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Mr. Hain: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. He has gone into the matter in considerable detail. There are enormous benefits in simplicity; on the other hand, the decision that the House took to establish two separate sources of allowancethe staffing allowance and the incidental expenses allowance, which overwhelmingly is directed toward constituency offices, although it can be used for other purposeshad the advantage of ensuring that our employees would not have to compete constantly against demands to buy a computer, or to pay a constituency office bill. We have an obligation to our employees to ensure that they have decent conditions.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Does the Leader of the House share my concern that the proposal on the incidental expenses provision, which the SSRB no doubt made in good faith, is extremely complicated? If the Members Estimate Committee accepts the recommendation, there will, in effect, be four levels of IEP for new Members starting after the general election, and a transitional arrangement with four different levels of IEP applicable to existing Members. Is there not at least the possibility of coming up with a simpler method of dealing with the problem of providing a little extra help to Members who have their offices outside London?
Yes, there is a simpler wayit is described on the Order Paper. On the other handthe
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hon. Gentleman and I share common concerns on this, and I shall come on to it in some detail laterthe enormous pressure on the parliamentary estate means that we have many different interests to reconcile. The SSRB tried to do that, but recognised that it would involve practical implications beyond its remit. We referred the proposal on the IEP to the Members Estimate Committee so that it could address precisely these issues. It is not the SSRB's fault, but the proposal that came to us had certain rigidities that could have had all sorts of anomalous effects. It is very important that proper consideration be given to that.
Mr. Hain: I appreciate my right hon. Friend's passion, but the House authorities provide an extremely valuable service for us all in the variety of different functions that they undertake. They have a responsibility to inform the SSRB about a variety of issues affecting the parliamentary estate, including the enormous pressure on it.
Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend recognise that the proposals in the report would seriously affect those of us who are outer-London MPs with a constituency office and staff in the House of Commons, as well as a huge amount of immigration and asylum casework? I would have either to sack one of my members of staff or to close down my constituency office.
The purpose of my bringing before the House a series of proposals on how allowances should be structured is to allow the House to decide on them. It is for the SSRB to recommend, but for the House to make the decisions.
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): What surprises many of us is not that the recommendations came about but that none of us were consulted. I should have thought that consultation of Members of Parliament on their office costs and where they want to locate their staff would have been undertaken before proposals were brought to the House. That would be done in even the most primitive organisation.
My hon. Friend clearly has strong feelings, as have many Members on both sides of the House. I understand that. However, it is not true to say that Members were not consulted. Everybody knew that the SSRB inquiry was going on and anybody could have submitted evidence. At the back of the report there is a list of those who did so. The Speaker's Advisory Panel,
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which consists of Members of this House, was consulted. The proposal did not come out of thin air. It would not be right to criticise the SSRB, which has done a very professional job in the circumstances.
David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): I employ one member of staff in the House of Commons. Does my right hon. Friend accept that it is disturbing that we are being told how we should go about our business in serving our constituents? It is not up to the body that has made this recommendation, the House authorities, or anyone but ourselves to decide whether we best serve our constituents by having staff here or in the constituency. I happen to have a constituency office. The proposals are simply unacceptable, and it is just as well that the Leader of the House should know that.
Mr. Hain: As I said, that is precisely why the motion refers the matter to the Members Estimate Committee. I agree that it is for Members to decide how they allocate their different allowances and serve their constituencies. Equally, however, there are constraints. One of those is the amount of accommodation that is available on the parliamentary estate; another is that those of us with constituency offices incur considerable additional costs, which are not incurred by Members who have all their staff located here. We have all sorts of different interests to balance.
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): The IEP should not be used to put pressure on staff salaries, which is why they have been kept separate; nor should it be used to pay for overnight stays for Members of Parliament on parliamentary business, which properly come under the additional costs allowance. When the Committee considers these issues, will the Leader of the House bear in mind that the rules for the additional cost allowance were drawn up in 1971 before there was a Parliament in Scotland, a National Assembly in Wales or any other assemblies that might come into being? Costs incurred on overnight stays on parliamentary business involving those places should come under the additional costs allowance.
Mr. Hain: I noted the hon. Gentleman's amendment, which was not selected. The difficulty is that the additional costs allowance is intended for a very specific purpose: to allow Members of Parliament to have both a constituency home and a London home in order that we can do our jobs effectively. If the ACA were to be redirected to other areas, that would raise issues about the basis on which it is established. The hon. Gentleman may claim under the incidental expenses provision.
The hon. Gentleman refers to the Scottish Parliament. That does not affect me, for example, because I have no constituency interest in going there, although I visit the Welsh Assembly, which, as it happens to be between my constituency and London, does not cause a problem. The hon. Gentleman can continue to press his case, and we will no doubt continue to take account of it.
If I may make a little progress, I shall deal with some of the points that hon. Members have made. Amendment (g), which was tabled by the hon. Member
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for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) and others, would increase the staffing allowance to £80,460the amount that the SSRB recommendedfor all Members, ending the system of differential allowances for London-based Members and those with their staff based in the constituency, while allowing Members to use up to 10 per cent. of the staffing allowance to fund their constituency office. Linked to that is amendment (h), which would remove from the motion the proposed reference of the SSRB's recommendation on the IEP to the Members Estimate Committee.
I sympathise with the underlying point of amendment (g), which suggests that although Members with staff in London pay out more in salaries for their staff, Members with staff in their constituency may pay out more on office rental and other costs. That needs to be recognised in the funds that are provided.
However, the amendment would not encourage any location of staff to constituency offices. Furthermore, the staffing allowance and incidental expenses provision are each available for specific purposes, as I explained, and there is a logic to ring-fencing them for those purposes. Allowing the staffing allowance to be put towards office costs would be a new departure and would undermine the principle that the staffing allowance should be ring-fenced and available only for the purpose of paying for work done.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD): The Leader of the House has made much reference to ring-fencing to protect the salaries of staff. We are all sympathetic to that, but does he recognise that since the House introduced standard conditions of employment, with standard salary ranges, that argument has largely disappeared?
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