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Sir Michael Spicer: The theme running through this debate is that Members feel that they are not being properly consulted, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) pointed out. Will the Leader of the House give us an assurance that, when the Members Estimate Committee has done its work, the House will have a chance to take a view on its recommendations?
Mr. Hain: On that specific point, I can say yes. If the Members Estimate Committee comes back with major changes to the way in which the allowance is structuredwhether of the exact nature that the SSRB has recommended, or a variation or equivalent of itof course the House will have to make a decision on them. That is absolutely right.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) talked about the office accommodation that has been provided here. Does the Leader of the House agree that it would be strange, having built Portcullis House a few years ago with specifically dedicated accommodation for staff to work alongside Members, if we were to pass a resolution
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now to discourage Members from employing any staff to work in that accommodation? There is something slightly not joined up about that thinking.
Mr. Hain: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment, because he has been trying to intervene on me. I did something very unusual in the case of this SSRB report, in that I did not just put down the recommendations from the board, because I knew that they would provoke precisely the concerns that have been raised here this afternoon.
Mr. Field: There is a universal dislike of the whole notion of abatement, the reasons for which a number of hon. Members have set out. For inner London Members and those who do not claim the additional costs allowance, who are assumed to have a single base, this whole idea is an absolute nightmare. I saw in this idiotic reportI am not a great fan of the SSRB reportthe suggestion that we could somehow get office space at between £8 and £23 a square foot. I should be very interested to see whether the Serjeant at Arms Department could find me or the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) anything at that price in our constituencies. Is it seriously being suggested that those of us with constituencies in central London should open satellite offices in Luton, Slough or Reading in order to make ends meet? That really is absolute nonsense.
Mr. Hain: I am not suggesting that, and nothing that I have said suggests that. This is an independent report, and I hope that, on consideration, the hon. Gentleman will withdraw what he said about it being idiotic. It has been very carefully considered, although whether it has come to the right conclusion on this particular issue is a matter for the House. We asked the SSRB to look independently into the provision that we make for ourselves; otherwise we could just vote whatever we liked for ourselves, without any independent advice, and it is important that we bear this in mind.
Anne Picking (East Lothian) (Lab): This obscure debate is certainly one-sided. I would like to ask my right hon. Friend and other hon. Members whether they realise the impact of the lack of accommodation in the parliamentary estate. Some Members of Parliament are still working in offices that do not even have windows, never mind accommodation for staff.
Even if the House were to accept amendment (g), I hope that it will reject amendment (h). I believe that it would still be helpful for the Members Estimate Committee to consider this matter thoroughly; the questions that have just been put to me underline that point.
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On the question of information technology provision, paragraph 3 provides that, with effect from the beginning of the next Parliament, the level of provision of IT equipment and support be increased in line with recommendations 11 and 12 of the SSRB's report. In other words, the level of provision of IT equipment should be increased by one, so that each Member has one fixed workstation and one laptop for his or her own use, plus three further workstations, so that each full-time equivalent member of staff paid for through the staffing allowance has his or her own PC, and that each Member should also have two heavy-duty printers. The level and range of IT support offered to constituency offices should also be improved to a level comparable with that offered on the parliamentary estate.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I warmly welcome the two recommendations that the Leader of the House is describing. Does he accept, however, that if we are to have more remote facilities and more support from staff here and elsewhere, the network needs urgent attention to ensure that remote users of the parliamentary data and video networkthe PDVNhave an adequate service? It really is not adequate at the moment. The service in the House is not at all badI speak as someone with 30 years' experience in the world of information and communications technologybut the remote service is not adequate.
Mr. Hain: My hon. Friend has raised this matter before. It is precisely for those reasons that the SSRB has recommended extra provision for a local constituency IT service comparable with that offered on the parliamentary estate, provided at local level. The House and I fully accept this recommendation, and I know that the House authorities will resource it.
I believe that Members on both sides of the House will welcome these recommendations on IT, which reflect proposals by the Information Committee. It is important that Members, and Members' staff, should be adequately, although not lavishly, equipped to function effectively in the information age, and particularly to interact better with our constituents. The increased IT support for constituency offices should help those Members who choose to locate their staff away from the parliamentary estate.
Paragraph 4 relates to the London supplement. It would implement the SSRB's recommendation that the London supplement should be increased from next April to £2,500, the same level as the proposed enhancement to the staffing allowance in respect of London-based staff, and that this sum should be adjusted annually in line with the average earnings index. It would also implement the SSRB's recommendation that, in future, Ministers and officeholders should be able to claim the London supplement only if they did not claim the additional costs allowance.
On what basis, therefore, can it possibly conclude that the recommendation that the allowance should go up to a paltry £2,500 is credible, given that central London Members have to have a main, rather than a second, London home, when Members who claim the additional costs allowance are claiming at the rate of £20,902 a year? The methodology behind the London supplement is entirely wrong. A figure seems to have been plucked from the sky, which is one of the reasons why I tabled an amendment to the motion, although it has unfortunately not been selected.
Mr. Hain: I know that the hon. Gentleman wanted to put an alternative point of view before the House. The SSRB did not just pluck the figure out of thin air, as he has implied. It is based on equivalent civil service rates. The additional costs allowance is to enable Members with constituencies outside the London area to provide a proper service and to live in their constituency, which is a central part of modern parliamentary life.
May I make a further point in relation to what the hon. Gentleman has just said? Eight individual MPs gave evidence to the SSRB, including the Opposition deputy Chief Whip, the chair of the Labour party, the Liberal shadow Leader of the House, and many other Members of Parliament[Interruption.] The shadow Leader of the House did, toowe would not want to forget him. Of course, I gave evidence on behalf of the Government, so it is not the case that no evidence was given. More evidence could have been given, including from the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), because everybody knew the inquiry was going on.
Paragraph (5) is to implement the SSRB's recommendations on the car mileage allowance. It provides that car mileage allowance should be payable at the same rates as the maximum car mileage rates which the Inland Revenue recognises as excluding a profit element. Car mileage will be payable at a rate of 40p per mile up to 10,000 miles and 25p per mile thereafter, instead of 57.7p per mile up to 20,000 miles and 26.6p per mile thereafter, as at present. Those rates will be adjusted automatically in line with the future changes in the Inland Revenue rates.
In part compensation for the reduction in the mileage allowance, and also for the loss of free parking at airports, paragraph (5) makes new provision for the cost of parking a car, motor cycle or bicycle to be reimbursed
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