setting minimum rates? MPs have been left in an open position. We should avoid the problems of pay freezes and reductions, which are endemic in the proposal.
Mr. Soley: I am not sure that my hon. Friend is right to use the word "endemic". What are proposed are pay scales that, contrary to rumours going around the House, are set not by the Transport and General Workers Union but by Hay Management Consultants, which has considered the pay range. He will be able to appoint his staff at any point on the scale and there is an uprating procedure, to which the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton referred. We must consider certain specific problems, however, and, in the light of my hon. Friend's intervention, I shall deal with them now, beginning with a classic example.
We may need to revisit and refer back to the SSRB the circumstances of a highly skilled, highly qualified secretary who has been employed by an MP for a long time. I employ such a person. If such secretaries went to work outside the House, they would earn considerably more than they are paid here. We need a means to pay a person with specialist experience, knowledge and long service, so I hope that the matter is referred back to the SSRB through the Speaker's panel. I shall work to achieve that, because we do not have the answer at the moment.